Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
This as-told-to essay has been edited and condensed for clarity from a conversation with Christina Cauterucci. Slate has granted the source anonymity to protect the source’s job. As of Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence hasn’t been tested for the coronavirus. A White House official told CNN his medical team does not think it’s necessary.
In the middle of last week, I attended a work meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. More than a week earlier, the U.S. surgeon general had recommended that everyone avoid shaking hands to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. So had the head of the World Health Organization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also told Americans to “stop handshaking” in its advice on “keeping the workplace safe.”
And yet, as soon as Pence entered the room, he shook everyone’s hand.
I have regular contact with an older aunt here in D.C. She has an autoimmune disease, which means she can’t be in contact with people who are ill. So I, as someone frequently in contact with her and other family members who are older, had been taking the coronavirus super seriously. I’d been limiting contact with people at work. I’d had an opportunity to go to a couple of birthday parties last weekend and did not. I’d been avoiding meeting up with friends at bars. I hadn’t been going out to eat, and I normally always go out to eat. I’d definitely been changing my normal habits: not taking the Metro and biking instead. I think I probably took it more seriously earlier than most people because I feel like I know a lot, and I think I have understood the warning that if you’re young and healthy, sure, you’re good now, but the people around you might not necessarily be.
The meeting with Pence was kind of a last-minute thing. As I was leaving work one day last week, my boss told me we had a meeting at the White House the next day. I knew it was related to the coronavirus, but my first thought was “I really hope my suit still fits,” because I hadn’t worn one since 2018. I was more worried about what I was going to wear then—I didn’t even think about how anyone would be acting there, because they’re the coronavirus task force.
The next day, we go to the White House for this meeting. I’ve had occasion to be in meetings at the White House for about a decade, and this was a very typical White House meeting, in that the hour we were told the meeting was going to start was not when it started. So after a lot of waiting around, we finally see everyone jostling around in the hallway, and Kellyanne Conway was there. Mike Pence walks in, and the very first thing he does is stick out his hand and say, “Hey, nice to meet you,” and shake everyone’s hand.
Then he sits down and has a glass of water, and everyone’s kind of looking around nervously and looking down at their hands. I pulled out some hand sanitizer and immediately did my thing because, as luck would have it, earlier that day our office had handed out hand sanitizer. Thank God I had taken it with me, because this was happening as all of the reporting was coming out about his interactions with the Brazilian officials. It felt pretty crazy because it’s the person in charge of coronavirus containment, and he’s shaking people’s hands.
I know it sounds like such a minor thing—it’s just one handshake. But that’s literally how this shit happens. Leadership is always by example. It was so befuddling to me that someone who’s in charge of this very, very, very serious thing wasn’t taking it very, very, very seriously. There’s so much shit every day that you’re constantly like, “Oh, whatever, it’s the Trump administration. Of course crazy stuff happens.” But this was so beyond the pale because of the seriousness of it. It seems like a minor thing, but it’s so not. It gets to the root of the fact that these people don’t actually know or care what they’re dealing with. And that’s so terrifying.
It definitely seemed like Pence was deliberately shaking everyone’s hands in the middle of this pandemic to make some kind of point. The people in the meeting discussed this afterward, and when we were telling co-workers about it, they were like, “Are you serious?” That’s when it really hit home to me. Hearing other people react to it made me feel not crazy for being so skeeved out by it. You would really think the people in charge would be more careful. But the cavalierness of it—there is this real sense of “Well, I’m not concerned about it. Why would you be? Let’s just touch each other.” I get so mad thinking about it right now, that he would be so forthright about flouting public health recommendations in that moment. And he and Trump kept doing it in public later that week!
At the same time, it never even occurred to me to refuse Pence’s handshake. I’m not the type to get star-struck—it’s D.C., there are “important” people around all the time. I’m not the kind of person who melts if Ruth Bader Ginsburg is at a bar. But you also kind of work under the assumption that they should be the smartest people in the room, and why would they go out of their way to be unsafe? It all happened so fast, and then it was like, “Oh, my God, he just touched me, and he might have the coronavirus, from Matt Gaetz of all people.” It took me about 10 seconds to process it. And then I was like, “Well, thank God I have this hand sanitizer on me.”
I wasn’t even thinking about being discreet when I immediately sanitized my hands. I was not the center of this meeting, and my role was to be as much in the background as possible. But I can’t say I was particularly subtle about it. From my recollection he was in the process of shaking other co-workers’ hands at that point, but I don’t know if one of his aides noticed or something. But that’s on them.
One of my co-workers in the meeting texted me, like, “Hey, can you hand me some of that hand sanitizer?” I kind of slid it over to her. A lot of my co-workers were already skeeved out because they’d been in various meetings with people who had been at CPAC and other places where people who’d been in the presence of folks who’d tested positive had been. Everyone basically wanted to take a biohazard shower anyway. Our office management had already been sending us messages about upping the cleaning of the offices, and people had printed out the little wash-your-hands-with-the-lyric things and taped them to bathroom mirrors. We were very aware of how quickly the virus was spreading. Pence’s handshaking was yet another thing that put everyone on edge.
In the days after, I watched Trump and Pence defend their continued handshaking, and it just—you become so immune, you just start to accept this level of disingenuous, chaotic behavior from this administration. But this is one instance where it feels like—I don’t know if they’re actively trying to put people at risk, but it certainly feels like they’re actively not putting other people’s best interests first.
Members of Congress who were in contact with people who tested positive for the coronavirus have been quarantining themselves, and that’s the kind of leadership you expect from elected leaders. We’ve seen this from both parties—leaders setting an example of what you’re supposed to do if this happens to you. That’s what really gets me about the Pence handshake. It was such a flippant way to disregard public health protocol.