Democratic Party leaders in Congress thought it’d be a great idea for all the newly elected lawmakers to get to know each other. And what better way to do that than a dinner inside the Capitol? But as soon as a photo of the set-up for the dinner in Statuary Hall in the Capitol building was posted on Twitter many began to criticize the Democratic leadership for what they saw as a tone-deaf move at a time when COVID-19 cases are surging across the country. Only earlier in the day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was extending remote voting until the end of the year because of the pandemic.
NBC congressional correspondent Leigh Ann Caldwell posted the photo of the dinner set-up and said Pelosi assured her it was safe. Everything is “very spaced,” Pelosi said, noting there was enhanced ventilation. Democrats said they had received the green light from the Office of Attending Physician and were sure to highlight that there was a new air filtration system in place across the Capitol. Those assurances did nothing to temper the criticism that was fast and furious as many said that holding an indoor gathering was the exact wrong message to be sending at a time when many politicians are urging Americans to reconsider their holiday plans. “This strikes me as a bad idea, a dangerous idea,” tweeted journalist Dan Rather. “It’s also exactly the wrong message to send to America as the pandemic spikes.” CNN host S.E. Cupp was more succinct in her criticism: “This is so stupid.” Chelsea Clinton also spoke up and called for the cancelation of the event “to keep everyone safe” and “to show public health leadership.”
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, tepidly defended the dinner in a tweet, saying it would have followed all guidelines. But “to be a further model for the nation” the dinner was “modified to allow Members-elect to pick up their meals to go in a socially-distanced manner.” That still raised a few questions about whether there would, in fact, be a dinner so Hammill clarified in a subsequent tweet that the incoming lawmakers would be “picking up their boxed meals” and leaving. “There is no group dinner,” he tweeted.
Republicans are scheduled to hold their own dinner for new lawmakers Sunday night and it’s still unclear whether it will go forward. As a general rule, Republicans have been more lax about coronavirus restrictions than Democrats. But some Democrats have also come under fire for what some have qualified as double standards in pandemic-related precautions. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, said Friday he shouldn’t have attended a dinner party honoring a top adviser. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Newsom and people from several other households had gathered at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant. “While the First Partner and I followed the restaurant’s health protocols and took safety precautions, I should have modeled better behavior and not joined the dinner,” Newsom said in a statement.