Update, Jan. 19. 2021: Joe Biden is scheduled to move into the White House on Wednesday, mere hours after the guy who routinely mocked the premise of mask wearing moved out. There will be a half-a-million-dollar deep clean to protect against COVID. Once they move in, they can pare down the staff who need to be present, and enforce masks, to reduce the risk of spread. In November 2020, I argued for a different approach to this presidential transition. The principles still apply.
It’s safe to say that the current White House does not have a lock on COVID-19 spread, not within America and not within the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The people who work in the White House are now experiencing another cluster of cases, and they have continued to act with little regard for whom else they may have spread the virus to. When Bloomberg News first reported that chief of staff Mark Meadows was positive last week, it noted that he’d disclosed his infection to “only a close circle of advisers,” and that while there was contact tracing done, many people who had interacted with Meadows fell out of the rather narrow guidelines for who had to be informed. The lack of caution even after people have gotten sick is a pattern: Hope Hicks’ infection, which kicked off the October White House COVID cluster, was also reported first by Bloomberg News, rather than the White House press office. After Trump tested positive, he basically left scientists and journalists to speculate about whether he’d exposed Joe Biden at the first presidential debate by refusing to share when he last tested negative. He also took a casual break from his Walter Reed stay to ride around in a sealed car with Secret Service staff. Not particularly careful moves.
All of this provides good reason to be relieved that there’s a new president moving into the White House soon. There’s one small issue, though: Usually, the turnaround time between the outgoing president moving out and the incoming one moving in is about six hours. Given the COVID situation, perhaps Joe Biden should not move in so promptly.
How long should he wait? There’s the concern of sanitizing everything, though this isn’t that big of a deal. Regular old cleaning supplies will get any coronavirus off surfaces. While aerosolized particles can linger in the air for hours, opening up the windows and running some fans should speedily ventilate things. But even with all the scrubbing and ventilation in the world, the real risk—the way the virus could still make its way from the Trump administration into the Biden one—is via people. The 90-odd full-time staff members who make the place run day to day don’t change with the presidency. Just as you might quarantine and get tested before seeing your parents for the holidays, perhaps the staff should quarantine before the 78-year-old guy now running the country moves in.
The solution is simple: Shut the whole place down until early February and have the presidency start as a work-from-home operation. Is this a dramatic, semiserious argument that is mostly underlining the point that something out of the ordinary needs to be done? Sure. Maybe it would be detrimental to have the 46th president of the United States try to regain global trust from a chair recently purchased at Staples. After all the email scandals, it seems like whatever office setup the White House has involves some fancy security stuff that would be unwise to forgo. Look, I am sure Biden’s transition team can figure out something that is appropriately safe and less drastic, especially since “science” is part of the platform he ran on. The point is that he needs to start thinking about it.
And, really, a two-week preterm quarantine offers a lot of advantages. For one, all the staffers at the White House definitely deserve a break, like taking some time off to recharge before a new job, but in this case, taking some time off to recharge in a hotel suite after four years of making well-done steaks for a kleptocrat. More recently, the presidential butlers and flower arrangers have had to go to work at a “virus hot spot,” as a Washington Post headline put it. In that piece, former head chef Sam Kass expressed concern for the staff, saying, “I know that people in there are scared.” After all the taxpayer money that went to wining and dining White House aides and foreign officials at Mar-a-Lago, spending some to keep housekeeping staff safe and sane (at non-Trump properties!) seems reasonable enough. Book rooms with hot tubs! If Joe and Kamala need to work out of their official offices, they can bubble together. Set them up with a Blue Apron subscription and a couple cordless vacuums, and I bet they’ll be just fine. It’s still too early to say, but maybe at that point in January, they and a couple of their fellow essential workers would even be able to get a vaccine. But given that not everyone will be able to get the COVID jab instantly in January, it would still be smart for the staff to take a distanced break.
In addition to extra peace of mind, a pause on life at the White House would signal that bizarre-seeming safety precautions are sometimes worth taking. I’m not advocating for security theater—no need to use UV radiation on the carpets. But, well, maybe I’m advocating for a little security theater, in that the Biden administration should start off its term by implementing clear, legible steps that mirror what their constituents should be doing in their own lives. Imagine how much easier quarantining before or entirely skipping the holidays would be if you could point to an entire White House quarantining before starting a term together. As I’ve fought my own caution fatigue during this pandemic, I’ve thought about the actions of people in the spotlight, like how Anthony Fauci’s daughter sealed herself up in his basement for two weeks before hugging him. Or how the Bachelor franchise is making contestants live and date and go through truly unprecedented Bachelorette drama not at a series of exciting locales but at a La Quinta in California—after quarantining, of course. (Tuesday night’s episode featured a horse ride … around the hotel property. Very safe, very boring.) Indeed, Biden himself made a clear sacrifice in doing a bunch of lackluster campaigning from home. If someone can dial back the most important presidential bid in history for safety purposes, surely, I can skip a climate-controlled brunch! In contrast, I’m sure that many, many people who have forgone masks or chosen not to stay home after a potential exposure have used the Trump administration’s poor example as an excuse, consciously or not.
This is all to say: What famous people, and especially leaders, do in their personal lives about COVID-19 matters, especially as the pandemic gets worse and worse, and yet feels more and more normal. The White House has become a bit of a reality-TV set over the past four years, and wouldn’t it be great, in just this particular way, to start the Biden term off with a work-from-home mandate? We certainly won’t mind if Champ and Major wander into the Zoom during a presidential address.