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Closed Doors at Lunch, Zoom Despite Proximity: Biden's White House Has a 'Covid-quiet' Unlike Trump

Joe Biden moved into the White House after being sworn in as the President of the United States on January 20. Photo: AP

Joe Biden moved into the White House after being sworn in as the President of the United States on January 20. Photo: AP

The West Wing of the White House has become a much different place under its new occupants — quieter, more disciplined and far more conscious of the pandemic that is the new administration’s priority.

Senior staff members limit interactions with each other in most offices to a total of 15 minutes in a day. No more than six people are allowed to gather in the Oval Office at a time, and a maximum of five staff members are allowed to meet together in the spacious office of the chief of staff, Ron Klain. In the Roosevelt Room, where staff meet every afternoon for a planning meeting on the coronavirus rescue plan, gatherings are limited to 10 people.

The West Wing of the White House has become a much different place under its new occupants — quieter, more disciplined and far more conscious of the pandemic that is the new administration’s priority. Partly, it reflects the way President Joe Biden’s team wants to work, but mostly it is a product of the strict rules it has put in place to reduce the risk of a widespread infection if someone on the president’s team gets sick.

Both the morning and afternoon senior staff meetings are conducted on Zoom, even though many of the participants are logging in from offices next to one another. When staff members eat lunch at their desks, which requires removing their masks, they are required to close their doors.

Visitors are not allowed inside the White House gates without approval, and West Wing staff members and the team working in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across the street are asked not to visit each other, unless they are requested to be in a meeting with a principal.

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The restrictive rules stand in stark contrast to the freewheeling way in which the Trump White House operated in its final months, when masks remained optional and the few aides who chose to wear them were mocked by their colleagues and even told to remove them by President Donald Trump. While some meetings were held remotely, former Trump officials said, many officials still met in person.

And while the West Wing became more of a ghost town in the weeks after the election, it still retained some of the Wild West flair of the early days of the administration. Visitors like Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, and Sidney Powell, a conspiracy theorist who worked as a lawyer for Trump’s campaign, were still able to make their way into the Oval Office for meetings with the president against the wishes of his White House counsel and other senior aides who had no power to stop them.

Now the West Wing feels empty, officials said, and many staff members spend most of the time they are in the building sitting alone. About 70% of the 500 White House staff are still working primarily from home, an official said.

“It’s a little different,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden who also worked in the Obama White House as communications director. “We have an afternoon coordinating meeting around the rescue plan, and since the Roosevelt Room has a limit, some people do it from the offices. People keep their doors closed much more than they ever did.”

Overall, Dunn said, the workplace may be less social, but it is functional. “We’re functioning very much like a White House functions,” she said. “It’s just that we’re not crowded into tiny rooms to do it.”

She added, “Is going to work ever any fun?”

The new White House rules were drafted by Anne Filipic, the director of management and administration, and Jeffrey Wexler, the director of COVID-19 operations. Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who served as Biden’s campaign manager and is now a deputy chief of staff, has also been overseeing their being carried out.

White House officials said it was a continuation of the approach to the virus Biden took when he was a candidate and his advisers first raised the dangers of shaking hands along a rope line of supporters. “His question is always, ‘What do the docs say?’” Dunn said. “Taking direction from the doctors has always driven the decisions.”

Even stringent precautions cannot protect everyone in the Biden orbit. In December, Cedric Richmond, the former congressman named by Biden to be the director of the office of public engagement, tested positive for the coronavirus. In October, Kamala Harris had to pull down her travel schedule after two people who had traveled with her tested positive.

Senior officials said their goal was to avoid of the fate of the Trump White House, which took few precautions and ended up with a large portion of senior staff — as well as the president, the first lady and their teenage son, Barron Trump — infected with the coronavirus.

All West Wing staff members are still tested daily even though a growing number of administration officials are getting vaccinated. The whole arrangement has led to some awkward moments in hallways, when staff members do not recognize each other because everyone is required to wear an N95 mask and many have opted to double-mask, officials said.

So far, officials said, the measures appeared to be working. But they concede that it is a difficult way to run a White House, just as it was a difficult way to run a campaign and a presidential transition.

“Adjusting to doing most meetings via video and doing most of our work with colleagues remotely has not been a massive leap,” said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary. “It has been a long adjustment as humans to not being able to hug old colleagues or shake hands with new ones, but so far we don’t feel that it is prevented us from doing our jobs.”

Annie Karni c.2021 The New York Times Company

first published:January 30, 2021, 20:59 IST