By CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Despite warnings by top health officials to avoid large gatherings as the coronavirus spread worsens, the State Department is planning to host several holiday parties with hundreds of guests invited, according to a source familiar with the planning.
One event is to be hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan in the Ben Franklin room, State’s gilded reception space, with approximately several hundred people invited, per the source, confirming a Washington Post report.
But while the Post reports 900 people have been invited — the source cautioned that like in previous years, far fewer than that are expected to attend. This particular reception is for the families of U.S. diplomats in “unaccompanied” posts, meaning their families are prohibited from living with them. Because not all the families are in the DC area, there’s a “high flake rake,” the source said.
Still, the event usually hosts around 300 people — making social distancing nearly impossible, even in such a large space, and the spread of COVID-19 more likely, given the eating, drinking, and socializing that comes with a holiday party.
The Pompeos are scheduled to host a second reception, inviting foreign ambassadors and chiefs of mission and their spouses, along with some other senior U.S. officials, to the Ben Franklin room for a reception with food and drink. The source said roughly 350 to 400 people are usually expected to attend.
A third event, hosted by the Chief of Protocol Cam Henderson, welcomes diplomatic guests for a “Holiday Open House and Tour,” according to an invitation obtained by ABC News, followed by a “Holiday Cheer” reception at the Blair House, the president’s guesthouse across the street where heads of state often stay.
In addition to those three marquee events, Pompeo and Henderson are scheduled to host smaller receptions over the next three weeks as well, the source added.
A State Department spokesperson defended the planned receptions in a lengthy statement to ABC News, saying in part, “All attendees will be required to wear masks, and social distancing guidelines will be implemented to ensure space between attendees.”
Catering services and staff will wear gloves and masks, they added, and there will be temperature checks at the entrances and “numerous hand-sanitizing towers throughout the spaces”– even though neither would necessarily stymie the spread of the airborne virus, particularly from an asymptomatic person.
“We’ve taken every precaution to thin out the number of individuals in all spaces at one time,” the spokesperson added — including splitting the Diplomatic Corps party into two rooms and the the White House tour and Blair House reception into three blocks of time.
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