The grim reality of the country’s recent surge of cases is shaping Biden’s plans for the first days of his administration and how he plans to run his White House. The team only plans to have a skeleton staff working on campus at first, with most continuing to work remotely from home. They also plan to have the building — which has seen numerous virus outbreaks among staffers and top officials this year— meticulously sanitized.
Because the coronavirus can linger on surfaces for multiple days, a team deployed by the General Services Administration will go over every part of the White House’s East and West Wings touched by human hands in the hours after Trump departs and Biden moves in, a spokesperson from the agency confirmed to POLITICO. That includes plans to “thoroughly clean and disinfect” all furniture, doorknobs, handrails and light switches, before Biden and his team move in. Additionally, a private contractor will provide “disinfectant misting services” to clear the air of lingering droplets.
Still other changes aimed at keeping Biden and his team safe will be more cultural than logistical.
“It’ll be the polar opposite of what you’re seeing now,” said Nicole Lurie, a former HHS assistant secretary of emergency and preparedness under the Obama administration who has advised Biden’s Covid-19 response. “I think the social penalties for non-mask wearing will be great. Instead of people being ridiculed for wearing masks, they’ll be pressured in the other direction. It’ll be hard to be in a meeting and not wear a mask or social distance.”
Thus far, those sorts of protocols have worked — preventing the 78-year-old Biden and nearly everyone in his circle from getting sick — but they have not been easy.
It’s been challenging to build camaraderie and put together teams that mesh well when everyone is remote. Job-seekers are unable to learn about opportunities and pitch their talents over a cup of coffee. President Donald Trump has been mocking Biden’s tiny crowds at post-election events and citing them as evidence to bolster his false claims that he won a second term.
And while the team gained access to publicly-funded office space in the Commerce Department and the Pentagon when the General Services Administration certified Biden the election winner on Nov. 23, the vast majority of Biden staff are still working from home, and everything from policy committee meetings to high-level interviews for administration positions are mostly conducted over video.
These and other safety protocols are reassessed at least every two weeks and sometimes more frequently, transition sources told POLITICO, and updated based on the trajectory of the pandemic, new scientific discoveries about treatments and countermeasures for the virus, and evolving guidance from states, the CDC and the World Health Organization.
“It’s more gain than pain, but there is pain of course,” one person close to Biden told POLITICO. “The whole country feels it. We’re all sick of it. When people actually see human beings in person again, it will be a shocking revelation.”
Each day Biden has public events, all the reporters in his press pool have to swab their own noses for rapid testing provided by CVS, and the president-elect himself regularly undergoes PCR testing with publicly reported results. Staffers wear masks at all times — indoors and outdoors.
When two aides of Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris tested positive for the virus in October, she and her husband canceled all her events for the rest of the week, and didn’t resume campaigning until she received multiple consecutive negative tests. Everyone who had traveled with the two aides were also tested multiple times, even if they hadn’t been in close contact.