The Biden White House slowly, glacially, returns to normal

The White House is offering vaccines to all employees through its medical unit and allows staff to take time off to get vaccinations, but that’s rare, since the shots are available on the grounds themselves. The White House would not say what percentage of its staff has been vaccinated. When asked if vaccination was required to work in person, an official said only that it was encouraged, offered to all staff, and provided by the White House.

“I think that everybody espouses the overall position that you need to be vaccinated to take care of yourself, your friends and your family,” said Cedric Richmond, one of Biden’s small circle of senior advisers.

The White House would not disclose the number of staffers physically working on the White House grounds on a daily basis, with one official responding, “no comment.” Richmond, however, said he and his team come into the White House every day. Those who don’t are still able to do their jobs, he said.

“We’ve invested a lot in technology — the ability for people to remote work — and we’re being very careful and following the science,” Richmond said. Of a plan to add more staffers into the office this summer, he said, “I didn’t think many people would be interested in that, but I could be wrong.”

A White House official said it will be a gradual ramping up of in-office personnel.

“We are planning to begin a phased approach to bring those White House staff who have been working remotely back to campus later this summer. As we do so, we will continue to follow COVID protocols that have been developed in close consultation with our public health experts and advisors,” the official said in a statement.

Like millions of other American employers, the Biden White House is grappling with the thorny legal, ethical and operational questions involved in bringing a largely remote workforce back into an office environment. These questions have taken on greater scrutiny as a growing number of employees become fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

Unlike many other employers, the White House is doing so under a microscope, conscious that any choices it makes can trigger a deluge of political criticism. That’s particularly true after the last White House, under President Donald Trump, hosted multiple superspreader events and refused to require masks.

Biden and his team have diligently stressed that they are breaking sharply from those past practices, particularly when it comes to mask wearing and in-person events. White House staff still primarily conduct video calls rather than in-person meetings and are still limiting visitors into the building, according to three people familiar with the practice. Advocates who work closely with the White House on a host of policy issues say the White House has continued to conduct all meetings virtually.

“All Zoom calls and phone calls for now still,” one said.

In the close confines of the West Wing, some communications staff currently take turns leaving the White House to work at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door, as part of an effort to keep offices less crowded.

Today, those who physically come into work vary in the West Wing. Most senior advisers around Biden are in the office every day. Some, including political director Emmy Ruiz, have been working out of state since Inauguration Day. But last week in a conference call with staff, Biden aides announced they would begin moving more people into the White House building. However, there were no clear, across-the-board directives and White House officials would not divulge the specifics on timing and number of personnel. A person familiar with the discussions on increasing in-person staff said it was not imminent.

Other departments are following suit with a pared-down in-office workforce. The State Department, for instance, has about 25 percent of its staff in the office and was still awaiting medical guidance before setting its next target.

The White House press briefing room is still limited to 14 reporters, but the White House Correspondents’ Association is working toward adding to those numbers, with a hope of expanding to 50 percent occupancy in the press room over the next several weeks, which would mean roughly 25 reporters at a briefing.

The biggest sign the presidency is inching back to normal is Biden’s travel, which includes an in-person commencement speech and more frequent domestic travel. The president, who had foregone foreign visits in his first months in office, will travel to Europe for his first overseas trip next month to attend a G-7 summit in the United Kingdom and a NATO summit in Belgium.

This week, Biden is scheduled to make two stops in Louisiana — New Orleans and Lake Charles — on Thursday as part of the Getting America Back on Track Tour to sell his $4 trillion in spending plans. It’s his fourth trip in less than a week with previous stops in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Since Jan. 20, Biden has made 10 trips total, aside from his regular weekend trips to Delaware or Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

Last Thursday, to mark his 100th day in office, Biden traveled to Georgia to speak at a rally outside Atlanta. But instead of a traditional campaign event, mask-clad attendees sat in their cars honking their horns. Later this month, though, Biden will attend one of his largest events, an in-person graduation ceremony with hundreds of people. He will deliver the keynote address at the graduation of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut on May 19. Each of the 250 graduates will be allowed two guests, down from the usual six guests. “Fewer guests, masks, social distancing and pooling arrangements for the media are the primary precautions we are taking this year due to Covid-19,” said David Santos, an academy spokesperson.

First lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, are also traveling regularly. Jill Biden will be in Utah, Nevada and Colorado this week. Harris flew to Wisconsin Tuesday and to Rhode Island Wednesday. Emhoff visited Pennsylvania Wednesday and will be in Tennessee on Thursday. Still, the events for all four are limited to a select group of guests and members of the media.

Members of Congress, who started visiting the White House the first week of February, have been coming over now with more frequency. In total, the White House has hosted more than 130 lawmakers during the first 100 days of the administration, according to a White House tally. Biden is expected to host a group of Senate Republicans at the White House next week, including West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, to discuss his infrastructure plan.

Amy Dacey, the former CEO of the Democratic National Committee, who is in touch with administration officials, said in-person meetings between White House officials and lawmakers have been different because of vaccination schedules, but also because of the administration’s goals.

“The Biden administration has made it a priority that they want to work with Congress, so yes, some of those meetings are happening,” she said. “It’s important for them, for the work that they do in building these relationships in the early days of the administration, to have those conversations.”

Republicans have politicized Biden’s handling of Covid safety protocols, accusing him, for instance, of not modeling properly by limiting the joint address of Congress to 200 people and continuing to wear a mask outdoors despite being vaccinated.

“We do take some extra precautions for him because he is the president of the United States,” White House senior adviser Anita Dunn said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “But I would say that people should follow the CDC guidelines, and they should take advantage of getting the vaccine, getting fully vaccinated, and taking that mask off, particularly as the weather grows so beautiful and we all want to be outside.”