WASHINGTON – When President Joe Biden met with U.S. governors at the White House on Monday, he was the only one given a glass of water — lest anyone else remove their mask to take a drink.
The president was seated more than 10 feet from everyone, including Vice President Kamala Harris and members of his Cabinet.
A White House staffer who was wearing a surgical mask when Biden entered the room was quickly handed an N95 version.
These are just some of the extraordinary efforts on the part of the White House to keep the president from getting COVID-19, even though he's gotten both of his regular vaccinations and his booster.
It’s no surprise that unusual steps are taken to protect any president. But the strict precautions could also threaten to undercut the Biden administration's own efforts to tell Americans — especially those who are vaccinated and boosted — that they can get on with something closer to their normal lives in the face of the omicron wave.
And it's emblematic of the messaging challenges surrounding the administration's approach to COVID-19 as the virus becomes endemic, familiar and somewhat controlled but still menacing, with hard-to-follow guidelines often unevenly implemented.
For months, Biden aides have fretted that the people who are most protected against COVID-19 remain the most cautious, a dynamic they view as a drag on the nation’s economic and psychological recovery.
When the highly transmissible omicron variant hit, Biden said it was a “cause for concern, not cause for panic.”
In recent weeks, his aides and science advisers have highlighted study after study showing the strong protection offered by the COVID vaccines against the variant and reassuring vaccinated people they can go about their daily lives. At a Jan. 19 press conference, Biden declared: “We have the tools — vaccines, boosters, masks, tests, pills — to save lives and keep businesses and schools open" and rejected the notion that still-widespread restrictions reflect a “'new normal."
“It will get better," he promised.
Since even before Biden was elected, his aides have gone all-out to protect the now-79-year-old president from potential infection. He spent much of the 2020 campaign season holding remote events from a studio in the basement of his home, venturing out for travel in a bubble of frequently tested aides subject to an array of restrictions.
That caution continued well after he was fully vaccinated and living at the White House. The president has held up his administration’s fidelity to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as a virtue, after they were regularly flouted by former President Donald Trump, who became seriously ill after contracting the virus.
As the nation’s virus response and vaccination campaign has become increasingly politicized, White House officials have expressed both political and policy concerns over a possible Biden infection. Though the vaccines are highly effective, a breakthrough case could erode public confidence in the shots and be used as a political cudgel against a president who was elected to bring an end to the pandemic.
Biden himself has at times taken a more relaxed approach to restrictions.
When the CDC last May surprised the White House by easing its guidelines on indoor mask-wearing by fully vaccinated individuals, Biden sought to publicly model the policy for the rest of the nation. He was meeting with vaccinated Republican lawmakers when the change was announced and led the group in removing their masks.
But that CDC guidance proved to be premature and was reversed over the summer, because vaccinated people could still transmit the virus, potentially endangering the tens of millions of Americans who are still unvaccinated.
When the delta strain surged last fall, the White House strengthened its testing protocols for everyone close to Biden — restrictions that had been lessened once aides were fully vaccinated and case counts began to fall nationally. In-person meetings were once again curtailed. Aides began increasing the distance between Biden and even vaccinated-and-tested individuals as a precaution, reminiscent of his earliest days in office.
In early January, as the nation’s capital led the country in per capita COVID-19 cases, White House press secretary Jen Psaki highlighted the “very strict precautions” taken to keep Biden and Harris safe, including mandatory mask-wearing and daily testing for those coming in contact with them.
She also said the White House had taken to limiting gatherings “to under 30 people.” But there were nearly 40 participants named by the administration — as well as two dozen members of the press — at Biden’s Monday meeting with the governors.
Psaki said the administration takes extra precautions any time the president removes his mask to speak to a group. She noted that the nation continues to set records in reported cases and hospital admissions.
“The president’s view is that right now we still need to keep our heads down and stay at it to fight what is still surging in parts of the country," she said. "But we do have the tools to get to a point where it does not disrupt our daily lives.”
Biden, aides say, has relished opportunities outside the White House when he can engage in the sort of political glad-handing that has been suppressed by the pandemic. And in public, he's chafed at some of the precautions, saying that the first thing he aims to do differently in his second year in the White House is “I’m going to get out of this place more often.”
He's hardly alone in his impatience.
On Monday, seated across a large gap from Biden in the East Room, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the chair of the governors’ association, appealed for the government to more clearly define a pathway out of the pandemic.
“We need the CDC to help us to have the right standards to end this pandemic and move to more endemic status,” he said. “We want to go from today to more normal.”
The night before, the president and first lady Jill Biden did attend the black-tie National Governors Association dinner at Mount Vernon. Biden spoke, but he didn't stay for dinner.