Small and infrequent public events. Repeated testing of staff, reporters and the president-elect. Aides debating policies and Cabinet picks without ever meeting face-to-face. Preparations for a pared-down, mostly virtual inauguration.
Joe Biden’s team has meticulously carried the virus safety practices of his campaign over to the transition. And his staff plans to take that approach to the White House on move-in day — intent on setting a good example for the country and avoiding the dangerous and embarrassing outbreaks of Covid-19 that have infected dozens in President Donald Trump’s inner circle, most recently sickening his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
“It’s a dynamic situation with the pandemic, but I think you’ll see the exact same adherence to and commitment to the science of keeping the team safe that you saw during the campaign and transition, you’ll see that as we enter the physical space,” said Yohannes Abraham, the executive director of the transition.
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.
When Biden has given speeches introducing his top White House aides, national security team and economic advisers, the podium is sanitized between speakers. And when aides do meet in person in the transition office or with candidates for the Cabinet, they use rapid tests, temperature checks, masks and physical distancing to prevent transmission of the virus — practices they plan to implement in the cramped and poorly ventilated White House after Inauguration Day.
Now that the transition is underway, some staffers and incoming officials have had to physically go into their new offices — though it remains a tiny fraction of the sprawling transition team and is limited to instances when they have to review classified or sensitive information, including national security documents.
“As you can see, we’re not working in a transition office,” incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on a recent Zoom call with reporters, gesturing to her home office behind her. “The president-elect and vice president-elect have conveyed to all of us that we should do our best to be model citizens. Being safe, wearing masks, the vast majority of us are working remotely.”
While a small handful of people seeking a Cabinet job have met with Biden in-person — including Antony Blinken, his pick to run the State Department — many high-level meetings have taken place over a combination of phone calls and video chats.
This hybrid approach was on full display on Tuesday, when Biden unveiled his health care team from the stage of the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del. His picks for Surgeon General and Covid-19 coordinator joined Biden in person for the event, while HHS Secretary nominee Xavier Becerra and chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci beamed into the event to deliver their remarks via video.
“Fortunately, the government is endowed with a lot of technology that makes getting together, while not ideal, at least feasible,” said Lurie. “But there are times you can’t be remote — that’s what being an essential worker is.”
It’s an environment that’s challenged lower-level job seekers looking to join the new administration. In past transitions, the physical office was a hub where prospective hires could hang around, network and find out about potential openings. Now, the transition is soliciting resumes via email blasts, the hiring process is like a “black box,” and thousands of ambitious young Democrats are sitting at home, waiting for their phones to ring.
“Everything’s virtual, so you can’t go get coffees and politic with people,” one Democratic lawyer looking for a role told POLITICO. “For us coffee-drinkers, you can’t do six a day like you used to be able to.”
“It’s hard to gather much information on what’s happening unless you hear about it directly from somebody who’s hearing about it,” a D.C. staffer interested in joining the administration added. “It just seems like a rat race of everybody flagging resumes to people that they know and hoping that they hear from someone at some point and just keeping trust in the process.”
While the country is already seeing record levels of cases, hospitalizations and deaths heading into mid-December, Biden’s team is well aware that things could be much worse by the time of his inauguration — as colder weather drives people to gather indoors and the holidays spur people to travel and mix households.
Just as they’re stressing to the public they’ll have to keep up onerous social distancing, mask-wearing, frequent testing and remote work for several months after vaccines start to roll out, the incoming administration is preparing to do so themselves.
“We need to level with each other,” Biden said Tuesday. “We’re in a dark winter. Things may well get worse before they get better. … We didn’t get into this mess quickly, and it’ll take time to fix.”