The Canadian Press

New atmosphere at the White House: hugs are waiting for you; the masks are (for the most part) out

WASHINGTON (AP) – A smiling crowd of unmasked people fill the largest room in the White House. A visiting Head of State greeted with pomp, circumstance and handshakes. A 94-year-old Medal of Honor recipient receiving a happy hug from Vice President Kamala Harris. The White House comes back to life. Thanks to the increasing availability of the coronavirus vaccine and a recent relaxation in federal guidelines on masks and distancing, the Biden administration is adopting the look and feel of pre-pandemic days on Pennsylvania Avenue. More West Wing staff are coming there to work and more reporters will too, as the White House spreads the message that a return to normalcy is possible with vaccinations. There are lingering concerns about security and mixed messaging – the same contradictions and confusions that arise in a country that is cautiously reopening. But images of a reopened and relaxed White House stand in stark contrast to when it was the site of several COVID-19 outbreaks last year, a sign of the scale of the pandemic’s decline in the United States. . “We’re back,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during Friday’s daily press briefing. “I can confirm that we are a warm and fuzzy team and that we love to kiss each other here.” The changes within the White House over the past week have been swift and sweeping. The hugs were in, the masks were (for the most part) out. There was no need to stand six feet apart. And no one seemed to appreciate the change more than Biden, the flashiest and most tactile politician. The president had been happy to announce the guidance of the relaxed mask when it appeared in the rose garden on May 13 without a mask, just hours after the CDC said those who were fully vaccinated did not need to wear masks in most contexts. That good mood continued last week in a series of larger public events that would have been banned earlier under Biden’s presidency. For the second day in a row, the White House opened the East Room – the largest room in the Executive Mansion – to dozens of outside guests on Friday. Smiling broadly, Biden bestowed the Medal of Honor for the first time as Commander-in-Chief, presenting it to retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., 94, for acts of bravery during the Korean War he about 70 years ago. The White House has scheduled Friday’s ceremony to coincide with the visit of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who joined Biden at the event ahead of their political meetings. The two world leaders repeatedly shook hands with Puckett and gathered for a photo with the war hero’s extended family. A day earlier, an even larger group of lawmakers and other guests were on hand to witness Biden signing legislation to counter an alarming spike in crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., And Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, were among the lawmakers exchanging hugs and kisses. “The best part is being able to shake hands again and see people’s smiles,” Collins said in surprise at one point. Afterwards, lawmakers who helped push the legislation through Congress surrounded Biden as he signed the measure into law. The president also engaged in an act that had largely disappeared from official Washington during the pandemic: he shook hands with a few guests before leaving. Earlier in the day, he welcomed the new Kennedy Center winners to the White House for a visit that marked the return of celebrity power to the property. According to several accounts from Kennedy Center Honors recipients, the White House event was very lively, with Biden apparently delighted to have visitors. Debbie Allen called the president “so engaging and open. He spent a lot more time with us than I expected. Joan Baez said the official visit “turned into a joyous adventure,” included a tour of the rose garden and ended with Baez singing for Biden. Due to social distancing guidelines, the number of journalists allowed inside the White House declined once the pandemic struck, with the briefing room only being about a quarter full for daily sessions of Psaki’s questions and answers. The capacity is expected to reach 50% soon, with the goal of a full return by the summer. The requirement for daily COVID-19 testing for staff and most journalists is also expected to be lifted soon for those fully vaccinated. And the parking spaces around the West Wing and Eisenhower’s Executive Office building have been full of late lately. Psaki said the effort to get back to a more normal vibe was part of “continuing to open the White House, the people’s home to the American people.” But questions remain about the protocol. Respecting safety instructions is a matter of honor. And Psaki admitted on Friday that the White House had no plans to verify immunization status. Members of the administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have gone on, at times, to give confusing indications as to when, and by whom, a mask should still be worn. Yet in many ways the mood has changed dramatically. The first image Americans saw of Biden in the White House as president was on Inauguration Day, as he sat behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office wearing a mask. In an attempt to create a stark contrast to Trump’s White House, which has taken a cavalier attitude towards the virus in the building, the Democratic administration has always been in error. caution, sometimes exceeding the precautions recommended by the CDC. For months, Biden had privately regretted that the pandemic was preventing him from having face-to-face talks with lawmakers. nd world leaders in the same way, and he was annoyed at having to do diplomacy through Zoom. On Friday, the White House made all its traditional pageantry in person for Moon’s visit, and the two were able to sit across from each other in the State Dining Room and later respond. to questions in front of an unmasked audience of diplomats, officials and journalists. ___ Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report. By Jonathan Lemire and Darlene Superville, The Associated Press



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