Many of the guests for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nomination announcement arrived at Saturday’s event with masks on, but as the Rose Garden event got underway, masks were virtually non-existent.
Some of the Trump administration’s top health officials, as well as other attendees, were seen not wearing masks or social distancing at the highest-profile event at the White House since the Republican National Convention in August.
Seats for guests in the White House Rose Garden at the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett also did not appear spaced apart the recommended six feet, CNN reporters observed, as US deaths from the coronavirus pandemic has surpassed 200,000.
The event stood in striking contrast with the ceremonies earlier this week at the Supreme Court and US Capitol honoring the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, where many attendees at both events wore masks and were careful interacting with one another. Trump, who went mask-less for Saturday’s event, wore a face covering when he paid respects to Ginsburg this week.
Alex Azar, the head of the Health and Human Services Department, put on a mask at one point during Trump’s speech announcing the President is nominating Barrett as the nominee.
But as he left the ceremony, the nation’s top health official fist-bumped without a mask on — going against the health recommendations he has espoused during the pandemic. Azar has repeatedly encouraged Americans to wear a facial covering and to practice social distancing.
An HHS spokesperson told CNN that Azar had tested negative prior to the event, as did others he came into contact with.
“Secretary Azar wore a mask the majority of the event and consistently communicates and practices the three Ws of wearing a mask, watching your distance, and washing your hands. In this circumstance, everyone he had contact with, including Secretary Azar, tested negative before the event.”
Top administration officials, including Attorney General William Barr and Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who is the latest addition to the White House coronavirus task force, were also seen without masks, shaking hands and interacting closely with other attendees.
Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at Brown University, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Saturday that “for one of the leaders of our country, of our Health and Human Services, walking around without a mask just sends the wrong message.”
“It is essential for all of us who hold positions of influence in healthcare and government, or just in media to wear masks when we’re out in public, to send that right message because that’s the only way that, right now, that we’re going to combat and succeed against this virus,” she said.
Ahead of the event, White House spokesman Judd Deere told CNN Saturday that anyone in close proximity to the President will be tested for Covid-19, and that there will be social distancing measures.
But two of Barrett’s colleagues at Notre Dame, who attended the Rose Garden event and were seated toward the front of the audience, said they were not tested for the virus by the White House.
The two guests also told CNN that there was no mention from the White House of coronavirus testing as a requirement to attend in any of the logistical emails they received ahead of time.
The White House’s protocol for the past several weeks has been to test anyone who interacts directly with the President — meaning much of the audience at Saturday’s event were not tested.
The White House followed a similar protocol for the RNC, when over a thousand guests gathered on the South Lawn for the Trump’s acceptance speech for his party’s nomination.
This story has been updated to include a statement from HHS.