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White House Hanukkah party invitees hesitant to attend due to coronavirus

Those who have RSVPed have been told to wear masks, but many are concerned given likelihood of event being held indoors and history of Trump hosting ‘superspreader’ events

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

People in the audience applaud as US President Donald Trump speaks during a Hanukkah reception on December 6, 2018, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
People in the audience applaud as US President Donald Trump speaks during a Hanukkah reception on December 6, 2018, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

NEW YORK — While the White House is moving forward with plans to hold its annual Hanukkah party next month, some of those invited are thinking twice about attending what will likely be an indoor event in the midst of an out-of-control second wave of the pandemic.

Invitations do not stipulate that the event will be held indoors, but a source with direct knowledge of the matter told The Times of Israel that would likely be the case given that the reception is scheduled on December 9 when temperatures in Washington are typically in the low 40s Fahrenheit (4-8° Celsius.)

The invitations sent out last Thursday make no mention of special COVID-19 protocols, but guests who have confirmed their attendance received an email — viewed by The Times of Israel — requiring them to wear a mask.

For the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the White House lawn in September, mask-wearing was only recommended.

US President Donald Trump has come under fire for holding a number of crowded events at the White House, including several that are believed to have spread the coronavirus. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease specialist, called the reception for recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett a “superspreader event.”

The email sent out to Hanukkah party attendees encourages them to “please practice social distancing while on the White House grounds and utilize the provided hand sanitizer stations.”

An invitation to the 2020 White House Hanukkah party (Courtesy/JTA)

In addition, those experiencing coronavirus symptoms within 10 days of the reception or have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 or might have the virus in the two weeks leading up to the event are urged to stay home.

Previous Hanukkah parties saw hundreds of attendees crowded into the East Room of the White House. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for additional details regarding the reception.

The health guidelines for the event are nearly identical to the ones shared with attendees of US Vice President Mike Pence’s Christmas party, which will be held indoors at the vice president’s residence. Those invitations — also viewed by The Times of Israel — stipulate that guests will have their temperatures taken and have to answer health-related questions upon arrival, and servers at the reception will wear gloves.

The Times of Israel on Sunday spoke to six Hanukkah party invitation recipients who said they were either still debating whether to attend due to COVID-related concerns or had decided that they weren’t going.

Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) president Morton A. Klein (Joseph Savetsky/courtesy of ZOA)

Morton Klein, who heads the conservative lobby Zionist Organization of America, said he would love to attend, “but the only issue is the Chinese virus.”

“They’ll try and keep people apart, but when you see people, you know it’s hard to talk while keeping six feet,” he said.

“We all want to go and it’s really a wonderful experience with delicious food, music and singing, but we’ll have to wait until it gets closer to decide,” Klein added.

Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein was also still unsure of what to do.

He expressed dismay at the possibility that he might not attend the Hanukkah party for the first time since the White House began holding the reception under then-president George H.W. Bush in 1991, but admitted that the large number of people likely to attend concerned him.

“If they didn’t have it, everyone would complain, and when they do have it everyone questions why,” Hoenlein said, refraining from criticizing the Trump White House.

US President Donald Trump with, first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, from left, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump and their children Arabella Kushner and Joseph Kushner, applaud during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House on December 11, 2019, in Washington. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Alan Dershowitz, who defended Trump in the impeachment proceedings against him, said he would not be making the trip to Washington.

“I don’t think [the event] is a good idea. People should not congregate and I’m certainly going to comply with what Dr. Fauci says is the best approach,” Dershowitz said.

Two others, requesting anonymity so as not to embarrass the president, said they would not be attending due to COVID concerns, while one more person said she had not yet decided how to reply to the invitation.

One person who does plan on making it to the White House is far-right shock-jock and candidate for New York City Council Heshy Tischler.

Tischler was arrested last month for inciting a riot of ultra-Orthodox extremists who attacked a Hasidic reporter at a protest against New York City’s COVID restrictions. He revealed last week on his radio show that he’d received an invitation to the Hanukkah party and that he plans to attend.

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