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Obama’s birthday party has been scaled back — but it won’t actually matter to Republicans

The arguments right-wing commentators made about the event were steeped in conspiracy about ‘liberals’ rather than concern for the spread of the delta variant

Noah Berlatsky
New York
Wednesday 04 August 2021 13:51

Former President Barack Obama was planning to hold a 60th birthday celebration in Martha’s Vineyard for nearly 700 guests — until this morning. Now that cases of the delta variant are skyrocketing in Massachusetts, his spokesperson said, Obama and his wife Michelle will limit the gathering to only close friends and family. The original number of 700 had been settled upon weeks ago “in accordance with all public health guidelines,” the spokesperson added.

One wonders whether the fierce criticism from right-wing corners of both traditional and social media may have had something to do with the change. Predictably, Republicans attacked Obama and the press for hypocrisy and double standards as soon as news reports appeared about the birthday party earlier this week. “Just imagine if this party was for Trump,” Arizona representative Andy Biggs fumed on Twitter. “Typical liberal ‘do as I say, not as I do’. This is what socialism looks like,” Elise Stefanik, Chair of the House Republican Conference, added.

There certainly are real concerns about a decision to hold a massive party right now, with Covid cases rising nationwide, and clearly the Obama family have reassessed and realized that. The fact that Republicans focused on Obama’s supposed hypocrisy, rather than on the potential public health consequences of the party, though, is telling.

Democrats could do better in public health messaging and enforcement. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to host a massive music festival in Chicago recently was a serious mistake, as just one example. But the biggest reason we are still struggling to control Covid right now is that many Republicans have chosen to actively and determinedly denigrate public health measures. That’s the truth, and it’s worth repeating.

Republicans who insisted that Trump could not have gotten away with hosting a large public event are willfully forgetting that Trump did in fact host numerous such events, with catastrophic health consequences. Trump insisted on holding large, often maskless rallies during the 2020 campaign; researchers believe this led to 30,000 coronavirus cases. Another egregious example of flagrantly flouting public health rules was the September 26, 2020 Rose Garden celebration of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination. Many attendees were maskless; distancing was not observed as party-goers hugged each other. Shortly thereafter, President Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, and numerous other Republican figures and event staffers were diagnosed with Covid.

Trump enabled spread of Covid at his events by undermining and attacking public health guidance. He also publicly mocked then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for wearing a mask at public events, and apparently also mocked staffers who wore masks in his presence.

Trump’s messaging around the vaccine was even more erratic. He boasted about developing the vaccine, then kept quiet about whether he’d received one, and eventually admitted he had received a vaccine himself in January. But he did not televise his shot, which meant that images of Trump getting the vaccine have been unavailable. This is a serious public health defeat, since Trump supporters are the demographic most likely to refuse to get vaccinated.

It’s that refusal that has stalled our progress against Covid. The US just reached Biden’s goal of getting 70 percent of the population vaccinated with at least one shot. But we’re still struggling to get everyone fully vaccinated. In April, the US was vaccinating 3.6m people a day — more than 1 percent of the population. Now, though, those eager for the vaccine have mostly gotten it, and numbers have fallen to around 600,000 vaccinated a day, even though more than 50 percent of the population is still not fully vaccinated.

If everyone was fully vaccinated, Covid would be largely defeated. Vaccinated people have only about a 5 percent chance of getting Covid if exposed. When they do contract the disease, they get less sick, and chances of death drop considerably. As vaccine rates rise, transmission plummets. It’s because so many people aren’t getting vaccinated that we continue to struggle with getting the virus under control. It also gives the virus a chance to mutate into more virulent strains, like the delta variant. Masks are a second, weaker line of defense; again, it’s only because of low vaccination rates that mask mandates are being reinstated.

So what about Obama’s event at Martha’s Vineyard? Reporting suggests that even before he scaled it back, the former president was requiring attendees to present negative Covid test results. The event is outdoors, so CDC guidelines do not require mask use. It is not clear whether mask use will be required (as the CDC suggests) for attendees who go indoors briefly.

Obama is also reportedly asking guests to be vaccinated, but he could go further and require guests to present proof of vaccination. Requiring that everyone at public events present vaccine proof greatly reduces the risk of the virus. More, requiring proof of vaccination encourages people to get the vaccine — and getting the vaccine is vital for public health. New York City is just starting to require proof of vaccine for many indoor activities, as are companies like Google, Morgan Stanley, and The Washington Post. More employers and municipalities should follow suit.

Unfortunately, many Republican state legislatures are passing laws against vaccine mandates. Many have also protested against mask mandates. While some Republicans, like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, have been responsible and urged people to get vaccinated, in general the GOP has embraced plague as a partisan good.

Andy Biggs, Elise Stefanik, and for that matter Donald Trump could criticize Obama for not putting in place even more stringent Covid safety measures at his now-smaller party. They could call for him to demand proof of vaccination from his guests and to make sure people are wearing mask indoors. Instead, though, they’ve attacked him for hypocrisy, and insisted that his actions show that Covid precautions are unnecessary.

Democratic and Republican leaders both need to push their partisans to embrace public health and safety measures during the pandemic. The confused messaging round Obama’s 60th birthday is not ideal. But the Republican response has been even worse. If everyone gets vaccinated, we can all have as many parties as we want. Telling people otherwise is just going to lead to more deaths.

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