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Former President Barack Obama has generally been a responsible messenger in the fight against COVID-19, including encouraging people to get vaccinated. But he sent a horrible message about caution — or lack thereof — with his 60th birthday party this past weekend at his family’s property on Martha’s Vineyard.
There was an announcement last week that the massive birthday bash would be scaled back to “include only family and close friends” because of the spread of the delta variant. That sounded like a responsabile decision amid a shifting fight against an evolving virus.
The images from the Aug. 7 party, at least those that were posted before being deleted apparently in deference to a request that guests not share photos on social media, tell a different story. It seems like the Obamas have a lot of close friends.
Just to be clear, we are not anti-fun. We like a good party as much as the next editorial board. Martha’s Vineyard sounds nice. We understand why the Obamas are popular (we endorsed him, twice!). We’d love for John Legend to sing us happy birthday.
But we’re also pro-caution, especially as public health experts learn more about the transmissibility and virulence of delta and other variants. And as hospital capacity is strained in some states. And while there’s an increasing number of breakthrough cases (but still a miniscule amount compared with the number of people vaccinated). And as people try to make sense of updated CDC guidance on mask wearing.
An internal CDC document, made public recently (and this was before Obama’s party), warned that officials need to “acknowledge the war has changed” in terms of COVID-19. We don’t think it’s too much to ask that the former commander in chief react accordingly. And frankly, the statement his camp put out explaining the pared back guest list and precautions doesn’t seem to match with the festivities captured in photos.
“This outdoor event was planned months ago in accordance with all public health guidelines and with COVID safeguards in place,” Obama spokesperson Hannah Hankins said last week before the party. “Due to the new spread of the delta variant over the past week, the President and Mrs. Obama have decided to significantly scale back the event to include only family and close friends.”
That sounds like a small, intimate event, doesn’t it? Reports that the original guest list of more than 400 people was shrunk down to around 200 still don’t really line up with the description offered in that statement.
To be fair, some of the criticism of the party has been overblown. It appears to have been largely if not entirely outside (if massive tents count as outside), and guests were tested beforehand. But even with those safeguards in place, the images of a maskless Obama partying with a large group of people send the wrong message at a very bad time.
The fact that comedian Larry David was initially invited and then uninvited from Obama’s party not only sounds like a good premise for a future “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode, it also has us thinking once again about an old line from “Seinfeld,” which David co-created.
“You know, we’re living in a society!” George Costanza says after someone cuts in front of him while waiting to use a pay phone. We wish Obama had watched that episode before the party, and thought more about the position he holds in our society, and the example that he sets.
And we hope that people will get vaccinated, gather outdoors when they can, keep their gatherings small, and consider the updated guidance about wearing masks indoors in public settings when in areas of substantial or high community spread (Martha’s Vineyard was in a high level area as of Aug. 6) because we shouldn’t forget that COVID could still show up uninvited.
We’re still in a pandemic, and that requires continued caution, especially from the rich and powerful. They have the resources, and we’d argue the responsibility, to set a good example.