Menendez Says Superspreader Parties Go Against State Dept’s ‘Own Guidance’ For COVID Safety

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D) is calling out Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for hypocrisy — urging America’s top diplomat to cancel a series of holiday parties that defy the State Department’s own guidelines against holding “non-mission critical” gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am concerned that these parties pose a significant health risk, not only to attendees, but to the employees and workers who must staff these events, as well as to State Department employees who may feel pressured to attend,” Menendez said in a letter addressed to Pompeo on Thursday.

The news comes after an earlier report that Pompeo and his wife had already invited roughly 900 guests to an indoor holiday party at the State Department later this month. 

In his letter, Menendez rebuked Pompeo for the apparent superspreader event, suggesting that it puts at risk not only the gathering’s guests but also those responsible for staffing an event involving food and drinks that would likely require “contractors, such as catering and wait staff, who do not receive the full benefits of federal employment and may not have health insurance.”

But the Dec. 15 holiday party is not the only gathering the secretary of state is scheduled to host. Menendez further condemned a series of other in-person festivities in a tweet on Friday, saying that the secretary of state should “put the health & well-being of employees and workers first.”

The events defy the guidance of health experts within the Trump administration who have urged Americans to avoid travel and have also warned against large gatherings amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic which hit its deadliest three-day stretch on Thursday as the nation reported more than 2,500 COVID-19 deaths for its third day in a row and new infections soared to 213,000 as cases increasingly overwhelm hospitals in the wake of the Thanksgiving holiday. 

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield earlier this week projected deaths reaching “close to 450,000” by February if a greater percentage of the population don’t begin to take seriously the guidelines put in place by the health agency to combat a virus that has spread like wildfire in the colder months as Americans gather indoors for events much smaller than the ones planned by Pompeo. 

Menendez offered direct reference to guidance on the CDC website when he noted that in-person gatherings that involve attendees from outside of the local area are “higher risk, even if the suggested six-feet social distancing guideline is properly followed. He added, however, that large gatherings where “such distance is not feasible” is even more dangerous and deemed “highest risk” by the CDC. 

Without providing details about enforcement, a State Department spokesman offered the Washington Post a fairly routine statement about keeping with the CDC guidelines that have Trump administration officials have largely fallen short of enforcing in the past, saying, “we plan to fully enforce social distancing measures at this reception, and face coverings are mandatory for admittance.”

According to a statement on Friday from the American Foreign Service Association — a union representing diplomats which also criticized Pompeo’s planned parties — department officials have encouraged embassies and consulates around the world to only gather for virtual parties to close the year amid the pandemic. The nonpartisan group urged the department to “reverse course and model responsible behavior in accordance with its own guidelines.”

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