WASHINGTON - The Department of Homeland Security hosted a holiday party on Thursday, with acting secretary Chad Wolf mingling indoors with other Trump administration appointees despite warnings from federal and local health authorities that such gatherings could spread the coronavirus.
Wolf, who frequently appears on social media without a mask, did not publicize the party, which came days before a planned a trip to Central America.
DHS Chief Financial Officer Troy Edgar, one of the few leading department officials who has been confirmed by the Senate, posted a photograph of himself, Wolf and chief information officer Karen Evans on Twitter. All three were smiling while standing in proximity. None were wearing masks.
"On the stage tonight at the DHS Holiday Party with @DHS_Wolf and Chief Information Officer (CIO) Karen Evans," Edgar posted to his followers Thursday night. "I'm so grateful to serve with the 250K dedicated employees of Homeland Security. Merry Christmas!!"
Edgar declined to comment and Evans did not respond to a request for comment.
The event took place in a room at DHS headquarters at the St. Elizabeth's campus in the District of Columbia.
Chase Jennings, a spokesman for Wolf, declined to say how many people attended the event, whether there was food or alcohol available nor how long the event lasted. He also declined to discuss the fact that Wolf and others were shown not wearing masks while indoors.
"DHS held a meeting yesterday with political staff," Jennings said. "It is standard procedure for every agency to meet with political staff several times a year across every administration - DHS is no different. The meeting itself was held at one of the largest spaces at DHS headquarters in order to allow for social distancing."
Jennings said the event followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which now call for "universal use of face masks" indoors when people are not at home. The CDC also recommends avoiding "nonessential indoor settings" and social distancing of at least six feet both indoors and outdoors.
"Indoor venues, where distancing is not maintained and consistent use of face masks is not possible . . . have been identified as particularly high-risk scenarios," according to current CDC guidance.
Health advocates are encouraging social distancing and discouraging holiday parties and large gatherings, as they put participants in a particularly vulnerable position.
CDC Director Robert Redfield said this week that during the next two to three months, the virus likely will kill more people in the United States each day than died in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, or at Pearl Harbor. Approximately 3,000 people are dying daily from the virus and more than 293,000 people have died of the virus in the United States since the first outbreak in February - approaching 1 in 1,000 Americans.
Wolf and DHS have faced criticism for failing to take a leading role in controlling the coronavirus, instead focusing on other issues such as illegal immigration and social justice demonstrations.
House Democrats on the Homeland Security Committee condemned the festivities on Twitter, calling the unmasked photograph "very irresponsible considering COVID cases at DHS are sharply on the rise, potentially impacting its ability to fulfill its mission to keep us safe around the clock."
Despite the warnings, the Trump administration has forged ahead with plans for holiday events.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife, Susan, organized large indoor holiday festivities, with hundreds of guests, food and drinks, on the 8th floor of the State Department, even after they warned employees that "any non-mission critical events" should be virtual gatherings instead of in person.
Anthony S. Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert, warned Monday that Christmas festivities could spread the virus, perhaps even more than Thanksgiving, since such parties unfold for days through New Year's Day.
Wolf attended the party as he is preparing to travel abroad to Panama and El Salvador from Dec. 13 to Dec. 16 to discuss security issues affecting the region, despite covid-related safety concerns and the fact that he is weeks away from being out of the job.
Wolf said he plans to meet with Panama’s Minister of Public Safety Juan Manuel Pino to discuss “ongoing and future areas of cooperation.” He also plans to discuss immigration with El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, particularly the implementation of an agreement that the two nations signed in 2019 to allow the United States to send asylum seekers to that country.