WASHINGTON — On the day that President Joe Biden had long anticipated as a milestone in the fight against the coronavirus, the White House hosted a celebration to both commemorate the Fourth of July and herald the administration’s progress toward overcoming the pandemic.
In bringing together about 1,000 people for the largest planned event of Biden’s presidency, the White House has been forced to walk a fine line, striving to signal progress toward restoring normalcy while still acknowledging the dangers of a pandemic that continues to claim hundreds of lives a day.
Biden continued that strategy Sunday, comparing the nation’s fight for independence with the battle against the coronavirus.
“Two hundred and forty five years ago, we declared our independence from a distant king,” he said during the event. “Today, we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus. That’s not to say the battle against COVID-19 is over. We’ve got a lot more work to do.”
For months, the White House had July 4 circled as a breakthrough moment in the pandemic, the point at which many restrictions could be lifted if the country met ambitious vaccination targets.
In the months after his election, Biden offered only guarded hope that small groups would be able to gather by the holiday weekend while still observing familiar safety guidance.
But as vaccination rates climbed steadily throughout the spring, the White House grew more confident, describing the holiday as the beginning of a “summer of freedom” and Sunday’s event as a celebration not only of Independence Day but also of “independence from COVID-19.”
The celebration also included a barbecue honoring attendees — a group of first responders, essential workers and service members, nearly all of whom were vaccinated and able to go without masks in accordance with guidance released in May by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guests mingled on the South Lawn, enjoying pulled pork and chicken while a live band played throughout the evening.
In his remarks, Biden reflected on the more than 600,000 Americans who have died from the virus over the past 16 months.
“This day falls hard on all those who’ve lost a loved one,” Biden said. “Each day, I carry a card in my pocket with my schedule on it. On the back of that schedule, on that card, I have the number of Americans who’ve lost their lives to COVID.”
But Biden also addressed the present, imploring unvaccinated Americans to get shots. “It’s the most patriotic thing you can do,” he said.
Biden also expressed gratitude to the essential workers and military families whose work throughout the pandemic has helped bring new cases and deaths down by more than 90% from their peak in January. They “became the light to see us through the darkness,” he said.
Still, the Biden administration has been forced to concede in recent weeks that many challenges lie ahead, and the president was careful to remind the crowd several times of the threat the pandemic still poses.
While the White House once targeted July 4 as the date that at least 70% of adults would be at least partly vaccinated, officials acknowledged last month that they would almost certainly miss that goal as the vaccination rate has plummeted from a peak in April.
And while 20 states, Washington, D.C., and two territories exceeded the 70% mark last week, the country’s progress as a whole has slowed significantly, with only about 1 million doses now being administered each week on average. On Sunday, roughly 67% of adults had received at least one shot, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
The rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has also raised concerns among public health officials, who fear that new outbreaks could occur in parts of the country where vaccination rates have stayed comparatively low and that the variant could mutate in ways that leave even vaccinated Americans vulnerable.
While the pageantry at the White House presented a display of normality that seemed far from likely at the beginning of Biden’s term, the occasion was characterized by a sense of restraint rarely seen under the previous administration.
Even as new cases swelled toward a summer peak last year, President Donald Trump went ahead with a 35-minute fireworks display and military flyovers on the National Mall, against the wishes of Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, who urged people not to attend. The fireworks show this year was to be half as long, and Bowser, encouraged by progress on vaccines, has welcomed guests back to the city.
Under Trump, the White House hosted other large gatherings long before vaccines had been approved, including two celebrating the nomination and confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in which he and several other attendees were believed to have been exposed and infected.
For Biden, the celebrations this year appeared choreographed to signal that Americans could enjoy some degree of normality in coming together, even as his own public health officials have continued to stress the importance of maintaining momentum on vaccines.
“The Fourth of July is a moment for us to step back and celebrate our progress,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients told reporters Thursday. “There’s a lot more work to do.”
In the days leading up to the event, Biden was careful to reiterate that even amid the vaccination effort, the United States is still averaging hundreds of COVID deaths each day. He urged Americans not to be complacent.
“I am not concerned there is going to be a major outbreak — in other words, that we’re going to have another epidemic nationwide,” Biden told reporters Friday. “But I am concerned lives will be lost.”
But despite recent setbacks to his administration’s goals, Biden appeared ready to embrace the moment.
“Today, while the virus has not been vanquished, we know this: It no longer controls our lives, it no longer paralyzes our nation,” Biden told the crowd on Sunday. “And it is within our power to make sure it never does again.”