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It’s Obama’s party, but we can cry if we want to

What’s safe, and what’s not? Shouldn’t there be one standard for liberals and conservatives?

The Obama estate on Martha's Vineyard.LandVest

Barack Obama celebrated his 60th birthday rocking black beads, a Fendi shirt, and white pants, at a reportedly scaled-back event featuring an undisclosed number of close friends, including many Hollywood celebrities, who partied under a huge tent at his sprawling $12 million Martha’s Vineyard estate.

Naturally, the festivities sparked cries of hypocrisy from Republicans like US Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, who blasted the gathering of “hundreds of maskless liberal elites” while the Delta variant of the coronavirus surges across the country. And this time, the critics have a point.

This was not exactly like the mask-less line of conga dancers celebrating the 50th birthday of Kimberly Guilfoyle, girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., at Mar-a-Lago in the dark, pre-vaccination days of March 2020. The Obama party was held outside, following Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention guidance — if a dance floor inside the flaps-down tent that appears in Erykah Badu’s video counts as outdoors. And according to People magazine, face masks inscribed with a special “44 x 60” monogram commemorating the 44th president’s 60th birthday were distributed, although most guests didn’t wear them. But Obama’s birthday celebration did have a Trump-like, let-them-eat-cake feel to it, while adding another layer of confusion to our summer of pandemic discontent.

What’s safe, and what’s not? Shouldn’t there be one standard for liberals and conservatives? And is there anyone who can be trusted to tell us what that is? The public health message is mixed, even from a popular, health-conscious former president like Obama. He has urged Americans to get vaccinated, which is good; but he couldn’t resist hosting a massive gathering, with Alicia Keys crooning happy birthday to him, when he knows vaccinated people can get — and spread — COVID-19.


In 2013, President Barack Obama reacts after missing a putt on the first green at the Farm Neck Golf Club at Oak Bluffs on Marthas Vineyard.REUTERS

He’s not the only one sending a mixed message. Last week, Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who was not invited to the Obama bash, said he wouldn’t go if he were. “I think 700 people at an event like that is not a good idea,” Baker said, referencing initial attendance projections. Yet Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito are scheduled to attend a fund-raiser on Sept. 2, hosted by public relations executive George Regan at Regan’s Cape Cod home. The updated invitation describes the event as “an outdoor gathering, pool side in a large yard,” and guests are asked to “please be vaccinated or get tested 48 hours before the reception.”


When news of the Obama party was first reported, similar safety precautions were also in place. However, in the wake of the ensuing controversy, some invitees were reportedly uninvited, bringing the list down a few hundred. That paring supposedly made the difference between safe and unsafe at an under-a-tent event that was attended by a “sophisticated, vaccinated crowd,” as described by a New York Times reporter.

Sophisticated or not, if you are fully vaccinated, the CDC says you should wear a mask indoors if you are in an area of “substantial or high transmission.” Wearing a mask is also important “if you have a weakened immune system or if, because of your age or an underlying medical condition, you are at increased risk for severe disease, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.” Apply that guidance to Obama’s party or to the biker rally in Sturgis, S.D., and you might end up in the same place on whether to go and whether to mask up.


Currently in Massachusetts, 13 of 14 counties — including Dukes Country, where Martha’s Vineyard is located — are at “high or substantial risk,” according to the CDC. Over the weekend, thousands of people attended concerts at Fenway Park — also located in a county of “high or substantial risk” — and there’s an ongoing debate about instituting a statewide masking order for all schools. So far, the Baker administration is leaving masking decisions up to local communities and individuals.

Most of us won’t be celebrating our birthday with John Legend on a 29.3-acre waterfront estate on Martha’s Vineyard. We are hosting small family get-togethers in modest backyards. Our decisions involve the mundane chores of life, like grocery shopping. As we proceed with life during a pandemic, we are trying to sort through the latest COVID-19 data about positivity, hospitalization, and mortality rates.

It’s stressful and confusing. Watching a social media clip of Obama dancing without a mask doesn’t make it any easier.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her @joan_vennochi.