Social Distancing and the White House

An ongoing missed opportunity to lead by example.

“White House Press Briefing” by The White House is in the Public Domain, CC0

On the one hand, this post is about a very small thing. One might even call it trivial. On the other, it is actually about our main public health tool in fighting the spread of Covid-19. That tool is social distancing and this post is about the lack of such at White House press briefings and other meetings on the topic of the public health response to the pandemic.

So, while Trump has tweet-shouted at us to practice social distancing, he himself, when given the chance to lead by example, has ignored that advice as his press conferences (such as pictured above from the March 20 briefing).

However, when I watch all of the folks who are supposed to be leading this public health response all clumped together on the stage (and in a room with reporters crowded together) I can’t help but think about what an opportunity to show leadership is being lost (and how the people in the video above are not heeding their own advice). If at these events administration officials would practice what they are preaching, I think it would be an excellent way to visually teach the nation. Let only one person at the mic at a time. Move to a bigger room so that reporters aren’t all crammed together shoulder-to-shoulder. Maybe hold the event outside. There are any number of ways to help drive home this simple, but important, temporary norm that we need to practice.

I made a supply run yesterday in anticipation of further restrictions on casual travel. Plus, we really are better off just staying put, so we needed to make sure we have food for a while. When I went to Costco, for example, they were making customers line up 6-feet apart to get a shopping cart, which they have disinfected. It was all in an effort to control traffic flow into the warehouse and to enforce the notion of social distancing. There were signs reminding customers to keep 6 feet of distances all over the store.

Here’s one I snapped:

If Costco can behave responsibly, one would like to think the White House could figure this out. And I do very much think that a teachable moment is being lost. Like it or not, a lot of people out there will follow Trump’s lead on this–as we have seen in the last month or so. More specifically: a lot of vulnerable older persons really need to get the message.

Other lost opportunities (all from the White House Flickr page):

March 19 (and yes, meetings are tricky, but it seems to me that limiting the exposure of the President and the entire leadership team ought to be a higher priority):

President Trump Participates in a Teleconference with Governors at the Federal Emergency Management Center Headquarters

March 18 (especially egregious, because Pence and Mnuchin are just props for the photo):

President Trump Signs the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

A March 18 meeting with nurses:

President Trump Meets with Nurses on the Coronavirus

A March 17 meeting with representatives from the tourism industry:

President Trump Meets with Tourism Industry Executives About the Coronavirus

The March 13th briefing (at least it was outside, but note the utter lack of social distancing):

President Trump Holds a News Conference on the Coronavirus
President Trump Holds a News Conference on the Coronavirus

I think the basic point is more than made. One can see more at the White House Flickr page should one desire.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Donald Trump, Health, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. DrDaveT says:

    One might even call it trivial.

    No, you are exactly right here. Every press conference the President holds, every shot of the White House staff at work, shouts that the public should not believe any of the medical advice about social distancing. It cannot be important, because if it were then we would be doing it too. We’re going along with it (wink wink) but it’s Fake News.

    It’s hard to estimate how many additional people will die because of this, but the number is much larger than zero.

  2. DrDaveT says:

    BTW, I’d be curious to learn what those ATTENTION! signs on the backs of the press chairs say. Does anyone know?

  3. CSK says:

    They might be a reminder for people to sit with an empty chair between them, which could be better than cheek-by-jowl, I suppose.

  4. beth says:

    @DrDaveT: it looks like people are only sitting in the chairs with the signs. Maybe a way to space out the press corps?

  5. Joe says:

    Despite the general schadenfreude of Trump or some other high Administration official becoming ill, I can’t understand why the President is not at his own lectern, away from the other people on the dais. For your same reason, this has struck me as nuts.

  6. CSK says:

    Two possibilities:
    1. He thinks he’s invulnerable.
    2. He thinks it would be unmanly-appearing to take precautions.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    Yes, this advice only applies to you little people.

    You’d think the Secret Service would enforce six feet and make him wear a mask. What he described as a “so called N95” mask, i.e. the ones that have “”N95” printed on them. Of course we don’t know what happens as soon as he’s out of sigh.

  8. Mister Bluster says:

    Of course we don’t know what happens as soon as he’s out of sight.

    Donald! Let go of him!

  9. PJ says:

    Compare a Trump press conference with a Cuomo press conference

    That’s how it should be done.

  10. de stijl says:

    Nero metaphors come to kind.

  11. de stijl says:

    Currently, right this second, CBS is televising a PGA tour event. Replay of last year’s.

    The spectators are crammed in shoulder to shoulder. It’s creepy to watch.

    It is astonishing how quickly our sense of appropriate spacing has changed.

  12. Paine says:

    Guessing he was absent the week his LEadership 101 class went over the power of leading by example. Either that or he cares more about showing off the trappings of being president (fawning press corps, obsequious toadies standing at attention as he sits at his desk) than the well-being of himself and others.

  13. Scott F. says:

    Between the disinformation and the bad examples, the daily WH press conferences are more than counterproductive, they’re destructive. The press should stop covering them live and move instead to a model where they only report out information they have verified.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    The press should stop covering them live and move instead to a model where they only report out information they have verified.

    That would lead to a complete Trump blackout…he’d go crazy without all of the attention of the media and their “fake news”…

  15. Jax says:

    @An Interested Party: I see nothing wrong with the concept of a “complete Trump blackout”, and the fact that it would drive him crazy would just be icing on the cake. 😉

    Our local store is no longer allowing children in the store, and only 10 shoppers in at a time. It’s pretty small, so I can see how it’s feasible. I don’t know how they’ll handle that in larger stores.

    ROFLMAO….The locals are not handling the bar closure well. They’re sitting outside the bar in their trucks, yelling at each other thru the open windows. I did not pause long enough to see if they were drinking, but I suspect we might have a rash of DUI/public intoxication arrests soon.

  16. Michael Cain says:

    I went down to the basement and pulled a couple of my old lab notebooks in order to check dates. In early 1994 I was doing prototype multi-party multi-media real-time conferencing over IP. The video was really ugly, but I was doing it in software on 66 MHz 486 class processors. Literally black and white dots, because that was the only display you could be sure was on all the machines. Still, the frame rate was high enough to tell that the audio and video were synchronized, and to read facial and body expressions. Video was only the third most important medium. Audio first, then the shared smart virtual pad of paper that I was quite proud of. I take it as something of an affront that given all the improvements that have happened in 26 years — that’s like centuries in tech time — a group of rich important people can’t just casually have a good virtual meeting, and let the press in as observers.

  17. Richard Gardner says:

    And the IDIOTS in the press are clustering around because?
    Both are at fault.

  18. de stijl says:

    @Richard Gardner:

    Your blame casting seems very specific.

    Working up the chain in reporting is really hard. My ex was a reporter. She covered suburban city council meetings as her first off the collar gig. She was really good at her job.

    Then dailies collapsed.