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Opinion: The Obamas belatedly retreat from the Delta variant

Former President Barack Obama speaks at a rally on Nov. 2, 2020, for Joe Biden at Turner Field in Atlanta.
Former President Obama, shown in November 2020, scaled down his 60th birthday bash due to the surge in the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted millions of Americans’ rites of passage — quinceañeras, proms, graduations, weddings, etc. — and thanks to the Delta variant, the cancelations, postponements and downsizings will continue for the foreseeable future.

The casualties include the 60th birthday bash that President Obama had planned for this weekend, which would have brought 475 guests and 200 staff to the Obamas’ vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard. On Wednesday, the former president let it be known that the party was being “significantly” scaled back, with “only family and close friends” attending.

News of the party had circulated early this week, with critics gleefully accusing the former president of staging a potential superspreader event as the pandemic was raging anew across the country. Defenders noted that the guests were required to be vaccinated and tested before attending the outdoor event, and the expansive, 29-acre property would hardly be “packed” with guests.

But for many Americans, prominent Democrats are the face of the pandemic shutdowns, and that includes the Obamas. They weren’t in power, but they have supported the restrictions and remain allied with President Biden and other top Democrats.

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It’s one thing for President Trump to hold rallies with thousands of people and no evident precautions against infection — that’s normal behavior for a guy who downplayed the virus and lambasted state and local efforts to slow the spread of COVID. For the Obamas to do something that we all were told not to do for months on end, however — that smacked of hypocrisy, regardless of the steps taken to guard against transmission.

A party on that scale had to have been in the works for months, and I don’t fault the Obamas for assuming early on that the country would have reached the point by now where such gatherings could resume. COVID restrictions were being lifted right and left in the spring, even in hypercautious states like California. Vaccination rates were climbing steadily, infections and hospitalizations were plummeting. The pandemic was in retreat.

But then we hit a vaccination plateau and, not coincidentally, the Delta variant broke out across the country, triggering a fourth COVID surge. Worse, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned that vaccinated people can transmit the disease, although the likelihood remains minute.

The Obamas may not have seen that coming, but once the surge was under way, it was clear that it was just too soon to behave as if the pandemic was firmly in the rearview mirror. Rather than waiting to be pummeled by critics, the Obamas should have canceled the party as soon as the CDC guidance stiffened.

But there’s also an empathy issue here, one that’s reminiscent of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s French Laundry blunder. People gave up so much in the first year of the pandemic — so many major events, rituals and gatherings — that maybe they didn’t need to see Obama mark his 60th birthday with the kind of giant celebration they’ve been denied.

Is that fair, considering how much of America has returned to quasi-normalcy? It certainly feels like a reach to call the planned Obama party an outrageous superspreader event when tens of thousands of people are cramming into music festivals such as Lollapalooza. But then, the organizers of music festivals aren’t the folks who advocated stay-home orders, bans on gatherings and mask mandates.


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