Former US president Barack Obama has backed down and “significantly” reduced the size of his upcoming birthday party after a public backlash against his plan to host it amid a surge in Covid-19 infections across the country.
Mr Obama turned 60 today, and was planning to welcome hundreds of guests to his $US12 million, 30-acre property at Martha’s Vineyard on Saturday.
US media reported there were to be at least 475 confirmed guests, including friends, family and former aides, in addition to more than 200 members of staff.
Some big names were expected to attend, among them Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney and Steven Spielberg, with Pearl Jam set to perform.
But there was a public outcry when news of the party broke. The more infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus has been on the rise in the United States for weeks, with the daily case average rising from 14,500 a month ago to 91,000 now.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recently reimposed mask guidelines in some parts of the country, asking everyone – whether vaccinated or not – to wear masks in areas of high risk.
Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, is not currently classified as one of those areas.
“Due to the new spread of the Delta variant over the past week, the president and Mrs Obama have decided to significantly scale back the event to include only family and close friends,” a spokeswoman for the Obamas told The New York Times today.
“He’s appreciative of others sending their birthday wishes from afar, and looks forward to seeing people soon.”
The newspaper reported that some guests had already arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, and others were in transit, when Mr Obama made the call to scale back the party.
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Some safety measures had been put in place, overseen by a “covid co-ordinator”, before the event was cancelled.
It was going to be outdoors, all guests were asked to get vaccinated before attending, and each person would have been tested for the virus.
However, those measures would not have mitigated all the risks presented by a large gathering.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, advised Americans against holding such gatherings earlier this week.
“If you’re talking about a small party like I might have at my house, for six or eight people who are all fully vaccinated, I do not believe at this point we need to put masks on to be next to each other,” Dr Collins told CNN.
“But if there were 100 people, how are you really going to be sure about people’s vaccination status?”
Naturally, then, Mr Obama’s plans sparked criticism.
“Imagine for a moment that Donald Trump was throwing a massive birthday party for himself and 475 conservative friends in Martha’s Vineyard next weekend,” wrote broadcaster Piers Morgan, for example.
“I think we all know what Trump’s liberal critics would say: that it’s shamefully selfish, incredibly reckless, and a former president of the United States should be setting a better example to the American people at such a perilous time. And they would be right.”
Morgan cited his own experience of attending the Euros final between England and Italy on July 11. Attendees were meant to provide evidence of either vaccination or a negative covid test before being allowed in.
But Morgan, and many others, ended up catching the virus. He was fully vaccinated.
“What the sequence of events showed me is that no mass gathering is covid-safe. It only takes one infected person to turn big events into superspreaders,” he said.
“Frankly, the optics of this event couldn’t be worse for someone like Obama, who’s always prided himself on taking public health seriously and leading by example.
“Yet at the precise moment America’s most high profile leaders should be setting a good example, Barack Obama is doing the complete opposite.”
This all comes as US health officials struggle to convince hesitant Americans to get vaccinated.
While half the eligible population is now fully vaccinated and about two-thirds of people have been given at least one dose, the pace of the vaccine rollout has slowed considerably from its peak, when the country was averaging three million shots per day.
Having dropped to an average of just 500,000 a day last month, the vaccination rate has since increased gradually, and is now sitting at around 650,000.
All evidence indicates the vaccines are working: less than 1 per cent of people who died from covid in recent months had received the shot.
So, health officials are focused on persuading the hesitant.
“This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has said repeatedly.
“We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage, because unvaccinated people are at risk, and the communities that are fully vaccinated are generally faring well.
“The good news is that if you’re fully vaccinated, you are protected against severe covid, hospitalisation and death, and are even protected against the known variants, including the Delta variant.
“If you are not vaccinated, you remain at risk. And our biggest concern is that we’re going to continue to see preventable cases, hospitalisations and, sadly, deaths among the unvaccinated.”