Deep Cleaning the White House Isn’t Really Necessary

An illustration shows cleaning supplies inside a bucket with the presidential seal on it.
Getty / The Atlantic

Updated on January 19, 2021 at 9:10 a.m. ET

Before the Bidens move into the White House on Wednesday, butlers and housekeepers will perform their usual rituals: They’ll dust the gilded portraits of George and Martha Washington flanking the East Room fireplace; they’ll discard the bedsheets and towels used by the outgoing first family; and they’ll stock the residence pantry with the incoming president’s favorite dessert (Joe Biden’s is ice cream). This year, the White House will also get an unprecedented—and expensive—deep clean. An outside firm will likely use a powerful disinfectant to kill any lingering coronavirus on the doorknobs, elevator buttons, and other high-touch surfaces throughout the 55,000-square-foot complex. It might even follow the lead of airports and hospitals by deploying a robot to wipe out the virus using UV-light technology.

But disinfecting the White House, which has already been the epicenter of three different COVID-19 outbreaks, won’t protect the building’s residents from future flare-ups. Because the coronavirus doesn’t live long on surfaces, this kind of power wash is more like hygiene theater—a ritual meant to make people feel safer without actually reducing risk. The real key to guaranteeing the future health and well-being of White House staff is relatively simple: The incoming administration needs to require mask wearing and social distancing on the grounds.

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Current White House staffers aren’t asking for much from the Biden team. “I hope that they strictly enforce masks,” said one employee, who was granted anonymity because he fears he would be fired for complaining about current White House health standards to a reporter. The aide found out about President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis in October through news reports, rather than an internal alert. “I would hope the new administration tells the truth, good or bad” about infections in the building, he said.

The Trump administration has been almost impressively lax in its handling of the pandemic on White House grounds. Throughout the past 11 months, the president and members of his immediate family have rarely worn face masks in public. In the West Wing, where the space between desks is closer to six inches than six feet, Trump aides have roamed the halls, held meetings, and addressed reporters entirely maskless. The first couple have flouted CDC guidelines to host a series of large gatherings at the White House, including a Rose Garden celebration that may have been a super-spreader event. Dozens of Trump allies and political aides, more than 100 Secret Service officers, and at least four White House residence staff have contracted the disease, and many of those cases can be linked directly to the White House. The director of the White House security office spent three months in the ICU, and ultimately lost part of his leg.

The incoming administration wants to handle things differently. “It’ll be a sea change, obviously,” one Biden transition official told me, when I asked about plans. In addition to requiring masks for all staff members, the incoming administration will mandate vaccines for aides who interact closely with the president and vice president (both of whom have been vaccinated); it will limit the number of people working inside the West Wing; and it will regularly test all staffers in the White House complex, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

But the new administration faces considerations outside the West Wing. The executive mansion is a dense warren of high-traffic rooms, including the tiny flower shop and the staff locker rooms beneath the North Portico, and the White House mess hall under the West Wing. Staff in these spaces eat and work in extremely close quarters, so protecting them will mean allowing only absolutely essential employees to come to work, or at least alternating schedules. The Trump administration has already furloughed some staff members to prevent infection spread, but the Biden team may need to do even more—at least until everyone can get vaccinated.

That’s totally doable, Anita McBride, a former chief of staff for First Lady Laura Bush and assistant to President George W. Bush, told me. “It is not ideal when you’re starting a new administration, but unless it’s of the most critical nature, [Biden should] limit the number of people that need to come in,” she told me. Americans can also expect the Bidens to avoid hosting soirees in the middle of a global pandemic, McBride added: “There will be no massive events in the Rose Garden or on the South Lawn. They won’t be putting [staff] at risk, setting up all this stuff.”

The Bidens will also need to think carefully about the employees who work most intimately with the first family: the chefs who prepare their food, the butlers who serve meals, the valets who tidy bedrooms and lay out fresh clothing, and the housekeepers who do laundry and general cleaning. Many of these longtime staffers are older people of color, who are in an especially high-risk category for COVID-19. Kate Andersen Brower, who wrote a book on the White House residence, predicts that the Biden family may have a much more “stripped down” set of staff than previous first families, at least to start.

The White House has dealt with deadly infections before. The deaths of two presidents—William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor—may have been caused by the building’s water supply, which was contaminated by an upstream sewage dump. Hours after delivering the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln became ill with smallpox; although the president survived the disease, his longtime barber and valet did not. During the flu pandemic of 1918, President Woodrow Wilson, his personal secretary, his chief usher, his stenographer, multiple Secret Service members, and his eldest daughter all contracted the illness. The Trump-era coronavirus infections are now part of this tragic roster.

Before a new president moves into the White House, residence staffers often scour newspaper articles to learn every detail they can about their incoming bosses, making note of everything from food allergies and workout habits to personality quirks and pet peeves, McBride told me. They may notice how Biden has managed to keep himself and most of his staff safe during the pandemic. It’s hard to know how residence staffers feel about the change in administrations; their job requires the utmost discretion, and they are loath to talk to the press. But the change will be obvious. Residence staffers are single-mindedly focused on providing a safe and comfortable environment for the first family. Soon, they’ll be working for a family that will try to keep them safe, too.