Presidents love to acknowledge their guests when speaking in front of Congress, calling on people to stand and wave as the crowd applauds, or surprise them like that one time then-President Donald Trump gave Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Joe Biden won’t get the chance to do any of that.
The attendance list for Biden’s Wednesday night speech in the House chamber is so tightly controlled because of pandemic-related social distancing rules that even many members of Congress won’t be able to attend.
“In a typical year, many of us would invite guests from our states and our districts to join us to sit in the chamber. COVID-19 protocols mean this year in-person attendance is very limited,” said Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell at a news conference Tuesday.
She was there to introduce — virtually, of course — a temporary solution. Guests may be out this year, but “virtual guests” are in.
It won’t be like the NBA “bubble” or other sporting events, where cardboard cutouts of fans dotted stadiums, or TV screens were tuned to fans videoing in to cheer from their couches.
It’s not nearly that complicated. These virtual speech fans will simply watch the event on television or online, and some attended private cyber-receptions beforehand.
They won’t be there in-person or in-cardboard, but guests will still get their names and stories entered into the Congressional Record.
Members of Congress held virtual events all afternoon Wednesday, introducing their constituents and sharing their stories. The guest lists are often an opportunity for members of Congress to show off an issue in their state or district.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan invited single father Eric Puff, who has been able to feed his family with some of the extra funding provided in the latest pandemic aid relief package. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer introduced María Icaza, a Maryland business owner who was able to keep her Dunkin’ Donuts franchises afloat through emergency loans made available as part of the Paycheck Protection Program.
Going virtual came about this year because the House and Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committees were looking for ways to keep the messaging opportunity afloat even amid the pandemic.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, who held his own event Wednesday to acknowledge four people from Illinois, including a mayor and a nurse practitioner, said it’s a way to preserve a little bit of tradition in a very nontraditional time.
“We’re doing our best to act like normal senators and congressmen in a COVID-19 world,” he said.
Even first lady Jill Biden got in on the virtual events.
In normal years, first ladies invite guests to their viewing boxes to watch presidential speeches. Biden held a virtual reception Wednesday to talk to people who “personify some of the issues or policies that will be addressed by the President in his speech,” a release from the White House said.
During the event, she spoke with several people, including Javier Quiroz Castro, a Houston nurse who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 3 years old. He became a registered nurse after President Barack Obama established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Biden asked him how he was doing, and Castro said this year has been hard for healthcare workers and for him personally. He said he contracted COVID-19, and it took him a month to recover before he could return to work.
“Fast forward to today, I’m fully vaccinated and I’m literally working right now,” he said. “I’m talking to you guys on my lunch break because there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity to speak to you.”