• Sat. Oct 22nd, 2022

White House staffers have seamlessly moved presidents into and out of the presidential mansion for years. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Dec 7, 2020

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WASHINGTON Its a ritual carried out with precision each time a new first family moves into the White House.
In just six hours on Inauguration Day, belongings of a departing president’s family are moved out, carpets are cleaned, furniture is rearranged, fresh art is hung and the executive mansion is transformed for its new residents before they set foot inside.
But staff tasked with preparing the executive mansion for the arrival Jan. 20 of President-elect Joe Biden and his family will do so under extraordinary circumstances: the COVID-19 contagion that has already infected departing President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and multiple White House staffers.
When someone working in a school, business, library or other public building tests positive for coronavirus or is even suspected of contracting the disease, the property owners or managers often respond by ordering the structure to undergo what is known as a “deep cleaning”  a process in which highly specialized contractors are brought in to eradicate the virus with botanical disinfectants.
But neither the White House nor the General Services Administration, the government agency that manages federal facilities, would say what precautions, if any, will be taken to make sure the presidential mansion is COVID-free before the Bidens arrive.
“For security purposes, GSA is not able to comment on services provided,” said a spokesperson for the agency, which is responsible for helping get the East and West Wings ready for the incoming administration.
The job of prepping the mansions residential quarters for the new occupants falls to the White House chief ushers office, which oversees the complexs household staff and operations. The current chief usher is Timothy Harleth, who worked at the Trump International Hotel in Washington before Melania Trump tapped him for the White House job in 2017.
The First Ladys Office did not respond to multiple questions about whether any anti-COVID measures would be taken to prepare the White House residence for the Bidens.
Sheldon Yellen, who operates a multi-national property restoration company that has performed deep cleanings for thousands of clients since the coronavirus pandemic struck, advises giving the same cleansing treatment to a home before new occupants move in.
“If I were buying a new house right now or I were moving into a new house, I would surely want my new house thoroughly treated and cleaned,” said Yellen, chief executive officer of Belfor Property Restoration in Birmingham, Michigan.
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President-elect Barack Obama’s belongings are moved into the White House as he is at the Capitol to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009.
 (Photo: Evan Eile, USAT)
Moving day
Come noon Jan. 20, the eyes of the nation will be focused on the U.S. Capitol, where in a ceremony filled with pomp and circumstance, Biden will take the oath of office and formally become the nations 46th president
Just a couple of miles down Pennsylvania Avenue, White House staff will be working frantically behind the scenes to get the two-century-old presidential mansion ready for the new first family.
“The goal is when the new first family walks in, the White House should feel like their home, with their clothes in the closet, their photos displayed, their favorite foods ready for them,” said Anita McBride, who served as former first lady Laura Bushs chief of staff.
Moving day at the White House is a frenzied but carefully choreographed dance that begins while most of the nation is still in bed. 
The chief ushers office and the executive residence staff a team of roughly 95 workers that includes painters, electricians, plumbers, engineers and housekeepers start at 4 a.m., going over last-minute instructions, collecting the supplies theyll need for the task ahead. Many residence staffers stay at the White House the night before, sleeping in their offices or workstations to make sure they can get an early start.
Around 9:30 a.m., the incoming president and his spouse traditionally arrive at the White House for a coffee with the departing commander-in-chief and first lady. Roughly an hour later, the two leaders climb into a limousine at the White House North Portico and ride down Pennsylvania Avenue together to the Capitol for the swearing-ceremony.
For the White House moving crews, pandemonium quickly sets in.
Gary Walters, who supervised multiple moves during his 21 years as White House chief usher, describes what ensues as “organized chaos.”
“I dont know how else to put it,” he said. “Theres so much going on.”
Moving vans and trucks escorted by the Secret Service pull up to the entrance of the Diplomatic Reception Room outside the South Portico. The moving trucks are usually hired contractors and the drivers never set foot inside the presidential mansion. For security reasons, White House staffers are responsible for moving items in and out of the mansion. One team is assigned to move the departing first family out. Another moves the new first family in.
Furniture, boxes, carts and crates containing the personal belongings of the departing first family are loaded onto the trucks. Once that task is done, the White House is thoroughly scrubbed. Carpets are cleaned or, if badly stained, replaced. Drapes are often changed to match the new first familys décor. New light fixtures are sometimes installed, and fresh artwork is positioned on the walls.
The incoming first familys furniture and belongings are then moved in. Clothes are hung in closets or placed in drawers. Bathrooms are filled with the familys favorite toiletries, which have been purchased in advance. Kitchens are stocked with their favorite foods.
The Oval Office gets a makeover to reflect the new presidents personality. Carpeting and drapes are usually changed. New furniture is brought in. Artwork reflecting the presidents personal taste is added at times leading to unexpected controversy. Trump, for example, caught flak for hanging a portrait of the nations seventh president, Andrew Jackson, a slave owner who ordered the removal of Native Americans from their land in the bloody Trail of Tears campaign.
By the time the new president and first lady enter the White House mansion, usually in the evening at the end of the inaugural parade, the White House transformation is complete. The presidential home is now their home.
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Presidential belongings are moved into the White House on Bill Clinton’s Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, 1993.
 (Photo: William J. Clinton Presidential)
Breaking tradition
While the White House conversion to accommodate a new first family is carried out flawlessly, a couple of factors could complicate the changeover in January.
Presidents leaving office after wrapping up their second term know far in advance when they will be moving out of the White House, which allows for planning for the move to begin up to a year in advance. Presidents who run for a second term but lose obviously werent planning to vacate the executive mansion so soon, so planning for their exodus doesnt begin until after the election.
Trump wont get a second term, injecting a level of uncertainty in planning his move out of the White House. Voters denied Trump another four years in office and elected Biden in November after a bitterly fought campaign a race that Trump still refuses to admit he lost. Trump will become the nations first one-term president in nearly three decades
Trump reportedly plans to boycott Bidens swearing-in ceremony and has no plans to invite him and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, to the White Hose on Inauguration Day, according to NBC News. The bucking of tradition raises questions about the exact timing of their final departure the White House.
But White House staff have learned to prepare for the unexpected on Inauguration Day.
Ann Stock, who served as Bill Clintons social secretary, remembers the frantic search in 1993 for Hillary Clintons inaugural ball gown, which had somehow gone missing while being transported from a warehouse to the White House. The missing dress eventually turned up, and the new first lady made it to the galas decked out in the formal, beaded lace ensemble.
The residence staff can do anything, Stock said. They really are quite extraordinary.
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A worker for Belfor Property Restoration in Birmingham, Michigan, sprays disinfectant while ‘deep cleaning’ a casino to remove any trace of COVID-19.
 (Photo: Photo courtesy of Belfor Property Restoration)
A very laborious process
COVID-19, already wreaking its toll across the globe, arrived in the West Wing in May, when a military aide who served as Trumps personal valet and a staffer to Vice President Mike Pence both tested positive for the virus.
The White House quickly announced a number of health-safety protocols, including a regular deep cleaning of workspaces in the complex. Aides did not specify exactly what that cleaning would entail or how long it would continue.
Five months later, Trump and the first lady tested positive following a late September Rose Garden ceremony in which the president announced Judge Amy Coney Barretts nomination to the Supreme Court. More than a dozen people who attended that event eventually tested positive.
Trump was hospitalized for three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He and Melania Trump both recovered, but the coronavirus continued its march through the White House complex. Multiple staffers, including Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, tested positive. Several of the presidents aides, campaign officials and supporters also tested positive after attending an Election Night party in the East Room.
It is unclear what safety protocols were taken following the Rose Garden and East Room events.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people are expected at the White House for a series of holiday parties and receptions this month, despite an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases across the country. The First Lady’s office said face masks will be required for all attendees and that other precautions, such as the use of plexiglass food stations, will be taken to ensure the safety of guests.
No mention was made of whether the White House will undergo a deep cleaning when those events are over, roughly a month before Inauguration Day.
Deep cleaning is a term that can mean different things to different people. There are no industrywide protocols for the deep cleaning of offices or other spaces contaminated with the coronavirus.
Yellen, the CEO of Belfor Property Restoration, said for his company, the process usually involves three steps.
Workers wearing respirators, gloves, protective suits and other equipment hand-wipe and clean the contaminated area with a professional-grade botanical disinfectant that can kill 99.9% of viruses. All surfaces are then sprayed with antimicrobial solutions that prevent any virus from growing for up to 90 days. Industrial hygienists conduct tests to make sure each area has been properly sprayed, and the work is then certified as complete.
All items in the contaminated area that management deems unnecessary are removed. If the contaminated spaces contains sleeping quarters, all bedding, sheets and pillowcases are replaced. Carpets and upholsteries are shampooed twice. Even air systems, ductwork and other mechanical systems are treated.
This is a very laborious process, said Yellen, whose clients have included the Diamond Princess cruise ship, airplanes, hospitals, sports arenas, police and fire departments, retail stores and other businesses.
But, its all of the processes together that give you this deep clean that you are looking for,” he said.
Whether or not another deep cleaning is done at the White House before Inauguration Day, McBride said the mansions staff already has had to make adjustments during the pandemic. Some additional protocols and precautions might be put in place, she said, but weve been in this COVID reality for so many months, the White House staff under the chief usher have had to adapt. They, by and large, have been able to manage it.
Shes confident they will be able to pull off the Inauguration Day move safely.
They will be able to handle this, she said. Just knowing how professional they are and how each contingency is thought through I have every confidence they will be able to manage it.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Reach him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
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