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Did the organizations do enough to heed health emergency warnings around their recent conferences?

Jacob Siegel
March 11, 2020
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2020 Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2020Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2020 Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2020Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Over four days ending on March 2, some 18,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for AIPAC’s annual conference. Attendees mingled and listened to speeches from Michael Bloomberg, who was still running for president at the time, Vice President Mike Pence, and other top officials affirming America’s special alliance with Israel. An uninvited guest was also present: COVID-19.

The feared coronavirus was uninvited, but not entirely unexpected by conference organizers. Convention hotel rooms were furnished with extra hand-sanitizer dispensers and signs encouraging proper health and hygiene measures. A 38-second video advising Israel’s advocates to stay strong and healthy by washing their hands and avoiding hugs was repeatedly played.

Despite those precautions, the AIPAC event has become a central node in the publicly visible spread of a virus that is perhaps five to 10 times more deadly than the flu and to which human populations have no existing immunity.

The results are becoming grim. So far, five people who attended the conference have tested positive for the disease in four different North American cities: New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and in the latest case reported on Tuesday, Toronto. Numerous conference attendees from Israel were put into quarantine after returning home. Yesterday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York state called out the National Guard and put the city of New Rochelle, home to one conference attendee who tested positive for the virus, under quarantine.

The initial outbreak of the novel coronavirus, precursor to the disease abbreviated as COVID-19, occurred in late December in the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei province. Yet even in late February and early March, as the virus spread rapidly across the United States and public health officials warned the disease may be more deadly than recent pandemics such as SARS, few large organizations like AIPAC were willing to change their behavior and cancel long-planned events in order to enforce “social distancing” and limit public exposure. The campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden continued to encourage voters to attend tightly packed rallies.

The AIPAC conference took place during a kind of in-between period as mounting crisis indicators, like skyrocketing infection rates in South Korea and Italy and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s inability to provide working testing kits, was met with public indecision and calls to go on with life as normal from President Donald Trump on down. Only days later, multiple large public gatherings were canceled, including the multi-billion-dollar South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. On March 10, Harvard University canceled its classes for the remainder of the semester. And this week, Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders canceled campaign rallies.

“We carefully followed developments regarding the coronavirus since early January,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann told me. “Prior to the conference, we were in consultation with health experts and monitored and followed the guidance of the WHO, CDC, TSA, and DHS prior to, during and after the conference.”

One set of guidelines directly relevant to the AIPAC event was issued Feb. 14 by the World Health Organization in its “Key planning recommendations for mass gatherings in the context of the current COVID-19 outbreak.” The nine-page document contains a section called “specific action plan for COVID-19 disease” that includes the following recommendations:

  • appropriate screening requirements for event participants—for example, will participants be screened for COVID-19 symptoms on arrival?
  • disease surveillance and detection
  • treatment—for example, how and where will ill participants be isolated and treated
  • decision trigger points—for example, who will decide whether affected participants can continue or resume their role in the event? What trigger points will indicate the need to reconsider or revise the plans?

AIPAC did not answer questions about whether it implemented these specific guidelines. The organization’s spokesman would say only that AIPAC “took a number of actions prior to, during and following the conference that followed guidelines established by public health authorities.”

Multiple people who attended the AIPAC conference tell Tablet that they did not see the level of oversight entailed in the WHO guidelines being implemented at the event. For instance, two different attendees who arrived separately at different times reported that they were not subjected to any health screening—including self-screening—prior to entering the conference.

Though AIPAC took deliberate steps to mitigate risks of exposure at its event, the organization clearly stopped short of the kind of severe action, like restricting attendance or postponing the summit, that would be commensurate with a public health emergency. In that respect, AIPAC was only following the official line coming from the White House and echoed by major news outlets on both sides of the partisan divide suggesting that risks were being overstated. As recently as March 9, Trump was comparing coronavirus to the common flu.

Nor was the AIPAC event the only high-profile gathering in Washington organized by members of the American Jewish community that has been linked to the spread of COVID-19. Starting two days before AIPAC and concluding one day earlier, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was the other big draw in D.C. when the town was still going about its business as if reports of a pandemic were fake news—or at least foreign news.* A Shabbat dinner held by the Republican affiliated group Young Jewish Conservatives (YJC), in conjunction with CPAC, was reportedly attended by an individual infected with the coronavirus. So many people wanted to attend the sold-out YJC Shabbat dinner event, a secondary market opened up on Facebook for people to buy and sell tickets. The same individual was reportedly involved in other CPAC events.

As of Tuesday, four Republican members of Congress who attended CPAC and were believed to have been in contact with the individual carrying coronavirus have voluntarily quarantined themselves. They are: Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, Rep. Doug Collins, Georgia, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida, and Rep. Paul Gosar, Arizona.

Neither the YJC nor the American Conservative Union, the organization that hosts CPAC, have responded to Tablet’s requests for comment.

While CPAC has been criticized for withholding information related to possible infections and exposure to the virus, AIPAC has actively disseminated new reports related to conference attendees testing positive for coronavirus. The group has sent out at least four separate email updates starting on March 4, the day after the summit ended. “The DC Health Department considers this a low-risk exposure,” the first AIPAC email stated. A subsequent email sent by the group on March 7, quoted the D.C. Department of Health: “Based on our investigation thus far, in collaboration with the New York State Department of Health (NYSDH), there is no identified risk to conference attendees at this time.”

* Update, Mar. 11: Following the publication of this article, Tablet viewed emails sent out by CPAC informing conference attendees of their potential exposure to the coronavirus in light of an individual at the gathering testing positive for the disease after the event. The conservative organization sent out at least 3 emails between March 7-10, the last of which details the infected individual’s activities during the conference and asserts that: “any individual who had direct contact with the individual who tested positive has been contacted in a one-on-one capacity.”

Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.