Under mounting criticism, former President Barack Obama on Wednesday canceled his controversial 60th birthday mega-bash in Martha’s Vineyard, citing the spread of the coronavirus’s Delta variant.
“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,” Obama’s spokeswoman Hannah Hankins said in a statement Wednesday morning, The New York Times reported.
“He’s appreciative of others sending their birthday wishes from afar and looks forward to seeing people soon,” she added.
George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey were among the 475 guests expected to attend alongside about 200 hired hands.
“They’ve been concerned about the virus from the beginning, asking invited guests if they had been vaccinated, requesting that they get a test proximate to the event,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod told the Times.
He added: “But when this was planned, the situation was quite different. So they responded to the changing circumstances.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki defended the bash on Monday.
Asked if Obama was “setting the wrong example about how serious COVID-19 is by hosting a big birthday party with hundreds of people,” Psaki said that the Martha's Vineyard venue was within a county classified by the CDC as having only moderate coronavirus transmission. But there was an outbreak of the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 nearby on Cape Cod, which is just over 50 miles away.
Republicans had a field day slamming the planned bash.
Republican congressman Jim Jordan took to Twitter to joke that "if this was President Trump's birthday," Democrats would be saying "How can someone be so reckless?" or "They're killing people."
"Is there an exception for parties attended by rich liberal celebrities?" demanded Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman.
"Barack Obama will have a birthday bash with 700 guests on Saturday," tweeted Republican congressman Lance Gooden. "Will Democrats demand he require all of his guests wear masks?"
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people — including those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — resume wearing face coverings in public indoor spaces in areas with high rates of transmission to protect against the delta variant. Some states and cities also have reinstated mask requirements as infections surge around the country.
The Biden administration has blamed the latest surge on the approximately 90 million people who remain unvaccinated.
Obama's defenders stressed that the birthday party is being held outdoors, guests were asked to provide a negative COVID test result and that a COVID coordinator had been enlisted to ensure the event followed all public health guidelines.
Both Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and have urged Americans to also get their shots and follow public health protocols.
“COVID-19 has gotten more contagious, so it’s more important than ever to get vaccinated,” the former president said last week in a tweet that included a link people can use to find vaccines. “Vaccines are safe, and the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones.”
President Joe Biden, Obama's vice president, did not plan to attend the party.
Material from the Associated Press and the AFP news service was used in this story.