Creating COVID-free White House will be Joe Biden's next challenge
PIC: AFP

Three blocks from the White House, office space for more than 500 Biden transition staffers sits mostly idle. The government is shipping out laptops so staffers can work from home. President-elect Joe Biden, surrounded by just a handful of aides in Delaware, is using Zoom to oversee his plans to assume power.

But Biden soon will be entering a no-Zoom zone at the White House - just one sign of the challenges his new administration will face when it moves to Washington in the midst of a pandemic.

After months of making a virtue of the cautious approach his campaign and transition team have taken toward COVID-19, Biden's prudence will be tested by technology and tradition when he arrives on January 20.

White House computers don't allow the popular video conference software Zoom or rival systems like Google Meet and Slack. Government-issue cellphones only gained texting capabilities a few years ago. And many employees will need to be present at the White House to access classified information.

Biden's team has limited experience with staffing a physical office during the pandemic. His campaign went all-virtual in mid-March, clearing out its Philadelphia headquarters and sending staff back to their families in Washington, New York and beyond. His transition team plotted out his path to power entirely online.

The closest Biden's team has come to experimenting with in-person work was election night, when a small selection of masked and socially distanced aides in Wilmington, Delaware, monitored returns in hotel conference rooms, a far cry from running a White House 24/7.

Even now, the most prominent use of the 100,000-plus square feet (9,290 square meters) of office space reserved for the transition is for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to receive the highly classified President's Daily Brief.

Telework is possible for some White House staff, and improvements in both secure and unclassified videoconferencing have been made over the last two decades. But the lack of in-person coordination could pose an additional challenge to the new government facing a multitude of crises.

Further complicating matters, the Biden team must devise health and safety protocols from scratch. The Trump administration was, at best, a cautionary tale in how not to run a workplace during a pandemic.

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