The White House took enhanced precautions Monday against an invisible threat — the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Before going through the iron gate on the north side of the executive mansion, all journalists had their foreheads swabbed with a digital thermometer to ensure they are not running a fever. They were instructed to briefly place the back of one hand to the forehead to ensure an accurate reading, a scene that captured the sense of anxiety.
Once the correspondents passed through the normal security screening and walked down the driveway to the West Wing, they noticed an emergency modification to the seating in the White House briefing room.
The White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA), which assigns the room's seating, decided late Sunday without any direction from the press office to enforce social distancing.
Every other seat is to remain empty. A note, placed by the WHCA on each of those seats, reads:
ATTENTION: To ensure proper social distancing this seat is to remain unoccupied for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak.
This means some news organizations will no longer be permitted in the room, as long as the emergency persists.
VOA, which has a seat in the fourth row, is now relegated to a shared seat in the back row with PBS.
Four TV networks will be in the front row: NBC, FOX, ABC and CNN. In the second row: CBS and the two major wire services, AP and Reuters.
No one is to stand in the briefing room, meaning the number of correspondents potentially asking questions will be a maximum of 25.
Television networks have also voluntarily agreed to pool their cameras, further reducing the usual crowd in the White House press briefing room.
It remains to be seen how crowded the podium will be. At Sunday's briefing, U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were flanked by several members of his Cabinet, the task force and a uniformed team from the U.S. Public Health Service — a total of 16 people on the podium, not a good example of social distancing.
In an email to his White House press corps colleagues, WHCA President Jonathan Karl is also requesting everyone who can stay home or work remotely to do so.
"We ask that all outlets maintain only the bare level of essential staffing at the White House," said Karl.
The WHCA is also asking journalists not to congregate in the briefing room or the narrow break room, which is located next to the restrooms and has a small table and chairs adjacent to a pair of vending machines for food and beverages.
"This will decrease the likelihood of spreading the virus at the White House and increase the likelihood that we will have a full complement of healthy journalists to fill critical slots" in the rotational pool that covers the president's activities.
The White House News Photographers Association is also limiting the number of still cameras for events inside the White House.
Only one thing is certain right now about the imminent future of media coverage at the White House — the usual cacophony of shouted questions and camera shutter clicks will be muted.