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White House largely disregards coronavirus precautions during Abraham Accords signing

Updated 6:27 PM ET, Tue September 15, 2020

(CNN) - Footage showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's arrival to the White House on Tuesday looked like it could have been shot any other year.

Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were greeted by President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, who were flanked by soldiers outside the doors of the West Wing. Netanyahu briefly waved to cameras, posing alongside the group for pictures before heading inside.

But unlike past White House trips by Netanyahu, the 2020 visit was taking place in a year headlined by a pandemic. And remarkably absent during the White House arrival was any sort of facial mask or any clear attempt at social distancing.

Outside the bubble of the White House and Trump's events attempting to evoke a sense of normalcy, the United States continues to grapple with the effects of the pandemic. On Tuesday alone, Johns Hopkins reported more than 39,500 new cases and more than 921 reported deaths.

And in Israel, citizens are bracing for a second nationwide lockdown caused by the pandemic after observing a record of 4,217 new cases in 24 hours last Thursday.

Trump, Netanyahu and delegations from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates spent Tuesday at the White House largely ignoring the ongoing pandemic, focusing primarily, if not almost entirely, on the signing the peace agreements.

Inside the White House, Trump held mostly maskless bilateral meetings in the Oval Office with Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.

And after the bilateral meetings, a large crowd sat shoulder-to-shoulder outside on the South Lawn to watch the leaders sign the agreements.

A senior White House official told reporters on Monday that the invitation to the signing encouraged the use of masks by all who attend, but does not require it, raising concern among some officials, particularly those from Israel, that it will violate strict protocols imposed in their home countries.

Ahead of the signing on Tuesday, Israeli Minister of Health Yuli Edelstein told CNN's Becky Anderson that Netanyahu would wear a mask during the signing.

But during the agreements ceremony on the South Lawn, none of the foreign leaders, including Netanyahu, were seen wearing masks.

Anyone who meets with Trump is tested, according to protocol. And officials traveling in the three delegations at the White House were tested for coronavirus before meeting the President. But the guests invited to attend were not expected to be tested, an official told CNN.

Those attendees who were not expected to be tested included lawmakers, Trump allies and members of the Cabinet.

CNN spotted several attendees at the signing without a mask, including Republican National Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana.

A number of senior level staff at the White House, including Vice President Mike Pence, also opted to go maskless. Several Cabinet secretaries were also seen without masks, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, Attorney General Bill Barr and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

CNN did see a few Cabinet secretaries -- Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross -- wear and then remove masks during the ceremony.

Some attendees, including Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford and former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, were seen donning masks. All military aides wore masks as well.

And one lawmaker, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, put on a mask as he left the ceremony. Asked by CNN's Kaitlan Collins to explain his mask strategy, he took off his mask to answer, saying he wore it earlier.


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