Former President Barack Obama, who turns 60 today, canceled plans for a celebrity-filled birthday bash at his sprawling Edgartown summer home Saturday amid growing cases of COVID-19 on the Island and across the country.
“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,” Hannah Hankins, a spokeswoman for the former president, said in a statement released to The Times Wednesday morning. “He’s appreciative of others sending their birthday wishes from afar and looks forward to seeing people soon.”
Earlier this week, Axios reported the party would host 475 confirmed guests, including celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and George Clooney, and 200-plus staff to work the event. While the website initially indicated Pearl Jam was performing at the party, that was quickly retracted.
The Axios report said Obama had hired a COVID coordinator, that all guests would be required to be COVID tested, that the party would be held outdoors, and guests would be asked to be vaccinated, there were individuals — including some longtime supporters — criticizing the plans given the recent uptick, as well as the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Controls.
West Tisbury resident Barbara Kassel told The Times she was an Obama supporter, but was shocked to hear of the gathering. Kassel said she and her husband are both vaccinated and have been particularly careful during the pandemic. “We are absolutely appalled that he would go ahead and have something like this on an Island,” Kassel said. “I don’t wish him anything other than the best for his birthday but I think this is very ill conceived …This is not political, it has to do with science and health and risk.”
Jed Devine, Kassel’s husband, told The Times he didn’t understand how Obama, who has been a vocal advocate for getting vaccinated and following Centers for Disease Control guidelines could have such a large event. “I believe in this situation a true leader cancels his party, makes a short speech that given the time and what president Biden is asking for, will cover all the expenses for all the vendors and for all the disjointed guests,” Devine said. “I just think it’s outrageous.”
Speaking to reporters in Revere Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker said while he didn’t get an invite to Obama’s birthday party, he would have declined the invitation. “I think 700 people at an event like that is not a good idea,” Baker said.
Baker lifted all gathering limits and other COVID-19 restrictions in May. He said the party was a judgment call. “That’s the beauty of judgment calls,” Baker told reporters. “We can all make our own decision about what we think is most appropriate to us. If I were to have a large family gathering outside at my house, that family gathering would involve at least one person who’s over the age of 90. That would be my father. When I visited this weekend, I wore a mask the entire time I was with him.”
The Axios report and the controversy surrounding the party had Martha’s Vineyard trending on Twitter for most of Monday and the Island buzzing for days since.
Daniel Schlozman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins and a part-time Chilmark resident, told The Times the party is a perfect storm of attention “in ways that nobody else could capture in all its dimensions” and that Obama is a polarizing figure to his opponents in a way Joe Biden isn’t.
Now, in a post-Donald Trump presidency world and with his former running mate in office to boot, Schlozman said Obama, who was largely careful during his first four years out of office, can have events like his birthday party. “With Biden in the White House, Obama can enjoy a bold-faced post-presidency that he couldn’t have in the four years after he left.”
But even with a new president, Obama’s opponents critique his moves. “Still in conservative media if you want to get a rise out of viewers you talk about Barack Obama,” Schlozman said.
When asked about the gathering and guidelines around large gatherings, boards of health spokesperson and Tisbury health agent Maura Valley said the boards of health have only issued an advisory for indoor mask use.
A person familiar with the event told Axios that “guests are being asked to consider giving to programs that work to support boys and young men of color and their families here at home in the United States, empower adolescent girls around the world, and equip the next generation of emerging community leaders.”
The Times spoke to several visitors and residents on the Island to gauge their reactions to the upcoming party. Some were supportive despite the uptick in cases.
“I think it’s exciting that he’s spending his birthday here,” Lisette Williams said. “I would like to be on the guest list.” She also mentioned she hoped Obama would get to see the paintings from the Disrupt Death Row: Arts and Justice fundraising event that was held this past Saturday.
“I hope it’s safe and everybody is masked and vaccinated,” Addie Amon told The Times prior to the party being scaled back.
Headline updated to better reflect Obama’s statement. Interns Eunki Seonwoo and Nicolas Ruderman contributed to this story.