WASHINGTON — Federal officials closed the Washington Monument to visitors on a temporary basis beginning Friday after U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who led a private tour of the monument this week, tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
Interior Department spokesman Nicholas Goodwin confirmed the closure, which the Washington Post first reported. He said “a couple” employees at the monument were forced to quarantine as as result of Bernhardt’s positive test, prompting the decision.
“As we do in all circumstances when an employee attests to having COVID-19,” he said, the department worked with public health officials to follow proper guidelines such as identifying close contacts and cleaning areas as appropriate.
“The Secretary was recently at the Washington Monument. In working with our public officials and out of an abundance of caution, a couple of employees have quarantined resulting in a temporary workforce reduction at the monument and its temporary closure.”
Goodwin said the plan is to reopen the Washington Monument on Dec. 21. After being closed for most of the past year amid the coronavirus pandemic, the monument opened again for visitors Oct. 1.
Bernhardt, 51, a former oil and gas lobbyist appointed to his post by President Donald Trump in 2019, tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday, leading him to sit out of a Cabinet meeting held later that day.
The Post reported Bernardt has been giving “private, nighttime tours (of the Washington Monument) to associates,” which is operated by the National Park Service, overseen by the Secretary of the Interior. Goodwin told USA TODAY the secretary “gave one tour this week to a small group of (Interior) appointees, not multiple tours.”
Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents National Park Service employees, said Washington Monument workers were worried about exposure to COVID-19 “long before” Bernhardt’s recent visit.
Reardon said park employees along the National Mall raised concerns with National Park Service management “to no avail” and then turned to Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting U.S. House delegate. Holmes Norton asked Park Service leaders Dec. 9 to close the Washington Monument and other areas until the current surge of coronavirus cases subsided, according to Reardon.
“If that request had been heeded, frontline federal workers at the Monument would have avoided contact with the Secretary of the Interior this week,” Reardon said. He added that he agrees with the decision to close temporarily while employees quarantine.
The National Park Service posted a notice about the temporary closure on its website.
“Consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and in coordination with the NPS Office of Public Health, the Washington Monument is temporarily closed due to a reduction in its workforce resulting from a potential COVID-19 exposure,” the notice reads. “NPS is working to staff the Washington Monument at the appropriate levels to maintain the safety of its operations for visitors and employees.”
Built to honor President George Washington and completed in 1884, the Washington Monument stands 555-feet tall and attracted 800,000 visitors in 2019.
The monument closed in March because of the the pandemic before reopening in October. It also closed from 2011 to 2014 during a three-year restoration project following a magnitude-5.8 earthquake in August 2011 that damaged the structure.
According to The Post, Bernhardt’s positive COVID-19 test forced the cancellation of an interior department holiday party Thursday. Deputy Secretary Katharine MacGregor is moving forward with plans to visit two national parks in Wyoming – Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks – next week for official business.
Ben Goldey, the department’s press secretary, said MacGregor has not had close contact with Bernhardt as described by CDC guidelines supported by health officials.
“The Deputy Secretary has confidence in the advice of our Public Health Service officials and medical guidance issued by the CDC, and believes just like businesses must continue to thrive, so too should our official business,” Goldey said in a statement. “Therefore, the Deputy Secretary’s upcoming official business in Wyoming will move forward as planned at the invitation of the National Park Service.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.