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A VIP guest list of nearly 900 was cut by half. Guests had to upload not only confirmation that they were vaccinated, but also confirmation that they’d tested negative for COVID within the last two to three days. Masks were required indoors, although most of the party was held outdoors, including in an open-air tent (where, in a nod to neighbors, headphone-wearing guests danced to a “silent” disco).
In short, the 53rd annual Meridian Ball wasn’t taking any chances on becoming a super-spreader event.
It was a small sacrifice to put on one of the most widely anticipated social events of the year — and guests certainly didn’t seem to mind after having to take a pandemic pause from balls and galas.
“The feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” Meridian International Center President and CEO Stuart Holliday told The Diplomat. “Many guests expressed they felt a sense of comfort knowing that everyone in attendance was both vaccinated and tested — with all test results coming back negative before the event.”
Testing and vaccine cards aside, many of the traditional features that make the ball a coveted invite were on display Oct. 22. That included intimidate dinners around town hosted by more than 30 ambassadors, followed by dessert and dancing at the historic Meridian House, although most guests wound up in the outdoor courtyard, mingling under the lights and linden trees.
“These larger events can be done safely if proper protocols are in place. Limiting our guest numbers and increasing our usage of outdoor space was very helpful for this year’s ball. We are fortunate that Meridian has such beautiful gardens and the weather held up,” Holliday said. “While we have done some smaller in-person events since summer, it was great to return to a 53-year tradition after a one-year hiatus.”
For many, it was both a welcome return to some semblance of normalcy and the first opportunity they’ve had to meet new people or reunite with friends — in-person, and not on-screen. It was also an important fundraising tool, bringing in a record $1.54 million for Meridian, a nonprofit that focuses on global diplomacy and leadership.
And, of course, the ball gave everyone an excuse to shed the sweatpants and squeeze back into those gowns and tuxes.
“To be out and about again, to see people again, it’s just wonderful,” said Marcia Jackson, wife of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson. “And I think the fact that Meridian went to so many lengths to have safety protocols so that we can feel comfortable tonight — it is a magical night.”
“It’s so exciting that we are getting back to opening doors and welcoming the guests,” Ambassador of Georgia David Bakradze, who hosted one of the embassy dinners, told The Diplomat. “Meridian has been a really good partner throughout the years opening a lot of doors to foreign diplomats in the Executive [Branch], Congress and the private sector, so we are excited to be part of this.”
Many Washingtonians have wondered if the pandemic would finally put an end to a social scene already hobbled by political divisions and apathy — including the last two former presidents who didn’t care much for D.C. society — along with a sense that the frivolity and excess didn’t match the seriousness of the times.
Even before the pandemic, lavish events like the Meridian Ball were sometimes called relics of the past.
Then, once the pandemic hit, the isolation was followed by introspection for some people.
“I didn’t want to have to get dressed and go out to the endless parties and official events and stand around making polite conversation and drinking a glass or two of wine, my feet hurting in heels, and then come home feeling empty,” The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn wrote in the May 2021 piece: “The End of D.C.’s Elite Social Scene: It will never be the same after Trump and covid. And that’s a good thing.”
“I didn’t want to be part of the Washington social scene as I had known it,” wrote the longtime social maven. “Somehow it all felt superficial and unimportant and a waste of time. What I had once thought was a glamorous and exciting life, filled with power and celebrity, no longer had any appeal to me. The magic was gone.”
And yet, there was a certain magic at this year’s Meridian Ball. Sure, there was wine and polite conversation, but there was also genuine excitement and curiosity to learn about the profound ways that the pandemic has changed people’s lives.
Yes, it’s hard to get together hundreds of high-ranking officials, corporate titans, media personalities and moneyed socialites without projecting an air of old-school elitism. But in a town riven by polarization, social events like the Meridian Ball seem as essential as ever, not only to form personal connections outside the office (and Zoom), but also to bring a diverse new generation of Washingtonians into the mix.
There’s a lot of (over) analysis about D.C.’s social scene. But it still serves a purpose and, as the Meridian Ball shows, can evolve with the times.
After all, politics and pandemics aside, when headphone-wearing 70-year-olds and 20-year-olds can silently — and safely — dance alongside each other to their own choice of music in a floral-filled, open-air tent, the party is far from over.