Barack Obama 'Scaling Back' 60th Birthday Bash amid COVID Surge, New Protocols and Criticism
"The President and Mrs. Obama have decided to significantly scale back the event to include only family and close friends," a spokeswoman says, citing "the new spread of the Delta variant"
The former president and his wife, Michelle Obama, initially planned to celebrate his 60th birthday next weekend with friends, family and former staff on his 29-acre oceanside property in Martha's Vineyard. But the lengthy guest list, which drew criticism from conservatives after details were first reported, has now been reduced.
"This outdoor event was planned months ago in accordance with all public health guidelines and with COVID safeguards in place," Hannah Hankins, a spokeswoman for the Obamas, tells PEOPLE. "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."
"He's appreciative of others sending their birthday wishes from afar and looks forward to seeing people soon," Hankins said in her statement.
PEOPLE previously reported that guests attending the party will be required to undergo COVID testing. The event will be overseen by a medical professional who is intended to ensure that state and local pandemic protocols are followed along with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President and Mrs. Obama have been strong advocates for vaccinations, too, getting inoculated alongside other former presidents and first ladies in March. "I encourage everyone to get a vaccine as soon as they have an opportunity," the former first lady told PEOPLE at the time.
Still, the party comes at a time when COVID cases on the rise thanks to the delta variant, which now accounts for the vast majority of infections in the United States.
Just last month, Fourth of July celebrations in Provincetown, Massachusetts — also on the Cape — led to an outbreak of 900 cases. It prompted the CDC to issue new face mask recommendations and continue to push for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Amid the health risks, many critics slammed President Obama, suggesting his birthday party should be scuttled. "This just isn't safe," Twitchy.com editor Greg Pollowitz tweeted. "Obama must cancel his birthday party,"
Others, like Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican, called out the Democrats' alleged double standard. "We're not going to ignore the hypocrisy here," Crenshaw said on Fox News Tuesday morning. "This has consistently been the case with the left. ... This is what they do. It's rules for 'thee' and not for 'me.' "
"Just like President Obama, every American should have the right to celebrate their milestones without arbitrary government mandates and interference," New York Rep. Nicole Malliotakis told The New York Post. "But we all know if this were President Trump, the left would be screaming."
It's unclear how many people will now be in attendance at the party. Outlets like Axios had reported the original guest list had around 475 confirmed attendees, but the Obama camp would not attach numbers or names to the shrunken guest list.
A source no longer going to the party tells PEOPLE that "no one needs to feel sorry for Barack Obama."
"This is the reality so many people are facing with COVID and it's the right thing to do," the insider says, adding that the Obamas "have no interest in being a distraction from the basic point: that everyone should get vaccinated."
At least a handful of celebrities are still expected to attend by virtue of their close friendships — and partnerships — with the former first couple. Bruce Springsteen, for example, is currently working on a book with President Obama after doing a podcast together.
One news outlet had reported that Pearl Jam was to perform at the party though the former president's tastes lean more toward hip-hop, rap and pop classics. But a spokesperson for the rock band told Fox News: "Pearl Jam is not performing at Obama's 60th birthday party this weekend."
The former first family has entertained some A-list guests in the past for milestone birthdays. Beyoncé, JAY-Z, Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Jessica Parker, and John Legend were just a few of the big names in attendance at President Obama's 55th birthday at the White House in 2016.
One thing the partygoers won't need to bring: presents.
"In lieu of gifts, 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 including the My Brother's Keeper Alliance, the Girls Opportunity Alliance, or the Obama Foundation's Global Leadership programs," a source previously told PEOPLE.