UNITED NATIONS — The United States is urging the more than 150 countries planning to send their leader or a government minister to New York to speak in person at the U.N. General Assembly next month to consider giving a video address instead to prevent the annual high-level week from becoming "a super-spreader event."
A note from the U.S. Mission sent to the 192 other U.N. member nations also called for all other U.N.-hosted meetings and side events to be virtual, saying these parallel meetings that draw travelers to New York "needlessly increase risk to our community, New Yorkers and the other travelers."
The U.S. note, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, said the Biden administration is particularly concerned about Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the incoming General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid hosting high-level in-person events on climate change, vaccines, the 20th anniversary of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, food systems and energy.
"The United States is willing to make every effort to make these important events on shared priorities successful in a virtual format," the note said.
The U.N. decided in late July to let world leaders attend their annual gathering, known as the General Debate, from Sept. 21-27 in person — or to deliver prerecorded speeches if COVID-19 restrictions prevent them from traveling.
A provisional list of speakers obtained by AP has 127 heads of state and government planning to attend in person including U.S. President Joe Biden, France's Emmanuel Macron, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, as well as prime ministers Boris Johnson of Britain, Israel's Naftali Bennett and Narendra Modi of India, and 26 other government ministers, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and China's Deputy Premier Han Zheng.
Among the 38 leaders planning prerecorded statements are the presidents of Iran, Egypt and Indonesia. The list has Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, coming to New York, but it is dated Aug. 13 — just before his government was ousted by the Taliban and he fled the country.
The United States said it feels "strongly that the General Debate should be the only event held with in-person participation during high-level week."
"In light of current health concerns, heads of delegation should consider delivering their statements to the U.N. General Assembly's General Debate by video," it said. "If delegations choose to travel to New York for the General Debate, the United States requests delegations bring the minimum number of travelers necessary."
The United States said the COVID-19 pandemic "continues to pose a significant health risk around the world," with the virulence of the delta variant affecting both vaccinated and unvaccinated people and hospitalizations increasing significantly in the United States.
"All counties in New York City are currently rated as having the highest level of community transmission," the U.S. note said.
For people coming to U.N. headquarters, it said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended mandatory mask wearing at all times, six feet of social distancing, fixed seating, confirmed negative COVID-19 status to enter the building, "and if possible vaccination." Contact tracing for U.N. meetings will also be needed, it said.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said late Wednesday that the U.N. already put in place a number of measures to deal with the delta variant, including mandatory mask-wearing at U.N. headquarters and reporting of vaccination status and positive COVID-19 tests. It also has mandatory vaccination requirements for some personnel, including those servicing intergovernmental meetings prior to the high-level week, he said.
Dujarric said no in-person side events will take place in the U.N. complex during high-level week, but he made no mention of the high-level events on climate change, food systems, racism and other issues.
"We are obviously in continuous discussion with member states, who will have to make decisions, and the host country," Dujarric said. "The secretary-general will continue to focus on keeping everyone in the U.N. community safe."