Simone Biles awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom; Denzel Washington misses ceremony due to COVID-19

There were 17 recipients across multiple industries for this year’s Medal of Freedom awards.

Many gathered for the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony on Thursday to witness President Joe Biden award the prestigious honor that has been a White House tradition since 1963.  

There were 17 recipients across multiple industries for this year’s Medal of Freedom awards, from the U.S. Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles to Fred Gray, the 91-year-old civil rights attorney who represented Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.  

US President Joe Biden presents Gymnast Simone Biles with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, during a ceremony honoring 17 recipients, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, July 7, 2022. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The big draw among the recipients was Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington who was a no-show due to testing positive for COVID-19. During the ceremony, President Joe Biden acknowledged Washington’s absence, saying he “couldn’t be here today but wanted to be.” 

Biden said the White House would honor Washington, 67, at another time for his contribution to the arts and his philanthropy. 

TheGrio caught up with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on the White House campus not long after the ceremony. “I think everybody in that room was there because they wanted to see Denzel Washington,” Becerra told theGrio.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 06: Denzel Washington attends the American Film Institute’s 47th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to Denzel Washington at Dolby Theatre on June 06, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

The secretary acknowledged that Washington missing the Medal of Freedom ceremony is emblematic of just how big COVID-19 still is. “When you are a no-show for your own event, that’s how powerful COVID can be,” said Becerra.

He added, “And that is how powerful the message should be [to] get vaccinated, get boosted, get your children vaccinated.”

Becerra, who is double boosted, acknowledged himself that he had COVID-19 twice in a month,  infected with a different variant each time. He said, “we know what it takes to be safe and we know what it takes to stay alive. Let’s do it.”

While President Biden did not state the reason for Washington’s absence during the televised ceremony, a representative for the actor confirmed to a pooler in the White House press corps that it was due to him testing positive for COVID-19.

Sources contend Washington was in town when he learned of his test result. Current guidelines require anyone who comes in close proximity to the president or vice president to test negative for COVID-19 hours before.

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