WASHINGTON – The Washington region typically throws open its doors for a presidential inauguration with VIP packages, special menus, lavish balls and see-and-be-seen parties.
Any visitors to the capital this year will find those doors blocked by concrete barriers and security fences.
Hotels that usually house out-of-town visitors are occupied by some of the thousands of National Guard troops deployed to the region. Others are closing out of concern for guests and employees, while some hotels are keeping their doors open after beefing up security.
Airbnb is out, Amtrak is limiting ticket sales, and airlines are cracking down as political confrontations rise in the skies. A powerful host city known for its quadrennial celebration is decidedly quiet and cordoned off.
In a new year wracked by violence and a surging virus, business and political leaders are hoping for calm.
Battered by a pandemic and last week’s deadly riot, the region’s top elected officials, D.C. Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser, Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam want to keep visitors at bay, saying in a joint statement that “we are taking the extraordinary step of encouraging Americans not to come to Washington.”
On the Mall, the broad expanse of green space where tens of thousands gather to watch the swearing-in on giant video screens will be shuttered for nearly a week after far-right agitators threatened to return.
In the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 riot, activist groups and labor unions called for lodging businesses to cancel their existing bookings and close. Some smaller D.C. hotel properties, like the Line hotel in Adams Morgan and the Eaton D.C. hotel, decided to shut down.
“Eaton’s core mission has always been to protect and uplift those closest to injustice,” the boutique hotel said in a statement. The Line will close Saturday through the inauguration “out of an abundance of caution and in response to our neighbors and community.” Reservations were canceled and refunds were being issued.
Airbnb blocked and canceled all inauguration-week reservations in the Washington area, citing the violent unrest days earlier. Home rental site VRBO opted against such a move, saying the company does not tolerate violence or discrimination and is “encouraging hosts to cancel bookings during this time if they believe a guest intends to violate these policies.”
Airlines have made numerous changes to their operations in response to concerns that some who participated in last week’s violence could return to cause more trouble.
Carriers including Delta, American, United and Southwest are barring passengers on D.C.-bound flights from bringing firearms in checked baggage through next week. Alaska Airlines is limiting the number of tickets it sells on flights to the Washington area, requiring passengers to remain seated during the first and last hour aboard.
The Federal Aviation Administration vowed to crack down, saying those who act out in the air could face stiff fines or even jail time.
Amtrak chief executive William Flynn said in a statement the passenger rail service is increasing security at stations and on trains, while also limiting ticket sales. He called on lawmakers to make assaults on rail workers a federal crime, as they are for aviation workers.
“We are taking extra steps to continue ensuring the safety of our employees and customers in Washington,” he said.
In past years, the region’s airports have braced for a mass influx of travelers – in some cases setting aside runway space to accommodate those who choose private jets over commercial airlines.
But this year, no such arrangements will be needed at Dulles International Airport.
“It’s available, but we don’t plan to use it,” said Rob Yingling, an airport spokesman. “Most of the planning this time around has been security-based and not about handling capacity. Capacity does not seem to be an issue all around.”
For visitors who do show up in Washington, navigating won’t be easy. Metro is shuttering 13 stations, and roads in and around the nation’s capital are blocked.
The changes come as the travel industry is facing one of its worst economic downturns in history. In the hospitality industry alone, which includes hotels, roughly 4 in 10 jobs have been lost due to the pandemic, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As the downturn shows few signs of easing, hotel companies such as Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt said this week that they would not be closing their doors in the Washington region for the inauguration. Companies said they have security plans in place for those who still plan to come.
The Hotel Harrington, a downtown budget hotel that attracted Proud Boys members last month, also said it would remain open to honor existing reservations, and that “to ensure the welfare of our staff and guests, we have heightened our security plans.”
According to Destination D.C., the city’s tourism arm, visitor spending in Washington was down 80% in 2020. City boosters had hoped for a largely outdoor inauguration ceremony that could safely draw crowds, but that “came to a screeching halt,” with the Capitol riot, said Elliott Ferguson, president of Destination D.C.
“We are focused on safety, and our hope is we will not have any of the unfortunate circumstances we saw tied to the assault [on the Capitol],” he said.
Hotels typically reach capacity levels of more than 90% during inauguration week.
Some hotels have found other ways to fill their rooms during a week when many would have been sold out: At least three properties in Arlington, Va. are planning to host 1,000 National Guard members for the inauguration, according to a spokesperson for the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
The loss of hundreds and thousands of visitors who normally would flock to the region for the inauguration will ripple throughout the economy at a time when many businesses are struggling to stay afloat.
Kathy Hollinger, president and chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said the inauguration is normally a time that brings thousands of people – and lots of cash – to the city.
“This influx is so important to the restaurant industry and acts as a major economic driver and boost for the local economy,” she said.
The extensive road closures and security concerns have forced many businesses to close. The hotel industry will probably be among the hardest hit.
A study by Joshua Hall, associate dean for research and chairman of the economics department at West Virginia University, and doctoral student Clay Collins found hotel-room occupancy in the Washington region for the past two presidential inaugurations was significantly higher than for other major events the city hosts.
It’s unlikely that occupancy rates will reach similar levels this year, Hall said.
Experts say the most significant impact of this year’s pared-down inauguration might not be what happens now, but rather, whether it changes the nature of the event going forward.
“It’s definitely going to be interesting to see how it evolves for the future,” said Hall, noting the inauguration festivities have evolved from a one-day event to parties and events before and after the swearing-in of a new president – all of which provide a boost to the local economy.
Hall said his biggest economic concern is that the events of 2021 change that dynamic. Instead of large gatherings at hotels, people could shift to smaller, private celebrations in their homes.
“If this leads to a long-term tamping-down of celebrations,” he said, “it could have a longer term effect.”