Every four years, Washington, D.C., can count on a tourism boom, spurred by the presidential inauguration. Except in a year like 2021, that is.
Cases of COVID-19 are swelling nationwide and security threats are escalating following the January 6 riot inside the Capitol. As a result, the D.C. area has effectively closed to visitors. The National Mall, usually an epicenter of inauguration celebrations, was closed off on Friday and won’t reopen until the day after the swearing-in ceremony. The Washington Monument is likewise shut down, and visits to all museums have been suspended.
“We are taking the extraordinary step of encouraging Americans not to come to Washington, D.C., and to instead participate virtually,” says a joint statement issued on January 11 by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.
Following the statement, as well as a public emergency order issued by Bowser, Airbnb has canceled all reservations in the D.C. area, and unions have been pressuring the city’s hotels to do the same.
“Unless hotels in the immediate Metro area are hosting the National Guard or other security personnel, they should close immediately,” John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of the Local 25 union for hotel workers, said in a statement. “No worker, Union or non-Union, should have to risk their life to go into work.”
D.C.’s major hotel chains—including Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt—say they plan to remain open with heightened security measures.
“At this time, Hyatt hotels in Washington, D.C. will remain open as part of our continued commitment to caring for our guests, who include those helping combat the COVID-19 pandemic, preparing to keep the Washington, D.C. area safe, and other essential workers,” a Hyatt spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Restaurant owners around D.C., who are barred from serving indoors until after the ceremony on January 20, are faced with a similar dilemma: With the growing security concerns and health risks, is it worth staying open?
A handful of restaurants, like Pizzeria Paradiso—which has several locations throughout the district, have decided to operate through the public emergency order, according to local media reports. Others like Old Ebbitt Grill and the Hamilton, which are just around the corner from the White House and both popular spots for inauguration celebrations, are shuttering.
The decision to close “was fairly easy,” says Barry Gutin, co-owner of Cuba Libre, a restaurant and rum bar about a 15-minute walk from the White House.
“As the city was locking down and telling us of all the risks and strongly encouraging people not to travel into D.C., we felt that we should close to keep our employees, our guests, and our property safe,” Gutin says. Also influencing his decision to shut down is the fact that several months ago, there was what he calls a “tussle” between one of his customers eating outside and pro-Trump protestors.
“Since then we put additional personnel on when there is a rally or a protest to ensure staff safety and also to keep them at ease,” Gutin explains. “But we felt that [the inauguration] is rising to a new level of threat and a new level of sensitivity since the attack on the Capitol.”
But amid the heightened security warnings, closing down the restaurant’s doors isn’t as simple as just turning out the lights and locking up. “We’re doing a lot of things,” Gutin says. “Now that we’ve told the employees to stay home, we’re sending out links to get some mental health counseling; we’ve engaged a consultant for property protection and crisis management.” The consultant, a former FBI agent, is helping Gutin and his team strategize on how best to protect the property. Those measures include bringing in all furniture used for outdoor dining, boarding up the building, and having outdoor heaters with propane tanks removed from the premises.
The security consultant is also helping to “proactively look at what would happen if we were the target of either physical or online attacks,” Gutin says. “For some reason, if we got in the crosshairs—what do we do, how do we respond, how do we avoid it?” That includes everything down to the language the team used on its website to indicate that the restaurant would be closed through the inauguration events to “make sure that it didn’t incite anyone,” according to Gutin.
And of course, there is the lost revenue that would have come with tourist spending in a normal presidential inauguration year. That will be especially missed in 2021 as most restaurants are facing ongoing financial hardships as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to surge.
“It would’ve been a big bump,” Gutin says. “There is a good deal of money that comes out during the inauguration. People want to rent private rooms or have large parties, and they also are in a general celebratory mood, and they’re spending money.”
While he’ll miss that extra income, Gutin says it wouldn’t have done much to solve the hardships wrought by a nearly year-long pandemic. “It would’ve been nice, but our problems are much bigger.”
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