D.C. officials announced that the number of National Guard troops flooding the capital would be increased from as many as 15,000 to more than 20,000 as a special security zone went into effect around the White House, the Mall, the Capitol and other key parts of downtown. The security zone will be maintained through Inauguration Day. People entering the perimeter may be subject to security screening and may have to provide proof of their reason for visiting.
Officials said Wednesday that they will close 13 Metrorail stations in downtown D.C. from Friday to Jan. 21, and 26 bus routes will be detoured around the restricted area. Some of the transport services also will operate on modified schedules.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser reiterated at a news conference her request for people to avoid the downtown area over the coming week. Beginning 6 a.m. Friday, all parking garages in the restricted zone will be blocked off, and any vehicles still there must remain until after the inauguration, Bowser said. Businesses receiving deliveries in that period will be notified of an off-site screening facility.
“While we know this is very inconvenient for our residents and businesses, I want to say thank you for your cooperation and flexibility,” Bowser said. “Clearly, we are in uncharted waters, and it is very important we work with all of our partners to secure these events and secure these parts of our city.”
So far, officials planning the inauguration said there are no plans to change the Inauguration Day ceremony in response to the protests or threats. The event already was dramatically scaled back or replaced by virtual events because of the pandemic. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris will be sworn in on the West Front of the Capitol.
Efforts to secure the city have taken on added urgency after new threats of violence emerged in recent days following a mob assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Bowser said city hotels, especially those within the security perimeter, have expressed concern about the safety of their employees. Pressure also was mounting on city hotels to follow Airbnb’s lead and reject bookings for the days leading to the inauguration.
Unite Here Local 25, which represents 7,200 hotel workers in the D.C. area, called on hotels to close unless they are hosting security personnel.
“Last week, we watched in horror as insurrectionists terrorized the District, putting our members, as well as the broader public, at risk of violence and exposure to covid-19,” John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Local 25, said in a statement. “But the threat has not dissipated, as we continue to hear reports of armed, far-right militias planning to threaten Washington in the days ahead.”
Hotel executives were discussing how they could close down hotels with the exception of bookings for security personnel, said an industry executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.
He said that there is an urge to do everything possible to keep the city and hotel employees safe but that many hotels are operating under dire financial strain and may have to permanently lay off employees if they close for the week. He also said there is concern that potential rioters would move hotel reservations to properties outside of D.C. lines. The logistical challenges of differentiating standard bookings from reservations made for security and media personnel also would prove challenging, he said.
Hilton Hotels said in a statement its hotels would not be canceling reservations.
D.C. social justice activists have for days been lobbying Airbnb, VRBO and individual rental hosts in the city to cancel or refuse all listings for inauguration week.
Rachel Goldstein, an organizer with the activist coalition Shutdown DC, said the group has been “pretty frantically” contacting hosts, Airbnb corporate officials and more than half a dozen hotels in the downtown area that over the past two months have been used by Trump supporters who attended the “Stop the Steal” rallies in November, December and ahead of the insurrection on Jan. 6.
Airbnb’s announcement, she said, felt like a small victory in a week of heightened anxieties.
“We’re thrilled to see a corporate actor taking real action to help keep our community safe,” Goldstein said. “People often forget that D.C. is a city with people who live here and have their lives here, and we don’t want those people to be in danger from anyone coming to town to attack our city.”
Airbnb said it will refund guests and reimburse hosts for canceled bookings between Jan. 15 and Jan. 21.
Dan Barry, a science advocate who uses Airbnb to rent out a property in Northwest Washington, said he and his wife decided to pull their listing for next week after being contacted by one of Shutdown DC’s volunteers.
“It hadn’t occurred to us to proactively pull down the listing, and we did so really in response to [the activists’] urging,” he said. “As Airbnb hosts, we know we take on a calculated risk by having people in our homes, but most people are very nice and considerate and, sure, you get some people that are not, but we never thought we would have to consider people with evil intent who could once again descend on our city to commit violence using our house as home base.”
The FBI and other law enforcement agencies have warned of protests by armed demonstrators in D.C. and in state capitals on Sunday. Right-wing activists have planned a “Million Militia March” on Inauguration Day in Washington.
But there were some signs Wednesday that some far-right activists might be rethinking their plans.
In an interview, Enrique Tarrio, the head of the Proud Boys group, said he has been discouraging his members from attending rallies planned for Jan. 17 and through the inauguration. He said it could be “a trap.”
Tarrio, who was banned from entering D.C. for six months by a judge this month, said he is suspicious of events that do not appear to be sponsored by any known organization. The possible armed demonstrations Sunday and rallies around the inauguration have largely been planned in anonymous chats and information circulated online. “It doesn’t sit well with me not knowing who’s putting this all together,” Tarrio said.
With concrete barriers blocking intersections and police lights flashing, the streets of downtown Washington were eerily quiet Wednesday afternoon. No cars were allowed on K Street NW, where, in what could be another lifetime, people in business suits poured out of high-rises for coffee breaks.
Even Black Lives Matter Plaza, a hub of energy for the past six months, was almost empty. Just five people milled about, listening to “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing softly. A young girl roller-skated up and down the plaza, running her wheels over chalk that read “Domestic terrorists not welcome.”
Justin George contributed to this report.