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Across D.C., hotels faced a dilemma: The Capitol mob was staying the night

Police face off with Trump supporters on Jan. 6 at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in D.C. (Fredrick Kunkle/The Washington Post)

When the guests started pouring into the Hamilton Hotel in D.C. last week ahead of the protest that turned into an assault on the Capitol, staffers stayed on the alert for any potential issues. They studied body art and luggage, looking for anything that might be a gun case.

“When you’re in the hotel business, reservations are made through a variety of channels,” Hamilton Hotel managing director Mark Driscoll said. “It’s impossible to profile your guest. You never know quite what you’re going to get; you can only hope.”

In this case, the crowd was “tough,” he said, leading to “probably the most disappointing and tense day that I’ve ever worked” in more than 25 years in the hotel business.

Across the District, hotels found themselves dealing with mask defiance, curfew resistance, authority challenges — and criticism on social media from people who were upset they hosted the pro-Trump protesters in the first place.

Some, like the Hotel Harrington and Eaton DC, decided to close for a few days altogether. Airbnb canceled some reservations made by members of domestic terror and violent hate groups ahead of the Capitol assault, the company told Washingtonian. The Line DC was forced to issue a statement explaining that, to its knowledge, all Proud Boys had been removed from the property following an altercation and eviction of some guests. It stopped taking new reservations.

“It is not within our legal right to police the beliefs or politics of our guests other than to strongly enforce a zero-tolerance policy for violent, hateful or disrespectful behavior, which we have always done,” the Line DC wrote in a statement. The D.C. Human Rights Act doesn’t allow public accommodations to discriminate based on political affiliation.

As they regroup from last week’s events, the hoteliers are preparing for any additional disturbances the inauguration might bring.

Wednesday’s riots were violent and damaging. A U.S. Capitol Police officer died from injuries he suffered in the rampage, and dozens in law enforcement were hurt. A woman who was part of the group storming the Capitol was shot and killed. Three other Trump supporters died after suffering medical emergencies. And after the riots were over, the participants went back to their hotels, where they had to stay put because of a 6 p.m. curfew.

“After the curfew is when it got a little hairy from a standpoint of the protesters all coming back and being revved up,” Driscoll said.

The hotel allowed people to go outside the doors to smoke, but Driscoll said a group of guests started challenging D.C. police officers outside. A couple of people, he said, ended up in handcuffs, and hotel security cooperated with police to keep everyone in the lobby, setting up between the guests and the officers.

“The language that was used, the challenges that they put to my staff and the police department was just utterly deplorable,” Driscoll said.

While the hotel had been able to get people to comply with mask requirements before that, it became difficult late that night. He said staffers, many of whom are people of color, wore masks and goggles and gloves to try to protect themselves.

After simmering in the lobby, he said, the guests eventually went to bed without anyone getting hurt. He praised his staff and the police for how they handled the situation.

“Most people left without incident the next day, and we were thrilled,” Driscoll said. He asked one person not to return.

Driscoll said he believes hotels around D.C. had similar experiences.

“I have a lot of respect for all of those in the industry who risked being away from their families,” he said. “And not only that, put themselves in harm’s way for covid while these people are walking around without masks on.”

A similar scene unfolded at the Embassy Suites on 10th Street NW, where a line of D.C. police, with backup from Maryland State Police, stood outside in a confrontation with Trump supporters on Wednesday night. The pro-Trump crowd, packed just inside the lobby, opened the doors and yelled at police, angry that they were forbidden to go outside because of the curfew. When some Trump supporters ventured outside the lobby, police threatened to arrest them.

The game of cat and mouse went on until about 10:15 p.m., when a female guest from the hotel stepped just outside the doors, telling the police she was not there to challenge them, but only wanted to speak with the other Trump supporters.

“We won today,” she told them. “Don’t mess it up. Let’s keep it down. Let’s be civil.”

The pro-Trump guests went back inside, and police pulled back. Within 10 minutes, though, they emerged again, milling on the sidewalk under the marquee, smoking cigarettes, singing the national anthem and chanting “USA! USA!”

At the Grand Hyatt, people in pro-Trump gear — and no masks — were seen clustered in large groups in the lobby, according to a video tweeted by Bloomberg News reporter William Turton on Wednesday night. He said on Twitter that after several people harassed him and tried to follow him to his room, hotel security moved him.

Turton wrote that one of the people who screamed at him was the same person who was arrested in Tennessee on Sunday on one charge of knowingly entering a restricted building and violent entry and disorderly conduct for his alleged role in storming the Capitol.

In a statement, Hyatt condemned last week’s violence and said workers at the hotel offered face coverings or asked guests to return to their rooms if they wouldn’t comply.

“We can confirm that, as a result of these efforts, individuals ultimately returned to their guest rooms, vacated the premises, or complied with these protocols without incident,” the statement said. “We will continue to work to enforce protocols so that guests are aware of their responsibility in helping protect the health and safety of our colleagues and their fellow guests.”

Erinn Tucker, a hospitality professor and faculty director of the Global Hospitality Leadership master’s program at Georgetown University, said hotels have a legal duty to act reasonably to avoid anyone getting hurt. But after months of a pandemic that has devastated the hospitality industry, they are also stretched incredibly thin.

“It is a very small staff of people that are running the hotels,” she said. “They’re exceptionally overworked.”

Unite Here Local 25, a union that represents D.C. area hotel, restaurant and casino workers, requested that all of its members be evacuated from downtown establishments as rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol Wednesday afternoon.

Benjy Cannon, a spokesperson for the union, said at least 12 hotels in the area either let their employees leave early or gave them the option to stay overnight if they chose to continue working. He also said that many hotels he spoke to instituted door checks to ensure that all parties entering the building were guests.

“We were really pleased that everyone really took such pains to prioritize the safety of workers once they realized how dangerous the situation was,” Cannon said. “It’s especially important that everyone went above and beyond given that so much of D.C.’s hotel workforce is comprised of immigrants and people of color.”

David Sherwyn, who teaches hospitality, human resources and law at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, said hotels could potentially make a legal case for refusing to let people book a room if they were coming to cause disruption.

“But as a practical matter, hotels cannot do that,” he said. “You’re not asking people for the purpose of why they’re there and then judging why they’re there.”

Plus, he said, there is no penalty for lying to a hotel about why you’re coming to stay. Insurrectionists are unlikely to declare that their trip is for the purpose of overthrowing the government.

“We’re putting the onus on the hotel instead of law enforcement, instead of society in general, and instead of the President of the United States who told everyone to come here and be loud and proud,” Sherwyn said.

He said hotels are struggling because of the pandemic, which means they might not be in a financial position to turn business away anyway.

“They’re running at really low occupancy,” he said. “And now they’re going to sit there and say, ‘We think that this protest will not be peaceful, we think that these people are not protesters exercising their free speech, they’re terrorists who are going to overrun the capital — because we’ve seen it in our crystal ball — and we’re going to deny them?'”

Emily Davies and Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

Read more:

Airlines, airports in D.C. area tighten security after Capitol riot as union cites ‘mob mentality’ among passengers

PGA of America pulls PGA Championship from Trump’s N.J. golf course

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