Leonhard Penno had traveled from Florida to the District to witness the inauguration of President Biden, but what he was able to see from his position beyond the security perimeter around the U.S. Capitol was “like a war movie, basically.”
“[I] had this dream of seeing the president alive in front of my eyes, maybe even getting close to him, and right now I’m separated from him with like dozens of [barriers], hundreds of soldiers, so it turned out pretty different,” Mr. Penno, 18, said Wednesday.
Dozens of spectators joined Mr. Penno in trying to get a glimpse of the historic proceedings, which were shielded by thousands of National Guard troops and law enforcers, multiple security checkpoints and fences topped with razor wire — precautions aimed at discouraging and thwarting any violence after the insurrection at the Capitol just two weeks earlier.
Aware of coronavirus restrictions throughout the nation’s capital and the recent rioting in the halls of Congress, Mr. Penno said he never thought about canceling his trip.
“Airbnb canceled my reservation, but I then decided to book another hostel because this is just so important to me, and this is the first election I was allowed to vote in,” he said.
The short-term property rental platform had canceled and blocked all reservations in the greater Washington area during Inauguration Week, and several downtown businesses had boarded up their windows over concerns about potential vandalism.
D.C. resident Edgar Ace said that this year’s inauguration was nothing like the last one he attended — in 1993.
“I came to [President Bill] Clinton’s first inauguration and, ya know, it was just like a big party,” said Mr. Ace, 49. “[T]ents with concerts and, ya know, thousands of people hanging out, and everybody was happy and good, and now we just have flags in the Mall which is sad.”
A “Field of Flags” representing nearly 200,000 Americans unable to attend the ceremony replaced Mr. Biden’s audience as he took the Oath of Office just before noon. Kamala D. Harris preceded Mr. Biden in taking the oath, becoming the first woman, Black and South Asian person to serve as vice president.
Mr. Ace, who has lived in the city for about a year, said all of the heightened security was “crazy” but the city was “calm.”
“When you see it in the news, you think it’s going to be, like, very tense, and it [is] kinda eerily calm in a way — I guess because the streets are pretty empty,” he said.
Much of the downtown area resembled a ghost town, with streets empty of traffic. Armored trucks, police cars and government SUVs guarded by armed soldiers and officers blocked numerous roadways and bridges, and public transportation — including trains, buses and streetcars — were shut down, detoured or delayed.
The “major inconvenience has been not being able to go places,” said resident Michael White.
“Just this week I’ve been having issues with the train, and I have a new roommate who I’ve been trying to show the city to. But I can’t exactly show him too much because everything was been blocked off,” the 18-year-old said. “I was trying to show him this cool restaurant [last night] and we just couldn’t get there.”
Spectators, vendors and reporters gathered along the sidewalks at the northwest intersection of North Capitol Street and Louisiana Avenue across from the Capitol building to try (mostly in vain) to get a view of the ceremony.
Lines of yellow caution tape corralled a small crowd trying to glimpse the distant Capitol building that lay behind rows of armed soldiers and police, concrete barricades and fences.
The security and coronavirus precautions even spread to Georgetown, which usually would be bustling with students from Georgetown University’s politically active campus celebrating, protesting or making their way down to the festivities.
Due to pandemic concerns, the campus has been nearly empty for months, save for a small selection of students allowed to attend classes in-person.
“Coming to Georgetown — that’s one of the things that you expect, you know, in your four years to attend the inauguration,” said Bradon Escamilla, a senior at the university. “So I think it’s a bit disappointing but, obviously like, I understand given the circumstances [that] I can’t attend or I can’t even be close to attending because everything that’s going on.”
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