‘It’s a standstill’: DC business reeling amid heightened security

Business owners say security lockdowns dash any hope Joe Biden’s inauguration would bring much-needed revenue.

Much of downtown Washington, DC is off-limits behind high fences or cement barricades with storefronts and offices boarded up [John Minchillo/AP Photo]

Washington, DC – Downtown Washington, DC has taken on an eerie, militarised feel. Nearly every business, storefront and office have been boarded up and streets in the vicinity of the United States Capitol are closed off with metal and cement barriers.

A day before Joe Biden is sworn in as president, federal and local officials have taken unprecedented steps to secure the nation’s capital – two weeks after an angry mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. Five people died that day, including a Capitol Police officer. Amid threats for more protests from pro-Trump groups, officials are trying to ensure a repeat does not take place.

But the heightened security measures are taking a toll on downtown businesses already reeling from coronavirus lockdowns that sent the bulk of their clients – office workers – home. Business owners say, the latest security lockdowns are now dashing any hope they had that inauguration week – an opportunity that arises only once every four years – would bring much-needed revenue.

Steven Ngo, sitting by the cash register of his family business, Lincoln’s Waffle Shop. The chairs and barstools have been stacked on top of tables since indoor dining was suspended on December 23 due to the coronavirus [Jihan Abdalla/Al Jazeera]

“We were expecting a lot of business because usually around inauguration it gets really crowded,” said Steven Ngo, who works at Lincoln’s Waffle Shop, his family-owned business.

“There hasn’t been any traffic at all, it’s been dead,” Ngo tells Al Jazeera. “Every other business around us has shut down or is on a very limited schedule,” he says, “We’re open but we’re almost getting to that point, we’re losing money.”

Ngo, standing by the cash register, points to the chairs and barstools, now stacked on top of tables. Amid rising coronavirus cases, indoor dining was suspended on December 23. It was due to be lifted on January 15, but citing the recent security breach, the city extended it through to at least January 22.

Their only customers lately, he says, have been police officers coming for a coffee or a quick lunch.

“Last year right before COVID, we were doing very good, every section, every seat was full, customers were lining up and the phone would be ringing constantly,” he says. “Now it’s a standstill.”

According to a 2017 study conducted by the district’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer, inaugurations typically generate $31.4m in economic revenue to the city. This year, there are signs this figure will be difficult to achieve. The latest data published by DowntownDC, a local nonprofit, show the city’s downtown area is operating on 18 percent of its 2019 levels, up slightly from the northern summer months when the figure was 12 percent.

Security points are set up on 14th Street NW in Washington, DC ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris [John Minchillo/AP Photo]

More than 20,000 armed National Guard troops have been summoned to patrol the downtown area. And without the usual car and pedestrian traffic, the streets are quiet – the only noise coming from the occasional sound of workers drilling screws in plywood boards for last-minute reinforcements.

Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser asked residents to avoid downtown during the inauguration and asked visitors not to come, urging them to “enjoy it virtually” from home. The city announced that 13 metro stations will not be operating.

“It was very important that we have a posture that discouraged people from coming, all people, but also discouraged these extremist groups from thinking they could come back,” Bowser said during an interview on Sunday with US TV show 60 Minutes.

Airbnb cancelled all bookings in the Washington, DC metro area during inauguration week, and Shutdown DC, a group of local activists, issued a joint statement last week with Black Lives Matter calling on all downtown hotels to close and pay their workers to ensure their safety.

With residents urged to stay home and little prospects of tourists coming to town, Dexter Morse, manager at a downtown souvenir store, doubts he will be able to sell much merchandise in the coming days.


Souvenir items and trinkets on display at the Historic Tours of America shop [Jihan Abdalla/Al Jazeera]

The shop is located just across from the Harrington Hotel and Harry’s bar, where hundreds of Trump supporters – among them the members of far-right group the Proud Boys – stayed and congregated during a December 12 protest against the US election results. That night, a fight erupted between Trump supporters and counter-protesters. Four people were stabbed. The hotel later announced it would close from January 4 to 6, to “protect the safety of our visitors, guests and employees”.

Four years ago, Morse says, the shop had solid sales in the days ahead of Trump’s inauguration that continued all through the weekend. Now he is unsure whether he will be able to sell any of the Biden mugs, sweatshirts and T-shirts he has stacked on the shelves.

“It’s gonna affect us tremendously,” Morse says while standing in the middle of the empty shop. “We usually do well during inauguration week but this year, they’re discouraging people from even coming to DC,” he says. “It’s going to be rough.”

Source: Al Jazeera


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