Biden or Trump, inaugural planning and construction well underway on Capitol Hill

Inaugural ceremony could come during a winter pandemic peak

Construction continues for the inaugural platform on the West Front on the Capitol. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Construction continues for the inaugural platform on the West Front on the Capitol. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 5, 2020 at 5:30am

The presidential results may not be final, but organizers of the official inaugural ceremonies are moving forward with the planning of a traditional inauguration on the West Front of the Capitol.

Construction of the platform is already well underway.

The “first nail” ceremony, a quirky Capitol Hill tradition where the members of the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies demonstrate their skills from high school shop class to officially kick off the construction, was canceled this year, but not because of the pandemic.

It was canceled because it coincided with the period of remembrance for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is the leader of the joint committee for the second time, but he says the pandemic is obviously complicating matters.

“We’ll continue to plan for and order for, and build a platform for, a more traditional inauguration, and we’ll just have to see what the world looks like, about January the first,” Blunt said last month. Blunt said it would be easier to scale down the inauguration than to scale it up at the very last minute.

There are any number of possible contingency plans. A traditional outdoor inaugural ceremony, regardless of weather conditions, would clearly make it easier to allow a larger crowd, even with social distancing in place.

But in reality, beyond the president-elect taking the oath of office, the rest of the festivities are pomp and circumstance. Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in January 1985 was moved indoors, and the parade was called off because of bitter weather conditions.

What appeared to be the second inauguration of Barack Obama was actually a mock ceremony since Jan. 20 fell on a Sunday in 2013. Obama was actually sworn in to his second term by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. a day earlier, with only a White House press contingent present in the Blue Room.

Scott Gottlieb, a former Trump administration FDA commissioner, said on Election Day that there would likely be a significant coronavirus situation around Inauguration Day.

“By the time a new president is inaugurated in January, whether it’s Donald Trump or it’s Joe Biden, I think that we’re going to be probably peaking in terms of the epidemic,” Gottlieb said in a CNBC interview.

A smaller inaugural footprint seems more likely if former Vice President Joe Biden does in fact prevail in accumulating the 270 electoral votes needed to defeat President Donald Trump. Throughout his campaign, Biden opted for smaller, more socially distant rallies and events than the incumbent president.

Drive-in rallies have been a common feature for Biden, and while there’s no way to do that on the Capitol’s lawn, there are large parking lots within Washington that have been converted into makeshift drive-in theaters during the pandemic.

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Blunt says considerations for the January 2021 inauguration will include whether there needs to be “testing and/or tracing” in place in the event of COVID-19 exposure at the ceremonies. The Trump White House has used narrow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine when to notify contacts, but since the inaugural ceremony itself traditionally takes place on Capitol grounds, the Office of the Attending Physician would most likely take point.

“This is the bipartisan, congressional effort which is paid for by taxpayers,” Blunt said. “It’s the one thing that has to happen. It’s not privately funded.

“That might take extra money, but essentially we’re working in a bipartisan way with the budget we’ve traditionally had.”

Blunt and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who is also on the joint inaugural panel, have been proponents of a robust mandatory testing regime for lawmakers, staff and support workers on Capitol Hill, but one has not been implemented.

Federal land vs D.C. restrictions

Washington, D.C., is itself facing a rise in COVID-19 cases and remains in a phase of reopening that prohibits mass gatherings of more than 50 people, but most inaugural activities hosted on federal land at the Capitol and National Mall won’t be subject to those restrictions.

Permitting for large events on National Park Service land, including the National Mall, now includes COVID-19 mitigation planning. Thousands of people gathered on the Mall in August for a civil rights-focused March on Washington, and thousands more gathered in late October to pray and protest against COVID-19 restrictions.

The National Park Service “strongly encourages” social distancing and mask wearing but is not requiring or enforcing their use.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee, which in an ordinary year would play host to inauguration-related events like the official balls, may have an even more complicated job since they would ordinarily host events in spaces that are subject to orders imposed by the local government in the District of Columbia. Several inaugural celebrations would normally take place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center north of Mount Vernon Square, for instance.

Like the national political conventions that took place largely virtually and in smaller settings during the summer, inaugural festivities will likely be necessarily scaled back. However, Trump has repeatedly used the White House grounds for political events, and his election night remarks to supporters featuring the Trump-Pence campaign logo took place early Wednesday morning in the East Room.

Blunt, a former history teacher, announced last week, before it was known for sure that the election would feature court challenges and at least one statewide recount, that the inaugural theme would be “Our Determined Democracy: Forging a More Perfect Union.”

“The inaugural events are not only a hallmark of American governance and democracy, but also fulfill our constitutional duty,” Blunt said in a video message. “And beyond that, they give assurance — for all people — of our continued and unbroken commitment to continuity, to stability, to perseverance and most importantly to democracy.”