D.C. Hotels, Bars Confront Whether to Close During Biden Inauguration

It’s normally the biggest party Washington sees every four years.

Inauguration day in the U.S. capital will be a lot different next week, with both the pandemic and security concerns keeping people out of the city as President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.

Hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses are grappling with whether it’s worth the risk to stay open. After making an effort to root out criminals and hate-group members from its customers, Airbnb Inc. instead decided to simply cancel 5,500 reservations and block new ones in and around Washington during the inauguration week.

Major hotel chains are honoring bookings but expect many more empty rooms than usual. Airbnb’s move put the spotlight on hotels to decide whether to stay open at time when the industry is starved for business after being upended by Covid-19.

“Hoteliers are facing a new reality,” said Jan Freitag, senior vice president of lodging insights at hospitality research firm STR. “They’re realizing people who want to come to the inauguration suddenly may not be guests who they want to accommodate.”

Large chain hotels — including Marriott International, Hyatt and Hilton hotels — will remain open even as city officials discourage travel to the metro area after a pro-Trump mob last week stormed the Capitol. Hotels are adding security, offering no-penalty cancellations and keeping in touch with local authorities, company officials said.

The Four Seasons said it wouldn’t cancel reservations. The hotel is “very familiar with the guests” and “can confirm that they are not affiliated with any fringe groups looking to cause issues for the inauguration,” said Austin Phillips, director of marketing. The luxury hotel operator normally sells out during inauguration, but occupancy this year is “very low.”

While Hyatt hotels will stay open, they “are strongly encouraging only essential travel for stays” next week “including stays from essential workers or individuals caring for vulnerable persons,” a Hyatt spokesperson said.

Other hoteliers are choosing to temporarily close their doors. The Eaton DC boutique hotel in downtown Washington is suspending operations from Friday to Jan. 21. “Eaton’s core mission has always been to protect and uplift those closest to injustice,” according to a statement on its website. “Ahead of the presidential inauguration, we see that the greatest risk falls on the most vulnerable members of our community.”

During President Trump’s 2017 inauguration, D.C. hotel occupancy rates were over 95%, boosted by both supporters and demonstrators who poured into town to attend the Women’s March. Last week, occupancy on Jan. 5 rose to 71.5% just before Congress voted to confirm Biden’s victory, according to STR. By the weekend, it had fallen to 26%, the firm said.

The costs of canceling reservations for Airbnb are “fundamentally different” than for hotels, said David Sherwyn, director of the Cornell University Center for Innovative Hospitality Labor & Employment Relations. The risks for the newly public company are large, he said: It doesn’t provide security for hosts, but does provide insurance. Meanwhile, Sherwyn said, canceling will cost some money but is much safer.

“The cost to hotels is their place in the economy, their employees’ compensation — tipped employees, housekeepers, etc. — and their duty to their guests who need to be in town,” Sherwyn said.

UNITE HERE Local 25, a labor union representing 7,200 workers in Washington, urged hotels to close unless they are hosting security personnel. “No worker, union or non-union, should have to risk their life to go into work,” John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Local 25, said in a statement.

If people do come to town, they might have a tough time finding a comfortable place to go eat and have a drink. On Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser extended a ban on indoor dining in the city until the morning of Jan. 22, but restaurants can still offer food to go or outdoor tables.

A 46-year-old D.C. institution, The Dubliner, is going to stay closed until Jan. 23, in large part because of safety concerns.

“I knew from previous MAGA rallies that it can be a difficult time to operate,” owner Gavin Coleman said. “There were places that got pegged in D.C. for being meeting points for the Proud Boys and other fringe elements. And I knew the Dubliner had the potential to be one of those bars.”

For the past three inaugurations, the bar — only a few blocks from the Capitol building — has been the broadcasting base for MSNBC’s Morning Joe coverage.

Coleman is missing what is usually one of his most profitable periods. “Inauguration week is our busiest week every four years,” he says, with business an estimated 300% higher than would be typical. “In a normal week in January, let’s say we do $70,000; inauguration week, we’d do over $200,000.” And when power changes hands in D.C. and a new administration moves into the White House? Business is usually even stronger.

Gina Chersevani has decided to keep the Capitol Hill branch of her modern deli Buffalo & Bergen open for take out business during the inauguration. “Whether you love the president or you don’t, you get behind it,” she said. “It’s a D.C. party, and I want to keep that spirit.”

Still, she knows business will be slow. The city has blocked access to side streets near the Capitol, making it hard for delivery drivers to access her restaurant for pick up. “Normally, inauguration day brings in $15,000 to $20,000, minimum. This year, I’m looking at $3,000.” She adds: “And that’s best case scenario.”

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