Preparations for Inauguration Continue at Capitol Despite COVID Uncertainty

November 13, 2020 by Dan McCue
Inaugural preparations underway at the U.S. Capitol, Nov. 12, 2020. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – Despite known unknowns including when the 2020 presidential election will definitively end and what the status of the coronavirus pandemic will be at the time, preparations for the 59th inaugural ceremonies continues apace on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol.

Already, the spot where President-elect Joe Biden is scheduled to be sworn in and will deliver his inaugural address are taking shape, as are the stands for invited dignitaries, and the pedestals for the TV cameras.

But just because the table is being set, doesn’t mean the main event will take place exactly as currently planned on Jan 20, 2021.

The outlier is the state of the coronavirus, which is currently undergoing a resurgence that health officials fear will peak in mid-to-late January.

Last summer, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies voted to move forward with plans to conduct the traditional swearing in on the West Front of the Capitol, but in doing so said it will continue to monitor the situation.

“The JCCIC is committed to traditional, safe and inclusive ceremonies,” an official conversant in the committee’s thinking said. “Due to the ever-changing circumstances surrounding the pandemic, preparations for the 59th Inaugural Ceremonies are moving forward in line with tradition under the rationale that it is more feasible to scale down the plans than it is to scale up.”

Made up of a joint committee of House and Senate lawmakers, the committee has been meeting since June, and approved a $1.5 million budget in July.

The theme for the ceremonies is “Our Determined Democracy: Forging a More Perfect Union.”

The committee oversees the construction of the inaugural platform on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, the oath-taking ceremony and a luncheon for the president and vice president.

The president-elect or his transition team will create a committee of their own to raise money for events away from the U.S. Capitol, such as the traditional parade, the inaugural balls and concerts.

The platform is currently being built and the National Park Service has closed off portions of Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, and Pennsylvania Avenue to start construction and set up for the parade.

Because the swearing in occurs on federal property, it does not need to follow the District of Columbia’s coronavirus restriction politics. However, outside events will be subject to its jurisdiction.

According to the committee, inaugural ceremonies have been held in nine other locations outside of the U.S. Capitol. While some inaugurations have been held indoors due to bad weather, there has not been a virtual ceremony.

In 1985, for instance, the second inauguration of President Ronald Reagan was held as a small televised ceremony in the grand foyer of the White House and was to be repeated the following day at the West Front of the Capitol.

However, the daytime temperature on Jan. 21, 1985 was just 7 degrees with wind chills of −25 degrees. That forced the event organizers to move the public inaugural ceremony inside to the Capitol Rotunda.

Due to the inclement weather, the parade was canceled and a replacement event was put on in the Capitol Center sports arena.

That year, only 96 people attended the Capitol ceremony, while thousands attended the second.

On a related note, the preparations for the inauguration will not interfere in any way with the placement and decoration of the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree.

The tree will be located on the lawn on the west side of the Capitol as it has every year since the tradition of a Capitol tree was resumed in December 1964.

Since 1970—after two unsuccessful attempts to plant trees on the West Front lawn—the U.S. Forest Service and the Architect’s office have selected the Capitol Christmas Tree cut from various national forests in the United States.

This year’s tree is coming from the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests in Colorado. It was cut down on Nov. 5 and is currently making its way across the country.

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