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Washington hotels weigh inauguration profits against safety

“No worker, union or nonunion, should have to risk their life to go into work,” a union representative said.
Image: Workers board up the buildings near the White House prior to the presidential inauguration in Washington
Workers board up the buildings near the White House prior to the presidential inauguration in Washington on Jan. 14, 2021.Erin Scott / Reuters

It used to be that inauguration was the cash cow for the Washington, D.C., hotel industry. But this year, given the recent riot at the Capitol and the ongoing pandemic, hotel executives and workers are torn between catching up on lost revenues and staying safe.

In the past week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser all asked visitors not to travel to the nation’s capital for the 59th presidential inauguration. But because hotels have suffered so much from a lack of tourists due to Covid-19, some hotels have tried to remain open and recover some losses.

“Inauguration is typically a shot in the arm for the D.C. economy,” said Elliott L. Ferguson, II, president and CEO of the marketing group Destination D.C., who noted that business has declined $522 million in the past year since 49 conventions and large-scale events that were booked have been canceled. “Given the current pandemic and security threats, as well as indoor dining and museums and attractions closed, we expect hotel availability to remain and a smaller economic impact in comparison to previous years.”

Mixed response

The inauguration comes at a time when many Washington businesses, especially hotels, are desperate to recover from the past year’s losses and have suffered far more than hotels in other cities, according to the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. Angela Franco, interim president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said the group lobbied for hotels to remain open throughout the inauguration. She pointed to a report from the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer showing that each inauguration brings about $3 million in sales tax revenue. “The impact of Covid has been difficult … and now with everything that’s happening, I think it makes it a little more complicated,” she added.

Still, given the safety concerns, some companies have come out forcefully against hosting guests. Airbnb announced it was canceling all reservations in the Washington metro area for the week and preventing any new reservations from being booked during that time. It added that all hosts and guests affected by the measure would be reimbursed at the company’s expense. VRBO told NBC News that it was not following competitors in the development of its plan, but that it instead “created a comprehensive refund policy” for any traveler to Washington who cancels a trip, and will credit the host after BuzzFeed reported how some of its customers no longer felt safe visiting the capital. On Tuesday, Expedia Group tweeted it would cancel new VRBO reservations in and around Washington through Friday.

But at hotels that wavered about closing, workers — especially ones who served guests who visited Washington during the capitol riot — expressed concerns. Based on feedback from its members, Unite Here Local 25, a labor union that represents employees from approximately 40 hotels, including the Trump International Hotel in Washington, requested hotels in the metropolitan area to close and “permit their staff to opt out of reporting to work” on Inauguration Day.

Members of the National Guard stand outside the Capitol on Jan. 14, 2021.Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images

“No worker, union or nonunion, should have to risk their life to go into work,” John Boardman, executive-secretary treasurer of Local 25, said. “Unfortunately, that is the situation we are not faced with.”

The hotel workers’ union representing more than 7,000 employees in the Washington area asked hotels to shut down unless they are hosting the National Guard or security personnel. On Dec. 30, 2020, Black Lives Matter D.C. asked hotels and other businesses to refuse service to white supremacists in advance of the Jan. 6 riot. Since then, that group has said that continuing reservations only puts people of color and D.C. residents at risk.

“We stand in solidarity with these employees,”said Nee Nee Taylor, a core organizer of BLM D.C. who shared concerns for hotel workers who had to deal with drunk rioters and people who refused to wear masks.

Despite activists like BLM calling on hotels to shut down operations, plenty of hotels like the Capital Hilton remain open. “We have no plans to cancel hotel reservations and look forward to welcoming the many inauguration-related suppliers, government officials, medical professionals, media representatives, military and law enforcement who are traveling to Washington, D.C.” Capital Hilton wrote in a statement. While most hotels like the Hyatt Regency Washington welcomed visitors for the inauguration, they still did not hum with the typical flow of visitors received during most inaugurations.

Other hotels will not take the risk. In an attempt to minimize harm on Inauguration Day, the independently owned Line Hotel in Adams Morgan, D.C., is closed to the public from Jan. 16 through Jan. 20. “All of us at LINE D.C. stand unequivocally against the violent insurrection that took place last week at the Capitol,” the hotel wrote in a statement.

Disappearing revenues

In past years, hotels have counted on inaugurations as some of their most profitable weeks. According to the hotel data research company STR, the average daily rate on the night of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013 was $251.26 and $362.32 in 2017 for Donald Trump’s inauguration. In a typical inauguration season, prices of hotel rooms can increase up to 927 percent, MarketWatch reports. During the 2017 inauguration, Airbnb said that more than 15,100 booked housing and estimated that it generated more than $10 million in economic activity for the area.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, visitor spending in the nation’s capital was down 80 percent, translating to a loss of $375 million in local tax revenue. According to STR, hotel revenue was down by $1.5 billion.

But with the National Mall closing and Bowser extending a citywide ban on indoor dining and other Phase 2 activities until 5 a.m. Jan. 22, hotel industry experts predict many rooms in the metropolitan area will remain empty.

Anxious workers

Last week, the riot against the Capitol stirred fear and forced many hotel workers to feel unsafe.

Bloomberg reporter William Turton tweeted a video that went viral, showcasing visitors at a Hyatt lobby near Capitol Hill that weekend dressed in Trump gear, defying Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelinesand not wearing masks. In response, The Hyatt said guests who did not comply with company policies would be “asked to leave the premises” or be “given the option of remaining in their guestroom for the duration of their visit.” But the hotel faced backlash on Twitter for letting guests violate CDC guidelines.

In another area hotel, hotel workers faced similar challenges with guests who refused to wear masks and practice social distancing.

“It was definitely scary,” said Emma Bowers, a manager at a Washington area hotel who did not provide the specific hotel name because she was not authorized to speak by her employer. She worked the 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift on the day before the Capitol riot began. “I kept my pepper spray near by and one of my male co-workers spent the night in a room just in case I needed some help."

Out of precaution, Bowers has requested Inauguration Day off and will have additional people at the front desk on duty. Several of her workers, including a worker whose husband is in chemotherapy, are afraid of contracting the virus from anti-maskers and have expressed their concerns about working on Inauguration Day.

“It’s disappointing that we have to put up with it and just, you know, take these people's crap,” the hotel manager said as she expressed concerns over her staff’s safety. “Who knows what some of these people are capable of.”

Stephanie Ruhle contributed.