Small businesses in Washington traditionally see their sales double or triple during inauguration week, as people from around the country travel to the capital to welcome the new president. But after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, restaurants and stores are facing another week of bleak sales amid a punishing pandemic as the city shuts down over threats of violence from supporters of President Donald Trump.
“I always say D.C. pays the price for what happens on the national level,” Angela Franco, interim president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, told NBC News. “Any protest that doesn’t end up well, the city ends up paying the price.”
The city has been hammered by political unrest over the last year as the pandemic closed stores and prohibited indoor dining, gutting some businesses. More than one-quarter of small businesses in Washington were closed by July 2020 and revenues fell by about 50 percent, according to an October report from the D.C. Policy Center. The district’s small businesses had the sixth-largest closure rate of 53 major cities in the United States over the course of the pandemic last year, the report found. Dozens of storefronts shut down over the summer as protests raged over police violence against Black people, costing businesses additional lost sales.
Now, threats of violence during the inauguration mean that roads around the Capitol are blocked and 25,000 National Guard troops are stationed around the city. It’s just the latest blow to Washington’s fragile small-business community.
Asad Sheikh, who owns a chain of Indian restaurants in Washington, said he had hoped inauguration week would make up for sales lost to the pandemic and the aftermath of the summer’s protests. But after last week’s assault on the Capitol and increased security around downtown, he is doubtful he’ll make up for the lost business.
"You can’t drive around D.C. anymore. The food suppliers can’t come into the city anymore because the roads are blocked.”
“Inauguration week was going to be the busiest week of the whole year,” said Sheikh, who recently opened the Butter Chicken Company in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. “But if you’re looking at it now, everything in D.C. is shut down now. You can’t drive around D.C. anymore. The food suppliers can’t come into the city anymore because the roads are blocked.”
Small businesses and restaurants in D.C. count on inauguration week every four years to bring in a boost in sales. Sheikh said he began preparations at his restaurants six months ahead of the 2017 inauguration. Presidential inaugurations generate an average of $3 million in additional sales tax revenue for the city, according to D.C.'s Office of the Chief Financial Officer. This year, it is uncertain how businesses will fare with the city under lockdown.
Vinh Ngo, owner of Abe’s Café and Gifts, said he was expecting inauguration sales to be down as much as 90 percent, compared to recent inaugurations.
“It’s not much like previous years, of course. We get what we can get,” he said. “I’d rather have a handful of sales than be at home and do nothing.”
In a regular inauguration week, Ngo has around 200 customers a day, he said. This year, he is seeing just 15 people visit his store per day.
Even small businesses further away from the Capitol where the inauguration will take place have seen a dramatic drop in business since the Jan. 6 riot. Bill Payne, general manager of Ebenezers Coffeehouse, said that traffic has been down since the violence, causing a 25 percent drop in forecasted sales.
“From a neighborhood coffee shop perspective, [the protests] make people want to stay inside,” he said. “Neighbors say, ‘This is my morning break or afternoon break’ or ‘I want to enjoy the Wi-Fi on the patio to take my Zoom call,' and that kind of stuff throughout the city just sends people to the ground.”
Jeffrey Buben, owner and chef of Bistro Bis, located a few blocks north of the Capitol, said the restaurant has been operating on just 10 percent of its normal sales since the pandemic struck the country in March.
“We were looking forward to the inaugural,” said Buben, who has operated restaurants in the city for 30 years. “We were hoping for that to be the first green shoot for us.”
Buben laid off 75 people last spring to cut down on costs as business around the Hill dried up. The inauguration is a make-or-break event for the business, he said. But with travel down because of the pandemic and additional security discouraging people from traveling within the city, he is worried about how the restaurant will survive.
“You got safety concerns and health concerns — it’s a perfect storm of things that could hurt your business,” he said. “And you’re in the eye of that storm. That’s really where we are.”