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US inauguration planners rethink celebrations in age of coronavirus

This January 20 event will be more subdued than previous inauguration days.

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Inaugural preparations continue on the West Front of Capitol Hill in Washington, looking at the National Mall and Washington Monument (Susan Walsh/AP)

Inaugural preparations continue on the West Front of Capitol Hill in Washington, looking at the National Mall and Washington Monument (Susan Walsh/AP)

Inaugural preparations continue on the West Front of Capitol Hill in Washington, looking at the National Mall and Washington Monument (Susan Walsh/AP)

Public health guidance to avoid big parties in the age of the coronavirus is about to collide with what is typically one of America’s biggest celebrations of all – the swearing-in of a new president.

While lots of details are still to be worked out, this January 20 is sure to be more subdued than previous inauguration days.

A giant parade down Pennsylvania Avenue is not likely, and fancy balls may morph into virtual events.

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Construction crews work on the platforms where the president-elect will take the oath of office at the Capitol in Washington (J Scott Applewhite/PA)

Construction crews work on the platforms where the president-elect will take the oath of office at the Capitol in Washington (J Scott Applewhite/PA)

AP

Construction crews work on the platforms where the president-elect will take the oath of office at the Capitol in Washington (J Scott Applewhite/PA)

The traditional luncheon where politicians offer their best wishes to the new president might not include food this year.

And what about the swearing-in itself? The inaugural platform on the Capitol’s West Front is being erected but will probably not be as crowded.

“I think you’re going to see something that’s closer to what the convention was like than a typical inauguration,” president-elect Joe Biden said on Friday, referring to the all-virtual event that marked his nomination last summer.

“First and foremost, in my objective, is to keep America safe but still allow people to celebrate — to celebrate and see one another celebrate.”

Mr Biden’s swearing-in itself will not be virtual. But a spokesperson for the joint congressional committee charged with overseeing the event said guests should be prepared to socially distance and wear a mask.

Politicians were also considering requiring a Covid-19 test for anyone on the platform near the president-elect, the spokesperson added.

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With Inauguration Day two months away on Jan. 20, 2021, construction crews work on the platforms where the president-elect will take the oath of office, at the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

With Inauguration Day two months away on Jan. 20, 2021, construction crews work on the platforms where the president-elect will take the oath of office, at the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

AP

With Inauguration Day two months away on Jan. 20, 2021, construction crews work on the platforms where the president-elect will take the oath of office, at the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The VIP platform can hold 1,600 people, while politicians also distribute tickets for positions nearby.

While no hard decisions have been made, the committee was looking at cutting the numbers on both accounts.

“My guess is there will still be a platform ceremony,” Mr Biden said.

“But I don’t know exactly how it’s all going to work out. The key is keeping people safe. I can’t do a super version of the president’s announcement in the Rose Garden.”

That was an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden introduction of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, where hundreds of people crammed together, many without masks. It turned out to be a superspreader event.

Mr Biden’s play-it-safe approach to the coronavirus during his campaign offers clues about what to expect in terms of inaugural modifications.

He said on Friday that a “gigantic inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue” was unlikely, although a big reviewing stand was being constructed in front of the White House.

No decisions have been made about whether the official inaugural balls should go ahead.

Some advocacy groups are already going virtual with their galas, including the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organisation.

The celebrity component of this year’s celebration has yet to be determined, but one source close to the inauguration suggested looking for hints in the line-up of celebrities who campaigned for Mr Biden, including Lady Gaga, John Legend and Jon Bon Jovi.

Work to build the inaugural platform at the Capitol and the White House reviewing stand began before the November 3 election, as is traditional.

Online Editors


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