How Biden's inauguration could be affected by COVID-19, Trump's absence

The inauguration could resemble the largely virtual Democratic convention.

December 6, 2020, 5:16 PM

While running for president during the coronavirus pandemic, President-elect Joe Biden took his campaign online, scrapping large, in-person gatherings and most travel in favor of remote and socially distant campaign events.

On Friday, the president-elect said his inauguration would follow a similar model, telling reporters it could resemble the Democratic National Convention this summer, rather than the typical celebration that regularly brings hundreds of thousands of people to Washington.

“There probably will not be a gigantic inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue,” Biden said. “But my guess is you'll see a lot of virtual activity in states all across America, engaging even more people than before.”

President Donald Trump's ongoing refusal to accept the election results -- or say whether he'll attend Biden's inauguration -- could also reshape the traditional celebration of the peaceful transfer of power.

Biden formed his inaugural committee early last week, adding several more staffers on Friday. Under normal circumstances, the organization is tasked with raising tens of millions of dollars to help organize inaugural balls and the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from Capitol Hill to the White House. It also generally works with Congress on the program for the swearing-in ceremony.

"The inauguration presents a challenging timeline for any new administration under normal circumstances,” said Emmett Beliveau, who was the executive director for President Barack Obama’s first inaugural committee and went on to serve in several roles in the Obama White House.

“Now it's exacerbated not just by the pandemic, but by the delay of the acknowledgement of the transfer of power by the Trump administration,” he added, pointing to the fact that Biden’s team was established roughly two weeks later than Obama’s inaugural organization, due in part to the General Services Administration's refusal to formally acknowledge Biden’s victory for several weeks.

Questions around a traditional program

Construction crews have been at work around Washington preparing for the inauguration since September.

The expansive stage being built on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony typically holds 1,600 people every four years -- including former presidents, members of Congress and the Supreme Court justices.

It’s expected to hold far fewer people next month to account for social distancing during the proceedings, according to people involved in preparations for the event.

Biden said Friday he still expects some sort of ceremony outside the Capitol, and he has previously said he wouldn’t wear a mask during his swearing-in.

A spokesperson for the House-Senate committee that is organizing the Capitol Hill swearing-in ceremony told ABC News that planners, working with Biden’s team, plan to implement a “layered” health and safety approach, which will include masks, social distancing and testing for COVID-19. The group is considering mandatory testing for anyone on the platform near Biden.

While many House and Senate offices have begun soliciting requests for inaugural tickets from constituents, organizers have not yet decided how many of the 200,000 tickets for access to the Capitol grounds will be distributed, or if any crowd of ticketed guests will be allowed.

The weather could also create headaches for Biden’s team. Every president has been sworn in on the Capitol’s West Front since 1985, when President Ronald Reagan was forced to take the oath of office in the Capitol Rotunda, the backup location, because of poor weather. An indoor ceremony during the pandemic would almost certainly include fewer people than a scaled-down outdoor event.

Without adjustments, the typical inaugural parade -- which brings together participants from across the country -- and inauguration interfaith prayer services could wind up facilitating the spread of the virus.

Concerns about what the state of the pandemic will be in January are keeping some of Biden’s biggest supporters away from the celebration.

“If there’s ever a super spreader event possibility, that would be it,” said John Morgan, a prominent Florida attorney and longtime Biden donor and supporter, about deciding to forego the inauguration.

Congressional organizers still haven’t made a decision on whether to move forward with the traditional post-ceremony luncheon held in the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol.

It’s the same space where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was scheduled to hold a dinner reception for newly elected House Democrats in November. After social media backlash, that event was canceled, and incoming members were given takeout boxes instead. (House Republicans, who have been criticized for holding indoor gatherings on Capitol Hill during the pandemic, moved forward with their own event.)

“The importance of the inauguration can’t be underestimated in terms of how it brings folks together and focuses on the challenge of governance,” said Patrick Gaspard, who served as White House political affairs director under Obama and was involved in planning both Obama inaugural events.

Biden’s team could also look back to past inaugural balls for inspiration. Several of the inaugural balls in 2009 were organized in conjunction with television networks, allowing viewers across the country to take in the speeches and performances without traveling to Washington.

Events with proper safety precautions, while lacking the traditional inaugural trappings, could present Biden with an opportunity to focus the nation’s attention on the coronavirus pandemic and the importance of public health guidelines.

“Even in the performance of this kind of inauguration that’s socially distant, that has a heavy virtual component, that models the effective use of [protective equipment] -- that actually puts the pandemic forward in a way that is prescriptive and brings folks together,” Gaspard told ABC News.

The convention blueprint

Biden accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president from Delaware on Aug. 20, after a three-day virtual convention that was kicked off in Milwaukee, produced from Los Angeles and featured a nationwide roll call and several live speakers in different cities across the country.

After speaking indoors in an arena with no crowd and a handful of socially distanced, masked reporters, Biden moved outside of Wilmington’s Chase Center to gather on stage with his family and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to wave to packs of supporters honking from cars in the parking lot.

PHOTO: Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden wave from the stage at the end of the third day of the Democratic National Convention, in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 19, 2020.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wave from the stage at the end of the third day of the Democratic National Convention, in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 19, 2020.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Democrats gathered at small or socially distanced watch parties across the country throughout the week, and official television programs regularly cut to images of supporters cheering from their living rooms or backyards.

“I think the convention we put on really opened up avenues that we never thought existed,” Biden said Friday, noting that he doubted there would be another Democratic Convention exactly like it used to be. “I think we can include more people. People want to celebrate. People want to be able to say we’ve passed the baton, we're moving on, democracy has functioned.”

Trump won't say if he will attend

Outgoing presidents usually play a prominent role in inaugural proceedings, hosting the incoming president at the White House in the morning, riding with them to Capitol Hill for the ceremony and, in recent years, departing the Capitol after the swearing-in via helicopter.

But President Trump has refused to acknowledge his loss. His legal team has spent the weeks since the election unsuccessfully trying to contest the results in several key states. Trump has even pressured state GOP leaders to overturn the election results in their states, and he has been supportive of an effort to challenge the certification of the results in early January.

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