What Might a Presidential Inauguration Look Like in the COVID Age?

Few American traditions are as grandiose as the presidential inauguration. Thousands descend on the National Mall, as ranking members of government, former presidents, and other dignitaries sit on the Capitol’s front steps, all in witness of the President-Elect taking the official oath of office. But in the age of COVID-19, such a massive convergence of people couldn’t be riskier.

While President Trump would have likely advocated for an old-fashioned inauguration packed with spectators had he won reelection, President-Elect Joe Biden is more likely to take the safe route. After all, their rivaling campaigns painted two very different approaches to COVID precautions. While Trump continued to hold large rallies packed with people who by-and-large eschewed facial coverings, the Biden campaign was a much more sated affair. The Democrat avoided massive crowds for the majority of his 2020 candidacy, and held a limited number of drive-in rallies toward the end.

Now, those familiar with the President-Elect’s thinking say that Biden’s inauguration, slated for January 20, 2021, will likely scale-down the typical pomp and circumstance in exchange for a pandemic-appropriate affair.

Tradition vs. Reality

On Monday, Tony Allen, the chief executive of Biden’s inaugural committee, said he would try to balance precedent with the very real health concerns likely to persist even in January.

“We will honor the American inaugural traditions and engage Americans across the country while keeping everybody healthy and safe,” Allen commented. So how might that look?

For one, members of the bipartisan Senate inaugural committee are intent on keeping some of the iconic imagery. Members hope that Biden will take the oath of office and deliver an address outside the West Front of the Capitol, as nearly all his predecessors have. Making that happen, however, will require other sacrifices.

The committee is likely to slash the number of dignitaries who sit on the Capitol steps around the President-Elect. And even those who make the cut (like Supreme Court Justices, former presidents, and members of congressional leadership) will probably have to distance from one another and wear masks. Some may also be compelled to take a coronavirus test.

But the bigger challenge will likely regard managing the public. Crowds of adoring fans typically flock to the National Mall to observe the spectacle, or to cheer-on the new president as he parades down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. Congress, meanwhile, typically distributes some 200,000 tickets to everyday citizens who want to watch the festivities.

But the ranking members of the inaugural committee, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, say they will have to reduce that number this year. Still, there’s no guaranteeing that supporters (or protestors) won’t crowd the nation’s capital nonetheless.

Trump Snub?

Another big question mark regards which former presidents will attend the inauguration. Traditionally, every living former officeholder attends the event as a sign of goodwill for the democratic process. In 2017, every living former president and their spouse attended the inauguration of Donald Trump, with the exception of President George H. W. Bush, who could not make it due to his declining health. (Bush died the following year). But his son, former President George W. Bush, attended with his wife Laura, as did former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and outgoing President Barack Obama. Even Hillary Clinton, who lost a grueling election against Trump, attended in her function as a former first lady.

But Donald Trump has yet to concede defeat to Joe Biden while he continues to baselessly argue that Biden only won the election as the result of “voter fraud.” Trump may choose to snub the event, joining the ranks of only three former presidents who refused to attend their successor’s swearing-in. (Those historic sore losers include John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson).

Keep it Safe

If we look at the Biden campaign as a guide, it is likely that the President-Elect will err on the side of caution. One of the major reasons that the Biden campaign stuck to the so-called “basement strategy” (which had the candidate staying at home through much of the race, recording video messages from his basement) was to model proper behavior to the country. Fulfilling his promise to take the pandemic seriously and follow the advice of experts, Biden will likely want his inauguration to display the sort of discretion he would encourage of all Americans.