Karen Blue-Temple watched Barack Obama’s first inauguration from the pool deck on a cruise to the Caribbean. Basking in the sun on a 100-degree day, she thought to herself, “Someday, I’ll go to one of those.”
This year, the coronavirus pandemic may have stopped Blue-Temple from going on a cruise, but it’s sure as hell not going to stop her from going to the inauguration.
"I'm not selfish. I'm not one of those people who think I'm better than anyone else,” she told The Daily Beast. “I just really want to go.”
Due to the surging number of coronavirus infections across the country, President-elect Joe Biden has encouraged his supporters not to attend his inauguration—an event that could easily have drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the Capitol. Tickets to the event will be heavily restricted and the surrounding events notably toned down. It seems like the rational choice for a man who derided Donald Trump for hosting massive rallies in hotspots around the country and superspreader events at the White House. But some Biden supporters say they’re still planning on attending—warnings and hypocrisy be damned.
Best friends Summer Williams and Deria Frazier decided they were attending the inauguration back in August, when Kamala Harris was added to the ticket. Both women are Black, and Frazier is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Harris’ sorority. Neither made it to Obama’s inauguration and always regretted it. This time around, the chance to see the first Black woman sworn in as vice president was too good to pass up. “Once she was added and they won, there was just absolutely no way we were going to miss it,” Williams said.
Both women live a lengthy flight from Washington; Williams is from Texas and Frazier is from California. Frazier said she’s shopping online for hazmat suits and stocking up on Lysol for the flight, but Williams is a little more relaxed. She’s traveled several times during the pandemic, including a vacation to Mexico, and says she lives by the philosophy that you can get the virus anywhere, even your local Walmart.
“I'm not a MAGA. COVID is real and you need to do things to try to prevent it,” she insisted. “I understand it’s a risk going to the inauguration, but at the same time I feel like I'm at the same risk going to the grocery store or going out to eat.”
She added: “I guess the statement is, it’s a risk I'm willing to take.”
All of the Biden supporters who spoke to The Daily Beast were similarly COVID-concious, name-dropping Dr. Anthony Fauci and talking up the benefits of masks and vaccinations. (Temple-Blue, without a hint of irony, described how she would shout down people who entered her workplace without a mask, telling them: “Your civil liberties are not as important as me not getting sick.”) But the chance to see Biden sworn in—or, if they were speaking candidly, Trump ushered out—just seemed worth it.
“As low as I had the bar set for the four years [of Trump’s presidency], I never could have expected it to be as bad as it was,” said Ricky Groetsch, a medical worker from New Orleans. “I have got to be there to see it end in person.”
Williams, asked whether she thought attending the inauguration would lead to more COVID cases, admitted: “You can just hope that it won’t, but the reality is it probably will.”
“It may sound absolutely ridiculous, but to celebrate Trump getting the hell out of there is absolutely worth it,” she said.
Statistically speaking, attending an inauguration is not the most dangerous thing you can do during a pandemic. The proceedings are held outside, and most attendees will likely be wearing masks (either because they believe in their efficacy or because, as Blue-Temple put it, “I don’t want people to think I'm a Trump supporter.”) The event itself is comparable to the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, which did not lead to outbreaks despite the high numbers of people present.
But the risk increases when you factor in travel: People will take buses, cars and trains to the city, only to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants and generally do the kinds of things we all know spread the virus. Some will stay with friends; some may be tempted to host post-inauguration parties. “It’s almost like a university town that gets an influx of people when school is in session,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It's usually not the university itself that's the problem; it's what they do outside the university.”
That’s probably why the Biden campaign issued its statement two weeks ago, urging supporters to “refrain from any travel and participate in the inaugural activities from home.” According to the statement, the ceremony itself will be “extremely limited,” and the parade that usually follows will be “reimagined”—a word that, in 2020, generally means “hosted on Zoom.” No public tickets are available for the event itself; each member of Congress gets a ticket and can bring one guest. An inaugural ball is extremely unlikely.
Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of tourist organization Destination DC, said a number of the city’s hotels sold out in early December. (That’s not uncommon for a first-term inauguration: Obama’s sold out 97.2 percent of the city’s rooms, Trump’s booked 95.2 percent after the Women’s March was announced.) But last week’s decision to limit inaugural activities—coupled with the news that D.C. would be shutting down museums, libraries, and indoor dining—led to a swath of cancelations and an unusually high number of open rooms.
“I think people are still on the fence, as they should be, in terms of what makes the most sense, and wanting to see exactly what will be happening in Washington during inauguration,” Ferguson said.
But the supporters who spoke to The Daily Beast were undeterred by the lack of inaugural activities. Williams said she was “disappointed” in the Biden team for discouraging attendance, but understood why they had to do so. (“It would be hypocritical if they didn’t,” she said.) Goestch, who will have received the first of two vaccine doses by Inauguration Day, said he was fine with the decision: “Maybe that can get me a closer front row seat,” he half-joked.
This was another theme among prospective attendees: that the Biden team’s restrictions were sensible, even evidence of his moral superiority to Trump. (A running joke on Biden/Harris Facebook pages after the announcement was to ask, “You mean he doesn’t care about his crowd size?”) But for a multitude of reasons—they had just been vaccinated, they were being extra cautious, they just really wanted to go—the rules just didn’t apply to them, personally.
“I’m not trying to be a big rebel or anything, but I’ve wanted to go to an inauguration all my life, basically, and this may be one of my last chances,” said Blue-Temple, who recently turned 64.
“I’m not trying to be disrespectful to anybody, I just really, really want to go,” she added. “This year has sucked, so I just want to have something nice to remember.”