Washington is a shadow of its former self after 10 months of Covid-19

America Letter: US capital waits to greet President Biden amid a particularly tough year

A wintry blast blanketed the east coast of the US this week, as the first storm of the season descended on the region.

In Washington, DC, a dusting of snow coated the city’s famous monuments and statues, adding some seasonal ambience to the nation’s capital.

It's a strange in-between time as the city awaits the departure of Donald Trump. The outgoing US president remains holed up in the White House, and has barely been seen since the election on November 3rd, apart from occasional trips to the golf course. Instead he is keeping his supporters informed of his thoughts through his Twitter account, where he posts conspiracy theories about election fraud.

Outside the White House perimeter, workers are quietly erecting the infrastructure for January's inauguration ceremony. Similarly, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the stand where president-elect Joe Biden will take his oath of office is being assembled outside the US Capitol.

This week the presidential inaugural committee confirmed that the January 20th inauguration will be different than any other – as the public is being encouraged to participate from home.

Covid-19 impact

Like for other cities across the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed Washington. The city has been a thriving political hub ever since the small settlement on the banks of the Potomac river was chosen as the nation's capital in the late 18th century. Washington has witnessed devastation and destruction, from the torching of the city and the US Capitol by British soldiers in 1812, to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre, a few blocks from the White House, at the end of the civil war. More recently, the city became a focal point of this summer's global demonstrations against racial injustice following the death in police custody of black American George Floyd, recalling the civil rights march of 1963 that culminated with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the National Mall.

Ten months after the city began to close down after Donald Trump declared a national emergency as coronavirus arrived with a vengeance on America’s shores, Washington is a shadow of its former self. The majestic monuments and buildings are still there, of course, but the life in the city has gone.

Around the downtown area, the once-bustling restaurants and steak houses are empty. Early-evening cocktail hours at famous hotels like the Hays-Adams and the Willard are a thing of the past, as the lobbyists on K Street and members of Congress stay close to their home offices.

The city’s deluge of Christmas parties has been cancelled this year, except, of course, at the White House and US state department, where the Trump administration is enjoying its last hurrah by hosting gatherings (masks not obligatory).

Tough year

For people who have made the city their home and local Washingtonians whose families have lived in it for generations, the last year has been particularly tough.

Though Washington's coronavirus cases have been lower than other parts of the country, the numbers have increased in recent weeks. DC has reported more than 25,000 cases since the pandemic began, though the numbers are deceptive because many of the people affected live in the neighbouring states of Maryland and Virginia.

Queues at coronavirus testing sites in the city were long in the days following the Thanksgiving break, with the city experiencing some of its highest infection rates in early December, averaging about 250 new cases a day.

Stricter restrictions have been in place since late November, including a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 10 people. Indoor exercise classes and live entertainment have been prohibited, while restaurants must operate with a 25 per cent capacity from this week.

But perhaps the biggest impact on people’s lives has been from the closure of public schools.

The vast majority of the 50,000 students served by Washington’s public school system have not returned to the classroom since March 13th. Four hundred students – some of them homeless – did return to a small number of schools last month. But there are no teachers present – instead the children are being supervised by non-teaching staff and volunteers and are logging in to a virtual classroom remotely.

Washington's mayor Muriel Bowser has been in a battle with the teachers' union, with teachers refusing to return to in-person learning. Negotiations about a full return to the classroom in February next broke down last month. Washington, an overwhelmingly Democratic city, may be looking forward to Joe Biden's arrival next month. But for many families, the loss of almost a year of education for their children is their number one concern.