A convoy of vehicles lapped the Washington, DC, beltway Sunday morning to demand an end to Covid-19 mandates and restrictions.
The protests come at a time when many pandemic-related mandates and restrictions – imposed by state and local governments rather than lawmakers in Washington – have already begun being lifted in much of the country.
The group – which included dozens of vehicles, including some eighteen-wheelers, according to footage from CNN affiliate WUSA – planned to drive at least two loops around the beltway before returning to Hagerstown, Maryland, Maureen Steele, an organizer with the “People’s Convoy” told CNN. They did not plan to enter the city proper.
Sunday’s protest may mark the beginning of several days of disruptions, according to District of Columbia emergency management officials.
On Sunday, Christopher Rodriguez, director of the District of Columbia’s Homeland and Emergency Management Agency, estimated that there were 1,000 vehicles at the time up in Hagerstown, Maryland, and that the ultimate number of vehicles could reach 2,000 over the next several days.
Rodriguez added that District officials have remained in close contact with other partner agencies nationwide to track potential threats or violence. So far, he said, there have been a few instances of low-level acts of violence associated with the convoy, but no overt actions or overt calls for violence in furtherance of the convoy’s effort.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser asked the Department of Defense to extend the authorization for DC’s National Guard through March 9, Rodriguez said, and that request was approved.
Rodriguez acknowledged the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol has helped shape officials’ “aggressive” approach to preparing for large scale events.
“When we see large numbers of people coming to our region, but we do respect everyone, any Americans right to come to the nation’s capital and exercise their First Amendment rights,” he said. “But what we won’t tolerate are any individuals who come into the nation’s capital and break our laws.”
Inspired by Canadian protests
Footage showed trucks and their drivers, led by a police escort, honking at onlookers gathered on an overpass to cheer the vehicles as they drove by.
The convoy, one of several bound for DC this weekend, is following the lead of the Canadian trucker protests that began in late January and continued for weeks as demonstrators protested Covid-19 mandates, crippling US border crossings and the capital of Ottawa.
Organizers of the American convoys, however, have signaled they intend to keep their demonstrations under control.
The “People’s Convoy” organizers previously said the group had no plan to mimic the Canadian protests with blockades or clashes with authorities. While they do want to be noticed, Steele said her group coordinated its demonstration with local law enforcement to prevent any conflicts.
That, however, was just for Sunday. The Washington Post reported organizers plan to repeat the action until their demands are addressed. And there are other convoy groups that have indicated they plan to demonstrate in or near DC, though it remains unclear exactly how many groups, people or vehicles will be participating.
On Sunday, the House Sergeant at Arms William Walker announced that the Capitol Police Board had issued an emergency declaration in response to the convoys’ arrival.
“The Capitol Police Board has issued an emergency declaration to ensure that the US Capitol police are able to operate and respond as necessary,” Walker said in a letter to all members of Congress and staff.
Walker advised members and staff to consider telework options and the use of public transportation to avoid traffic delays.
He said the Committee on House Administration had “determined that extraordinary circumstances exist to permit use of official funds to reimburse short-term lodging expenses in the Washington, D.C., area for certain Members and staff.”
Washington County, Maryland, Sheriff Doug Mullendore told CNN Saturday his agency had had no issues with the convoys so far.
“There are at least four convoys that have converged in Hagerstown and are staying at the Hagerstown Speedway,” he said. “There have been no problems and we are just monitoring things. We are working closely with the Maryland State Police.”
Mullendore added, “They have been very respectful and have caused no problems here.”
Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller confirmed the agency had “been in contact with various groups’ organizers to ensure their understanding of Virginia traffic laws.” Law enforcement’s goal, she said, was to “mitigate the impact of additional traffic volume on already congested roadways and Northern Virginia communities.”
Demand end to Covid-19 mandates
The common demand emanating from each of the groups is the end of Covid-19 mandates, including mask and vaccine requirements.
In a news release, the “People’s Convoy” pointed to declining Covid-19 cases, vaccines and therapeutics, saying it was “time to reopen the country.”
“To that end, it’s time for elected officials to work with the blue-collar and white-collar workers of America and restore accountability and liberty by lifting all mandates and ending the state of emergency – as COVID is well-in-hand now, and Americans need to get back to work in a free and unrestricted manner,” the release said.
Many cities and states have already started lifting such measures while Covid-19 hospitalizations and new cases drop, including New York state, which lifted this week most mask mandates and requirements to show proof of vaccination for indoor activities.
A growing number of states – the majority of which have Democratic governors – announced in recent weeks they would lift indoor or school mask mandates, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island.
Under new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, more than 70% of the country’s population is in a location with low or medium Covid-19 levels, meaning masking is not necessary unless an individual is at increased risk of Covid-19. If so, the CDC recommends talking to your health care provider about wearing a mask. But mandates are also being lifted in places with “high” levels of Covid-19, like California and Illinois.