When Catherine Pugh took office as Baltimore’s 50th mayor, more than 500 people crowded inside the War Memorial Building to take part.
Pugh’s brothers stood close by as the Democrat took her oath of office four years ago. The Morgan State University alumna was serenaded by the school’s choir. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and former Democratic Mayor Kurt Schmoke were among the dignitaries in attendance.
As the inauguration of Mayor-elect Brandon Scott approaches next month, an image of similar festivities is almost impossible to conjure. The coronavirus pandemic has limited public events inside and outdoors for the better part of 2020, and as infection rates continue to spike, pressure has only increased on public officials, particularly Democrats like Scott, to set an example with their actions.
While plans for Scott’s inauguration day Dec. 8 are not yet firm, a tentative schedule calls for the bare minimum, said Michael Huber, Scott’s chief of staff.
The mayor-elect is thinking of convening in City Hall’s ceremonial room with the clerk of court — as prescribed by the city’s charter — along with his mother and father, Huber said. A cameraperson for the city’s Charm TV network would broadcast the event. Afterward, tentative plans call for Scott to make a brief address in front of City Hall to the media.
There will be no invited guests, no dignitaries, Huber said. Even most of Scott’s family will not be in attendance.
“The city is in too difficult of a position,” Huber said. “We have to model the absolute best practices with respect to crowd size.”
Huber said he and the rest of Scott’s team have labored over whether to hold the entire ceremony outdoors. While convening outside appears to be the safest option, it also has the possibility of attracting a crowd, something organizers want to avoid for public health reasons, Huber said.
Scott already has called on city residents to cancel their Thanksgiving plans and likely will be offering the same advice for Christmas, Huber noted. An oversized inaugural event would be a “slap in the face,” Huber said.
“He’s very cognizant about what messages he sends through his actions, with respect to COVID and the guidelines and the guidance, and how it would make people feel sitting at home alone and not spending Thanksgiving with their grandparents,” Huber said.
Like Scott, Democratic Comptroller-elect Bill Henry is scheduled to be sworn in Dec. 8, as proscribed by the city’s charter. As of now, plans call for Scott to be sworn in around noon and for Henry to take office around 2 p.m., said K.C. Kelleher, legislative and communications director for Henry. Like Scott, Henry will have a brief ceremony inside City Hall, she said.
Kelleher said the trickiest part of planning the events in the midst of the pandemic has been managing the expectations of the many people who know Scott and Henry.
“They are both men who have grown up in Baltimore their whole lives,” she said. “Their extended network is here, not just people they know from the campaign. It’s hard to watch past inaugurations and see how big they were.”
In May 2019, after Pugh resigned amid a corruption scandal, Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young had a lower-key but still well-attended swearing-in before about 600 people at the War Memorial Building. He had been at the city’s helm for several weeks as acting mayor. Young lost to Scott in this year’s June primary.
Democratic City Council President-elect Nick Mosby and the incoming members of the all-Democratic council will be sworn in Dec. 10, but Mosby announced Monday that the City Council’s inaugural festivities have been canceled.
“We wish we could all be together to celebrate everything from Thanksgiving to the inauguration of Baltimore’s new leadership, but these times call for extreme vigilance,” Mosby said in a news release from his office. “It would be irresponsible for the first act of the new council to be holding an event that puts people’s lives in danger.”
Mosby said his team is prepared to adhere to all guidelines and protocols recommended by the city health department and other city agencies to “ensure all inaugural activities are conducted with caution.”
Scott’s not the only municipal executive struggling with these decisions during the pandemic, but he’s also in a class somewhat by himself. Most mayoral and gubernatorial elections are held opposite presidential election years, not on them, so there are few mayors preparing to take office in the country. Of those that did run this fall, many were reelected, rather than clinching a first-time victory like Scott.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Across the region, the mayors of Norfolk, Richmond and Virginia Beach in Virginia and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, were reelected this fall. Delaware Gov. John Carney was the only regional governor up for election. He, too, was elected to another term.
Huber said Scott’s team consulted with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, California, to talk through plans. Everyone seems to be in the same “head space” regarding COVID precautions, Huber said, but big festivities were never being planned for those mayors, who are entering their second terms.
The Scott campaign also has been in touch with officials planning the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. While the scope of Biden’s celebration is certainly larger, there are parallels between the two incoming officials, who are both Democrats and first-timers in their respective offices.
Plans for the presidential inauguration, scheduled for Jan. 20 in Washington, remain largely undisclosed, although organizers have begun applying for permits for some in-person events. When Biden claimed victory in the race earlier this month, he appeared on a stage before a crowd confined to honking cars. He was flanked by masked family members and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Huber said Scott is keeping open the possibility of holding a public celebration once the pandemic has passed. Until then, city residents are asked to stay home during Scott’s inauguration and watch coverage of the event.
“This is a means to an end. He has to be sworn in to get to work addressing public safety, addressing COVID,” Huber said. “We need to get it out of the way.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Ben Leonard contributed to this article.