Hundreds of Vehicles Protesting Covid Mandates Encircle Washington, Led by Truckers

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Draped in American flags and fueled by rage, hundreds of vehicles led by a group of truckers encircled the nation's capital on Sunday, causing hours of gridlock outside the city by driving at slower speeds in protest of Covid-19 mandates.

The convoy of vehicles — dozens of trucks, minivans, motorcycles, pickup trucks, and hatchbacks, many with signs reading "Freedom" — aimed to complete two loops on Interstate 495, a 64-mile highway known as the Capital Beltway, before returning to a staging area in Maryland. However, by the second pass, the vehicles appeared to be spread out sufficiently that the congestion resembled that of a weekday morning commute, before clearing out in the afternoon.

Although it was unclear whether the caravan would eventually make its way to Washington, D.C., organizers said they did not want people to drive into the capital on Sunday out of fear that some participants would turn it into a chaotic event akin to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. They also wished to avoid confrontation with law enforcement following the arrests of dozens of protesters in Ottawa, Canada's capital, last month.

Christopher Rodriguez, director of the District of Columbia's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said the protest did not cause significant disruptions to the city's transportation routes on Sunday, despite the fact that the event was "fluid and unpredictable."

He added that the city government was advising residents to brace themselves for increased traffic in the region and that he expected additional convoys from across the country to join in the coming days. The city's request to extend National Guard resources through Wednesday was also approved, and 249 personnel and 15 heavy vehicles remain on standby to assist with any road closures. Mr. Rodriguez stated that no citations were issued, and a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police stated that no tickets were issued to convoy members.

The People's Convoy, the group that organized the caravan, has been demanding an end to the national emergency declared by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 and recently extended by Vice President Joe Biden. Additionally, the protesters have called for congressional hearings into the pandemic's origins and the repeal of government regulations requiring masks and vaccinations. However, those demands have been undermined by the fact that many states in the United States have already begun easing restrictions as virus cases and deaths have decreased.

And in late February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance indicating that the vast majority of Americans may be able to discontinue wearing masks. Numerous medical experts believe that vaccine mandates are effective at encouraging more people to get their shots, which is critical for preventing the spread of the virus.

Although the People's Convoy was one of several groups inspired by Canadian protests against pandemic preparedness measures that disrupted Ottawa's capital for three weeks, many members appeared to be affiliated with far-right organizations and activists. On Saturday, organizers with the People's Convoy shared a supportive post on their official Telegram channel from a prominent QAnon account.

The convoy began its journey on Feb. 23 from Adelanto, Calif., with the intention of concluding the demonstration in the Washington, D.C., area. Prior to Sunday, the truckers congregated at a nearby racetrack in Hagerstown, Maryland, about 70 miles northwest of the capital, to meet with other drivers and supporters.

On Sunday morning, as the convoy made its way from the Hagerstown Speedway to the highway, a winding five-mile road was lined with people waving flags.

By late morning, the convoy had caused significant traffic delays on Interstate 70 between Hagerstown and Frederick. There was a wreck, though the cause was unknown. At other points, motorists came to a halt and waved flags. As the convoy made its way toward I-495, a handful of Maryland State Police officers could be seen assisting in the removal of flags from the road. Numerous overpasses were clogged with flag-waving onlookers, though some motorists passing the convoy appeared frustrated by the gridlock.

The convoy continued to slow traffic in the early afternoon, but the vehicles were so spread out — across five lanes — that the sense of a mass presence faded, though the traffic remained. Car speeds reached approximately 70 miles per hour briefly just before the vehicles reached I-495, but then traffic tightened again, with cars settling into a rolling backup traveling between 25 and less than 10 miles per hour at times.

Although there were fewer supporters of the convoy on later overpasses, many still waved flags and held signs thanking truckers or expressing support for Mr. Trump. Although few Maryland State Police vehicles were visible, as the route entered Northern Virginia, a heavy police presence was evident, including Virginia troopers in patrol cars and on motorcycles.

The first loop took nearly two hours to complete in total.

During the second loop, the convoy appeared to disperse completely, and additional counterprotesters appeared on overpasses, one waving a sign reading "Go Away."

Steve Girard, 59, who joined the convoy in Indiana about five days ago in his 1998 white Chevy van, said he felt compelled to join the protest because he desired an end to the Covid-19 vaccine and masking mandates. While on the road, Mr. Girard expressed hope that seeing some supporters waving at the group would result in meetings with lawmakers and the end of the national emergency declaration.

"There is no emergency," Mr. Girard, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania resident, stated. "We do not need to get a shot simply because a politician says we should."

Mr. Girard expressed particular rage over his 7-year-old granddaughter being required to wear a mask while riding the school bus.

"How come a child is required to wear a mask?" According to Mr. Girard. "Kids are not becoming ill."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 865 deaths involving Covid-19 in children under the age of 17 have been reported, and more children have been hospitalized during the surge caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant than at any other point during the pandemic.

William Smink, 31, who commutes from Baltimore to Washington on a regular basis for work, said the convoy had little effect on him. Mr. Smink, who works for a local television station, said that despite the fact that his commute, which normally takes 45 minutes, was delayed by the truckers and ended up taking about an hour, he arrived on time.

"For the most part," he said, "they were extremely respectful." "If there was enough room between the trucks, they were allowing people to merge into and out of lanes. They were simply driving significantly slower than the posted speed limit." He stated that he would travel approximately half a mile and then everyone would slam on their brakes. They would then crawl for another mile, at which point traffic would resume its normal pace.

Prior to the protesters' departure on Sunday morning, Brian Brase, one of the convoy's organizers, told a gathering of onlookers that they wanted to demonstrate "truly how large we are." Although Mr. Brase stated that the convoy had no intention of entering the capital "at this time," he did not rule it out.

"Nothing is going to be shut down today. We're simply going to conduct a convoy to demonstrate that we're in their backyard and that we're massive," Mr. Brase explained. "We're doing this to demonstrate our seriousness."

Rod Dimaline, 67, a pastor and retired coal industry worker from Pike County, Ky., joined the convoy two days ago in his dump truck. On Sunday morning, he expressed frustration with the rising cost of gasoline and a growing fear that the United States was on the verge of communism. However, he was particularly enraged by anti-Covid measures.

"Leave individuals alone. "If you want to wear a mask, then wear one," he advised. "I'm going to avoid you."

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