WASHINGTON — Draped in American flags and fueled by anger, hundreds of vehicles led by a group of truckers encircled the nation’s capital on Sunday, hampering traffic outside the city for hours by driving at slower speeds to protest Covid-19 mandates.
The convoy of vehicles — dozens of trucks, along with minivans, motorcycles, pickup trucks and hatchbacks, with many displaying signs that read “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, with plans to potentially ramp up the demonstration in the coming days. But by the second time around, the vehicles appeared to be so spread out that the congestion took on the feel of a weekday morning commute, before opening up in the afternoon.
Although it was unclear whether the caravan would ultimately enter Washington, D.C., this week, organizers said they did not want people to drive into the capital on Sunday out of fears that some participants could turn it into a chaotic event reminiscent of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. They also wanted to avoid a confrontation with law enforcement after dozens of people protesting in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, were arrested last month.
Christopher Rodriguez, the director of the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said the protest did not result in any major disruptions to the city’s transportation routes on Sunday, although he said that it was a “fluid and unpredictable event.”
He added that the city government was urging residents to prepare for increased traffic levels around the region and said he expected more convoys from across the country to join in the next few days. The city’s request to extend National Guard resources was also approved through Wednesday, and 249 personnel and 15 heavy vehicles remain to help respond to any roadway disruptions. Mr. Rodriguez said no citations were issued, and a Virginia State Police spokeswoman said no tickets were given to members of the convoy.
The group behind the caravan, the People’s Convoy, has been demanding an end to the national emergency that was first declared by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 and was recently extended by President Biden. The protesters have also called for congressional hearings into the origin of the pandemic and an end to government rules requiring masks and vaccinations. But those demands have been undercut by the reality that many U.S. states have already started rolling back restrictions as virus cases and deaths have ebbed.
The convoy traveled down I-70 to the Capital Beltway on Sunday.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times
And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance in late February suggesting that the vast majority of Americans could stop wearing masks. Many medical experts say vaccine mandates are effective in persuading more people to get their shots, which they say is essential to helping prevent the spread of the virus.
Although the People’s Convoy was one of several groups inspired by the Canadian protests against pandemic measures that disrupted the capital of Ottawa for three weeks, many in the group appeared to be aligned with far-right organizations and activists. On Saturday, organizers with the People’s Convoy shared a supportive post from a prominent QAnon account on its official Telegram channel.
The convoy first departed from Adelanto, Calif., on Feb. 23 with plans to end the demonstration in the Washington area. Before Sunday, the truckers gathered at a racetrack in nearby Hagerstown, Md., about 70 miles northwest of the capital, converging with other drivers and their supporters.
As the convoy made its way from the Hagerstown Speedway to the highway on Sunday morning, a winding road that was approximately five miles was lined with people waving flags.
By late morning, the convoy, traveling east on Interstate 70 between Hagerstown and Frederick, had caused significant traffic slowdowns. There was a wreck, though it was unclear what caused it. At other points, drivers pulled over to stop and wave flags. As the convoy slowly progressed toward I-495, a handful of officers from the Maryland State Police could be seen, in some cases helping to clear flags from the road. Many overpasses were crowded with onlookers waving flags, though some motorists passing the convoy appeared frustrated at the congestion.
In the early afternoon, the convoy continued to slow traffic, but the vehicles were so spread out — across five lanes — that the sense of a mass presence faded, though the traffic itself lingered. At one point just before the vehicles reached I-495, car speeds reached about 70 miles per hour, but then traffic tightened again, with cars settling into a rolling backup, going between 25 m.p.h. to at times less than 10.
Although overpasses later in the route contained fewer supporters of the convoy, many still waved flags and held signs thanking the truckers or expressing support for Mr. Trump. Few vehicles of the Maryland State Police were seen, but when the route crossed into Northern Virginia, a heavy police presence was evident, with Virginia troopers in patrol cars and on motorcycles.
Overall, the first loop took nearly two hours to complete.
During the second loop, vehicles in the convoy seemed to be completely scattered, and more counterprotesters appeared on overpasses, with one waving a sign that read “Go Away.”
Steve Girard, 59, who joined the convoy about five days ago in Indiana with his 1998 white Chevy van, said he felt compelled to join the protest since he wanted to see an end to Covid-19 vaccine and masking mandates. While on the road, Mr. Girard said he felt encouraged to see some supporters waving at the group, and he hoped that the demonstration would lead to meetings with lawmakers and the end of the national emergency declaration.
“There is no emergency,” said Mr. Girard, a resident of Lancaster, Pa. “We don’t need to get a shot just because a politician says we need to get a shot.”
Mr. Girard said he was particularly angry over the fact that his 7-year-old granddaughter had to wear a mask while riding the school bus.
“Why should a child have to wear a mask?” Mr. Girard said. “Kids aren’t getting sick.”
According to data from the C.D.C., there have been at least 865 reported deaths involving Covid-19 in children under 17, and more children were hospitalized during the surge driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant than at any other point in the pandemic.
William Smink, 31, who routinely commutes from Baltimore to Washington for work, said the convoy didn’t have a big impact on him. Mr. Smink, who works for a local TV station, said that while his commute, which typically takes 45 minutes, was derailed by the truckers and ended up taking about an hour, he still made it to work on time.
“For the most part, they were very respectful,” he said. “If there was a big enough space, in between the trucks, they were letting people merge in and out of the lanes. They were just driving well below the speed limit.” He would go about half a mile, he said, and then everybody would slam on their breaks. Then, they would crawl for another mile, and then traffic would pick back up.
Before the protesters departed on Sunday morning, Brian Brase, one of the convoy’s organizers, said before a crowd of gatherers that they intended to show “truly how large we are.” Although Mr. Brase said the convoy did not plan to enter the capital “at this time,” he did not rule out the possibility.
“We’re not going to shut anything down today. We’re just going to do a convoy so that they can see that we’re in their backyard and that we are huge,” Mr. Brase said. “We’re doing this to let them know that we are very serious.”
Ron Dimaline, 67, a pastor and retired coal industry worker from Pike County, Ky., started riding in his dump truck with the convoy two days ago. On Sunday morning, he said he had grown frustrated with the rising cost of gas and feared that the United States was drifting toward communism. But anti-Covid measures particularly irritated him.
“Let people alone. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask,” he said. “I’ll stay away from you.”
Giulia Heyward contributed reporting.