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Consumer Reports

Capital at war beneath surface | (UPI) -- Lawmakers are still roaming the hallways of Congress making deals. Lobbyists still fill the fancy eateries that surround Capitol Hill. Rush hour traffic is still a frustrating exercise in futility. And, spring has uplifted the spirits of a winter-weary public.

It's wartime in the nation's capital.

Despite the war in Iraq, not much has outwardly changed in Washington. But the fact that a large-scale U.S.-led invasion is taking place in Iraq is impossible to escape.

Tourists, eager for a leisurely stroll among the cherry blossoms, are still flocking to the city's hotels, restaurants and museums.

Yet last Wednesday, as the first missiles were being fired at Baghdad, Washington tightened its security belt.

Police have been guarding every major bridge and roadway, and conducting patrols to make sure explosives weren't planted and chemical weapons wouldn't be set off in the city's Metro rail system.

Trash containers, recycling bins and newspaper racks have disappeared from the Metro stations out of fear of a terrorist attack. Metal detectors are everywhere.

Security at Vice President Richard Cheney's residence on Massachusetts Avenue is tighter than ever. Two police cruisers idle in front of every iron gate, and occasionally, the street is blocked altogether. The property's high fence is electronically monitored, and security guards roam the property.

At the Pentagon, visitors who take a wrong turn into the parking lot are met with Humvee trucks with large guns mounted on top, ready to take out trouble. In the parking lot, soldiers and technicians monitor equipment that detects the presence of chemical or biological agents.

Public tours of the U.S. Capitol have been suspended indefinitely. The White House tour is closed, as is the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Yet there are signs that Washington is toning down its high-alert status.

Last Wednesday all 3,600 D.C. police officers were put on 12-hour, 6-days-a-week shifts. But as of 6 a.m. Tuesday almost all shifts, with the exception of special units, were back to standard 8-hour, 5-days-a-week shifts, said D.C. Police Sgt. Joe Gentile.

The Smithsonian museums remain open, as well as most of the city's other attractions.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival will go on as scheduled from March 22 to April 7, say organizers, who report few cancellations.

The cherry blossom festival drew over a million visitors to the city last year, said Diana Mayhew, executive director. "I can't imagine that this year will be much different," she said.

Festival organizers are staying upbeat, although some tour groups have cancelled, especially groups of school children. The festival office has received calls from those anxious about their safety while in Washington. "I tell them ... Washington, D.C. is open for business," she said.

Attendance during the first weekend of the festival was down, whether from anxiety over terrorism or a delayed blossom bloom thanks to a chilly winter and delayed spring.

The National Park Service announced Tuesday that the 3,700 Japanese cherry trees planted around the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument will bloom around April 5 through April 12.

This past weekend the Smithsonian's annual kite festival, one of many events kicking off the cherry blossom festival, drew only a hundred people on a warm Sunday afternoon, down from last's years estimated 200.

Local businesses are counting on the festival to pump money into the local economy.

Rooms at the St. Regis, a hotel on 16th and K Streets, are filling up with patrons who booked a "Cherry Blossom Package" of $189 a night per room, with a two-night minimum.

"People have been calling," said Regis marketing representative Bridget Hess.

Hotel occupancy rates are holding steady in comparison to last year's numbers, said Sue Porter, director of tourism and visitor services for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

"We've had some school group cancellations, there's no question about that, but it's not the total cancellations like it was after Sept. 11," she said. "We're just happy at this point the hotel occupancy rate is holding."

One event was cancelled -- the D.C. Marathon, scheduled for March 23. Some enthusiastic runners completed the course anyway.

Most events this weekend are going forward as scheduled, such as the World Figure Skating Championships and the grand opening of the D.C. Convention Center.

The chamber has also received calls from people who are wavering on whether they want to come near the capital.

"What we tell them is you need to make your own choice, but if you come certainly things are going to be open," Porter said.

Dr. Tom Neely and his wife Becky, from Birmingham, Ala., planned their trip to Washington three months ago. Canceling the trip didn't even cross their minds, Mrs. Neely said.

The couple flew up Saturday from Alabama for the weeklong trip. "This is a city of sirens. There must be more police cars here than anywhere else," Dr. Neely said.

Standing across from the White House in Lafayette Square Park, his wife pointed at the numerous police standing guard on a closed Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I feel like they're really protecting everybody," she said.

Those who haven't stayed away are anti-war protestors. Thousands have marched in various spots around the city, a daily presence around the White House, Capitol Hill, and Donald Rumsfeld's house.

Striking a balance between people's right to protest, maintaining security, keeping traffic moving through the city and maintaining order is nothing new, said U.S. Park Police Sgt. Scott Fear.

"It's something that the United States Park Police have been dealing with for years and years. We're going to strike a balance between keeping memorials open and maintaining security," he said.

The park police, in charge of scheduling and security of the district's parks and monuments, placed its officers on 12-hour a day, 5-day a week shifts following Monday's heightened security alert issued by the Homeland Security Department.

The method of securing the area's monuments and parks remains much the same, Fear said.

Protests around the White House are now a daily occurrence. The park police receive requests for permits for several scheduled protests per day.

The park police have horse mounted units, foot and cruiser patrols, and plain clothes officers stationed around the National Mall, all monuments and other national icons.

So for now, despite the added security, or perhaps because of it, business will continue on as usual in the nation's capital.

"I was walking down the street today and I saw several tour groups. I was stuck behind four buses," Porter said. "We haven't really been in this situation before...I think people are just pretty much saying we're coming anyway."

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© 2003, UPI