District becoming NATO country

Capital braces for crush of dignitaries, activity for anniversary summit

War In Yugoslavia

April 19, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Consider it the Olympics of the diplomatic world.

When the NATO summit convenes in the nation's capital this week -- the largest gathering of world leaders in the city's history -- it will require precision planning and sophisticated event coordination. The result: Downtown will turn into The NATO Zone.

Thousands of government employees will be absent from work, all District of Columbia public schools will take the day off, streets will close, hotels will cater exclusively to NATO officials. Even the cell phones will be special, operating with private NATO numbers.

"We've never planned an event like this before," said Sally Painter, chief operating officer of the NATO 50th Anniversary Summit host committee, the group coordinating events. "Think of all the details: Who is greeting different diplomats? How many people will support the different delegations? Do we have phone lines? Do we have fax lines? How many chairs will fit in our meeting rooms?"

While organizers answer these questions, the city prepares for a virtual shutdown. More than 2,000 diplomats and delegates from more than 40 countries -- along with an estimated 1,000 journalists -- are expected here Friday for the summit, which ends Sunday.

The district school system announced last week that all 153 public schools will be closed Friday, because of security and traffic concerns. Fearing gridlock, the federal government excused 90,000 employees from work, and thousands more district employees are expected to get the day off. Another 80,000 U.S. employees in the district and Arlington, Va., are being asked to take vacation days. No federal offices in Maryland are being closed.

A swath of city streets at the heart of the summit, in the Federal Triangle area, will be open only to people cleared by the Secret Service. All district police are expected to be on duty. The scene will be patrolled in part by bomb-sniffing dogs and a SWAT team from the U.S. Park Police.

While the city orchestrates security, organizers are arranging the last-minute details, from specialized NATO room service -- country-specific pastries for each of the three national delegations staying at the Hay Adams Hotel, for example -- to a private NATO phone network.

Nextel Communications Inc., a corporate sponsor, is handing out more than 2,000 specially programmed cell phones to NATO participants. NATO officials will be able to call each other by flipping open a NATO-logo cell phone and simply pushing a button.

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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