The eight-foot fence – and other worries about papal visit

downtown Philadelphia

The view of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel. (Katie Colaneri/WHYY)

Concern is growing about security measures planned for Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia this September, including reports of an 8-foot fence closing off a section of Center City.

In response to a report from NBC10, Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, said “Philadelphia officials do not have a plan for constructing an 8-foot fence” enclosing a 4.5 mile box around the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

However, it is the U.S. Secret Service, not the city, that is in charge of security for the papal visit.

“Way too early to speculate as things change almost daily,” said Secret Service spokesman Robert Hoback in an e-mail to NewsWorks requesting comment on the NBC10 report.

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Hoback recently told PlanPhilly that the agency will not reveal its plans or discuss road closures, security checkpoints and other details until at least three weeks before the pontiff arrives in Philadelphia on Saturday, Sept. 26.

In the meantime, some center city businesses find it frustrating that the full security plan is not yet public with less than three months to go.

Rick Staub is general manager of the Sheraton Hotel in Downtown Philadelphia, which is across the street from the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s headquarters and just off the Parkway where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass on Sunday, Sept. 27. While officials have been mum on the details, the Sheraton is sure to be within the bounds of a security perimeter where Mayor Nutter has already said vehicular traffic will be extremely limited — if allowed at all. 

Staub knows he’ll have to plan for major disruptions, but without a final plan, he has a lot of unanswered questions. He wonders, for example, how he’ll be able to accept food deliveries or get his trash collected.

“We’re not sure if we can get our laundry trucks in and out every night, so we’re talking about gee, we have to have additional laundry stock on site,” said Staub, who also sits on the hospitality committee for the World Meeting of Families, the weeklong Catholic conference drawing Pope Francis and thousands of visitors. 

Staub said Center City hotels are planning ahead as best as they can, exploring options such as renting extra trash compactors or limiting the number of towels and bedsheets provided to each guest. 

He is also concerned that speculation about tight security, combined with reports of an estimated 2 million visitors for the weekend of the papal visit, will scare off other travelers earlier in the week. The World Meeting of Families is expected to draw only about 15,000 people to the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

“The risk here is that if people stop traveling that whole week because they think it’s going to be nuts in Philadelphia and don’t come here and that’s not going to be the case,” said Staub.

At a press conference earlier this week announcing Pope Francis’ public schedule, Mayor Nutter would not say when more information about security measures will be released, but assured those hosting guests in Philadelphia that they’ll have all the information they need.

“Some of those details may change over time, some may get enhanced,” Nutter said. “There is a plan to deal with issues of food and water and the like.”

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