Philadelphia, PA – Heightened security for Pope Francis’ weekend visit remade downtown Philadelphia into a heavily fortified and largely deserted pedestrian mall on Friday, with the usual bustle of commuters giving way to anxiety and anticipation.
Concrete barriers, steel fencing and rows of portable toilets lined streets in the vehicle-free zone that went up overnight around the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where Francis will participate in a concert Saturday and celebrate Mass on Sunday.
Walking to some areas required passing through airport-style metal detectors, where agents were flagging banned items like pocket knives and shaving cream canisters, or walking several blocks out of the way to avoid the security zone.
Packs of pilgrims in colorful shirts dotted the sidewalks. On an empty Market Street, downtown’s primary thoroughfare, a man threw a football to friends and people posed for selfies. In some places, law enforcement outnumbered civilians.
The National Guard has brought about 3,000 troops to help traffic control.
“There is a feeling of anticipation and it’s great to be part of it,” said Tina Miles, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “Very exciting to be here.”
Organizers expect about 500,000 people for the concert Saturday and more than a million people at his Mass on Sunday. They expect about 40,000 people for the pope’s speech on immigration and religious freedom at Independence Hall on Saturday.
A steady stream of visitors stopped to take pictures in front of the flag-draped Independence Hall stage where Francis, using President Lincoln’s lectern, will speak.
Filipina Opena, 46, of La Mirada, California, was born and raised in the Philippines.
“Having him as the pope right now really strengthens the Catholic church throughout the world — his message of hope, of compassion, of acceptance of others,” said Opena, a Catholic real estate consultant. “He opens himself up to everybody.”
The National Weather Service is forecasting partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the high 70s on Saturday and a 30 percent chance of rain on Sunday.
Many downtown offices were closed Friday or had employees working from home in advance of the closures, sapping restaurants of their usual clientele.
At Finn McCool’s Ale House, owner Pete Sourias watched live TV coverage of Pope Francis’s visit to New York when, on a normal Friday, he would have been serving a big lunch crowd. The place was empty.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Sourias said. “I don’t like it but I’m not going to complain about it. It’s the pope. It’s a once in a lifetime event. I hope I see him.”
Additional restrictions were scheduled to go into effect Friday night.
Vehicles were not being allowed to enter a 5-square-mile area of downtown starting at 6 p.m. Friday.
The 2-mile-long Benjamin Franklin Bridge into New Jersey and 25 miles of highway will be shut down at 10 p.m.
The restrictions are expected to be lifted by Monday morning.
“On Monday we’ll be back to normal,” Sourias said. “I’m not complaining, believe me. It’s great for the city.”