Shutdown’s end once again fills Washington with federal workers and tourists

October 17, 2013

With its 16-day shutdown finally ended, the federal government roused from slumber Thursday morning, a colossal bureaucracy fitfully beginning to function again as hundreds of thousands of smiling workers returned to offices and cubicles.

They came by roadways and transit systems, the Washington area’s weekday suddenly as heavy as it was before much of the federal workforce was furloughed Oct. 1. At an alphabet soup of agencies — at the FAA, the FCC, the FBI; at the NLRB, the NTSB, the NOAA — computer screens glowed at last as tables began to be tabulated, forms filed, data distilled, paperwork processed.

The United States: Yes, we’re open! (Please pardon our appearance.)

Because it’s not as easy as flipping a switch.

“Today’s going to be all about looking at schedules and prioritizing,” said Brenda Mulac, delighted to be working again at NASA’s office of strategic planning. On a Metro train rumbling toward the District, Mulac also looked forward to doughnuts, certain that someone in her office would show up with a box.

“They always do,” she said.

Rarely have so many been so happy to get up and go back to the mill.

“I have 500 e-mails,” said a woman puffing on a cigarette in front of the Department of Education’s sprawling headquarters on Maryland Avenue SW. “I got through about a hundred of them before taking a break.”

And there was Adam Schwartz, on the job at 6 a.m., scooping dirt and leaves out of the fountain at the World War II Memorial on the Mall, where monuments closed and barricaded for two weeks stood as symbols of Washington’s paralysis.

“The key is to make it crystal clear again,” Schwartz said. “For the veterans.”

The barriers came down Thursday, as did signs warning visitors not to enter, while federal programs serving veterans, cancer patients, seniors citizens and others started gearing up. So did cultural attractions, including national museums.

And there was Mei Xiang, the giant panda, and her yet-to-be-named cub, back on the National Zoo’s popular online panda cams for the world to view — a fatter and more robust cub than panda-watchers saw earlier this month, before the cam went dark.

After the Metrorail system opened at 5 a.m., commuters saw more eight-car trains than they had since federal employees were furloughed. With ridership down 20 percent during the government closure and fare revenue greatly diminished, the transit system had been running more six-car trains to save on electricity.

Not everything went smoothly everywhere Thursday. The U.S. Park Service said that sections of Beach Drive along Rock Creek Parkway were closed during the morning rush as crews worked to clean fallen leaves after days of not being able to maintain the area. Officials said they expected the road to be reopened for evening commuters.

At the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, shuttle buses that ferry employees on the campus and to other NIH facilities weren’t running normally early Thursday. Some employees had to scramble to find other ways to get to their offices.

Glitches aside, for many government workers, there was a sense of relief, even as they wedged onto Metro trains again packed shoulder-to-shoulder.

The shutdown had a far-reaching impact across the nation, with 450,000 federal employees furloughed and more than $20 billion in direct government spending and related economic activity siphoned from the economy. More than a million workers who stayed on their jobs had to cope without salaries, their paychecks delayed.

In Washington and its suburbs, the impact was especially pronounced. Downtown restaurants and businesses that depend on tourism suffered. Furloughed workers fretted about bills, and some took part-time jobs. But all those who were laid off will get retroactive compensation in their next paychecks, the Office of Management and Budget said.

Outside the Federal Aviation Administration building in L’Enfant Plaza, Steve Batchelder strolled toward his office with a wide smile.

“A lot of people are counting on us to get back to work and get our projects going,” said Batchelder, whose job involves setting guidelines for the implementation of software in radar systems. “There are several contractors and vendors that support the FAA,” Batchelder explained. “They are all waiting for us to come back.”

Terence Puls, and countless others like him, played vital roles in Thursday’s government reboot. An information-technology specialist for NASA, Puls fielded a lot of calls at the space agency’s headquarters on E Street in Southwest from workers unable to rouse their computers after 16 days and nights of digital sleep.

Plus, all those passwords that folks couldn’t remember.

“Some people just forgot things,” Puls said.

Near Federal Triangle, Vice President Biden offered snacks, handshakes and hugs as he greeted returning workers at the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I brought muffins,” he announced, setting down the goodies at the security desk.

At the Department of Agriculture headquarters in Southwest Washington, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also welcomed employees. “Good morning, folks,” he said as workers hustled out of a Metro station. “Thank you for your service.”

He noted, “They’re running up the steps — that’s a good sign.”

Workers also streamed out of the Smithsonian Metro station on the Mall, many of them unsure what the day would bring. “We were shut out,” said Bill Bound, an exhibitions production manager at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Smithsonian’s Asian Art museums. “We couldn’t get into our computers.”

The museum is scheduled to open a a major exhibit this weekend — “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” — but because of the shutdown, Bound said, he isn’t certain what his timeline will be for getting the show up and running.

The National Transportation Safety Board has some catching up to do, as well.

“Our staffs are arriving back, getting organized and preparing for the days and weeks ahead,” spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. “Directors are meeting with their staffs to discuss the impact of the furlough on active investigations, hearings, and board meeting, and to discuss accidents that occurred during the shutdown and what, if any, response is needed.”

One of those accidents occurred Oct. 6 in a Metro subway tunnel, where a worker was crushed by a heavy metal rail during a maintenance project.

“Obviously, staff are really happy to be back at work,” Nantel said. “But now, assessing the workload and determining the priority work is the focus for everyone.”

Across from L’Enfant Plaza, vendors in food trucks parked on C Street prepared to serve the returning workers.

“We have a lot of loyal customers in this spot, and we know they weren’t here,” said Christopher Lee. The vendors, who depend on hungry government employees, felt the pinch of the shutdown. “We are looking forward to reconnecting with them,” Lee said.

So is Ty Murray, who shines shoes at Union Station.

“We lost half our daily regulars,” Murray said as he lathered soap on a customer’s black wingtips. “Everybody was hurting.”

Now, like Murray, Lidya Vittorio is happy to welcome back her regulars. She has worked for seven years as a server and bartender at Vie de France’s After Hours restaurant near the L’Enfant Metro station. When the government closed, so did the restaurant.

Vittorio, who has a 9-year-old daughter, said she struggled with no income. She let her electric bill go unpaid and applied for food stamps, she said. She went to Arlington County’s Department of Human Services to seek help paying her rent. But with the shutdown over, she is back on the job. The restaurant was open for drinks Thursday and planned to start serving meals today.

Gradually, by hourly increments, normalcy seemed to be returning — such as normalcy is in a politically polarized capital city.

“We’ll see what’s going to happen,” Vittorio said.

paul.duggan@washpost.com

Luz Lazo, Lori Aratani, Victoria St. Martin, Ashley Halsey III, Michael E . Ruane, Dana Hedgpeth, Leonard Bernstein, Samantha Hogan, Lyndsey Layton, Juliet Eilperin and Josh Hicks contributed to this report.

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