The city’s wealth of free attractions are a harried Washingtonian’s best friend this time of year, especially for those with visitors: Pack mom and dad off to the Kennedy Center’s singalong “Messiah,” and drag the little cousins to ZooLights.
And then a government shutdown looms, and no one knows what, if anything, will be open on Saturday.
That was the crisis on the last Friday before Christmas, when most people should have been planning what kind of cookies they’d be baking this weekend — not figuring out what they’re going to do if they can’t take the family to the National Air and Space Museum or the National Gallery of Art.
This is the second government shutdown this year, and Washington’s federally funded cultural institutions have experience finding creative ways to keep the lights (and the Panda cam) on — at least for now.
The National Gallery of Art is using a combination of “unexpired two-year and no-year appropriations” to keep the museum and popular ice rink in the Sculpture Garden open until Dec. 31, according to spokeswoman Anabeth Guthrie, while the Smithsonian is tapping unused “prior-year funds” to stay open through New Year’s Day.
What happens after that, though, is anyone’s guess.
Finding the money to stay open is a big deal for the Smithsonian. “It’s one of our busiest times of year,” spokeswoman Alex Fairchild says. Attendance can jump 50 to 75 percent in the weeks around Christmas, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture had announced that the museum would extend its hours until 7:30 p.m. from Dec. 26 to 29 to meet the increased demand for tickets.
If the Smithsonian closes for an extended period, it can be a boon for the city’s numerous private museums. During the 2013 shutdown, which stretched for 16 days, the National Museum of Women in the Arts “got calls from tour groups who had been planning to go to other museums and wanted to make sure we’d be open,” says director of communications Amy Mannarino. More than 3,000 furloughed workers took advantage of the museum’s offer of free admission with a government ID, “which, for us, was a very significant number at that time,” Mannarino says.
There were reassurances from Kennedy Center and Ford’s Theatre, which receive federal funds but don’t use them to stage performances, that all shows will go on. (The Kennedy Center will cut its hours and public tours because the government pays for such services as security and trash removal, which are curtailed during a shutdown.)
Meanwhile, there was silence from the National Park Service, which didn’t return repeated phone calls or emails about the effects of a shutdown on the nation’s front yard.
During recent shutdowns, the Park Service has simply not staffed its properties, including the Mall, by closing restrooms and canceling tours. But since it can’t prohibit access to the Lincoln Memorial or the grassy areas near the Smithsonian facilities, tourists and locals roamed the area freely. (The enduring image of the 2013 shutdown remains a crowd removing barricades in front of the World War II Memorial so a group of veterans on an Honor Flight could visit.)
Another thing missing from the never-ending discussion on the potential shutdown: happy-hour specials.
Hill staffer favorite Capitol Lounge announced a menu of cleverly named cocktails that will cost $5 for the shutdown’s duration, including the MadDog 20/20-based Nothing Really Mattis and a tequila sunrise dubbed Mexico Will Pay For This. But they were one of the few.
In 2013, dozens of bars promised all-day happy hours and half-price food to anyone holding a government ID. In a town where the State of the Union speech is a drinking game and bars were packed at 9 a.m. for former FBI director James B. Comey’s congressional testimony, this was probably expected. But bar owner Matt Weiss, whose properties include Capitol Hill’s Union Pub and Barrel, says those deals were more than promotions.
“Citywide, I think there was a concern for people who weren’t getting paid” for more than two weeks, he explains. Cut-price food and drinks “weren’t just about getting people in the door. It was trying to be helpful to people who weren’t getting paid. Those people are our regulars, our friends.”
Of course, some of those deals were too successful: Z Burger offered free burgers to government workers and gave away more than 15,000 over three days before pulling the plug.
“Every day we are giving away $30,000 worth of food,” owner Peter Tabibian told the Huffington Post at the time. “It’s going to put me out of business.”