On the 19th day of a partial government shutdown, some federal workers are suffering as they start to go without paychecks. Meanwhile, D.C. businesses are suffering as pieces of those paychecks stop trickling down to them.
“Right now, the phone is not ringing,” said Isabelle Hauswald, Swann House’s general manager.
She said January is always slow, but this January is worse. Just one of the bed-and-breakfast’s dozen rooms is occupied, and business is down 30 percent compared with last year. Some Swann House regulars are government workers who travel, she said, while other visitors cut trips short because Smithsonian museums are closed.
City officials have stressed that while some tourist destinations are closed, much of the city remains open for business — even if business is a bit slower than normal.
Kevin Donahue, D.C. deputy mayor for public safety, said the severity of the shutdown on the District is clear but too soon to calculate. He noted downtown lunch spots, for example, have shorter lines and are missing out on revenue that can’t be recovered.
“The government, in ways people cannot see, is moving the economy forward. If you stop the engine, that has consequences,” he said.
Downtown food-truck oases such as Farragut and Franklin squares aren’t abandoned, but options are more limited as business has fallen.
Kirk Francis, owner of the mobile bakery Captain Cookie & the Milkman, said the shutdown is “crushing lunch vending.” His survival strategy: Take trucks off the street and roll staff into his brick-and-mortar operations.
“I think all metro-area retailers will have to cope with a sharp drop in spending,” Francis wrote in an email. “In general, I believe the uncertainty of our political climate is dragging the economy down.”
The shutdown was also hitting businesses in more unusual ways.
Mel Gold, spokeswoman for DC Brau, a craft brewery in Northeast Washington, said the business had no complaints about sales volume, although a promotion was beginning to take a bite out of profits. The brewery is offering an additional 1 percent off prices in its tasting room for each day the shutdown continues.
“I’m not sure how long we’ll keep that going,” Gold said.
Instead, Gold has a bureaucratic problem: DC Brau has two new beers planned for February, and the artwork on its labels must be approved by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an agency of the Treasury Department. The agency’s website says submissions will not be reviewed because of the lapse in government funding.
Gold said everyone in the city is “in the same boat” regarding the shutdown: It needs to end before its effects can leave deeper economic scars.
“This is being done to them,” she said of furloughed workers. “They should still be able to eat out and drink beer and sort of have some semblance of a life.”
Whether feeling the pinch or not, several businesses tried new methods to bring customers through their doors.
Will Hand, director of sales and marketing for the District Doughnut chain, said he had a catering order canceled last week from a closed office. Mornings, when regulars typically visit his stores, have also been slower, he said.
Still, it seems doughnuts always find a way. The chain is offering federal employees a free cup of coffee with any purchase.
“We’ve had over 100 federal employees take advantage of our #FurloughJoe coffee offering,” he said. “It has been great to support this group while also attracting people that may not normally visit us.”
The shutdown brought uncertainty for employees who care for government workers’ children. Venus Thomas, assistant director of Diplotots, which cares for more than 100 children of State Department employees, said she hasn’t yet been affected by the shutdown but knew parents might miss payments if it drags on.
“As of right now, they’re paying,” she said. “If a couple weeks goes by, I don’t know what they’ll do.”
At least one plastic surgeon, Mark Domanski, whose office is in Fairfax County, used the shutdown as a way to lure new customers.
Domanski, who is taking 20 percent off the price tag for injectable treatments, said he hasn’t seen a major downturn in business — although one patient, a government contractor, canceled a procedure in the shutdown’s second week. He said he doesn’t expect a rush of idle workers seeking fresh looks for 2019.
“It’s not like somebody’s going to say: ‘I’m furloughed; now I’ll get a tummy tuck,’ ” he said.
Rather, Domanski was following one of retail’s cardinal rules: People love specials, and you have to give the people what they love while you can.
“The first thing that gets cut in any economic uncertainty is people’s discretionary spending,” he said. “I’d be at the top of their list.”
Back at Swann House, Hauswald found her own way to keep busy: She’s offering tea and cookies every afternoon to furloughed government employees. The snacks are as much an exercise in community building as a business strategy, she said.
“We just want people to see that we are supporting the workers affected by the shutdown, and also to try to attract some neighbors and some people in D.C. who just would like to hang out,” she said.