The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Hoping that this will end soon’: D.C. tourists, residents find workarounds as shutdown drags on

The Newseum wants passersby to know it is open despite the partial government shutdown. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

On the first Friday of the year, tourists roamed the Mall searching for signs of life.

The Smithsonian museums were closed. So, too, was the carousel on the Mall, its painted horses frozen in place.

Tourism in the District typically slows in January. Hotels have fewer guests, and restaurants are less crowded. Washingtonians and visitors alike shop a little less.

But the partial government shutdown has deepened the lull.

Business owners, taxi drivers and others who rely on foot traffic have watched revenue slump as parts of the government ground to a halt. Should the shutdown persist for “months or even years,” as President Trump said it could Friday, its effect on the District will only worsen.

This isn’t the District’s first go-round with a government shutdown, though it’s already one of the longest.

In 2013, the federal government suspended operations for 16 days as Congress sparred over the Affordable Care Act. The longest shutdown was in 1995. It lasted three weeks.

Previous standoffs have taught business owners and tour guides how to adapt.

“Six years ago it was like, ‘Oh my God, the city’s shut down. We’re going to have to cancel our trip.’ But now, we’ve all been here before and people are realizing a lot of what D.C. has to offer has nothing to do with the federal government,” said Elliott Ferguson, president of Destination DC, the city’s tourism arm. “They’ve realized a government shutdown doesn’t mean we’ve put a padlock on New York Avenue.”

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Hotels are seeing fewer cancellations than in past shutdowns, Ferguson said, and fewer tour groups have called Destination DC in a panic. Two conventions scheduled this month are expected to bring about 27,000 people and $33 million to the city.

“Right now, we’re all hoping that this will end soon,” Ferguson said. “But in the meantime, we want everyone to know D.C. is open for business.”

Getting that message out has been a challenge for small businesses, especially those near closed attractions.

Yael Krigman, owner of Baked By Yael, a bakery across from the National Zoo, said she’s leaned more heavily on catering and “cake pop parties” in lieu of the usual zoo-goer foot traffic.

It hasn’t been easy.

“It’s not as though January was going to be our best season anyway, but that’s why we really rely on the zoo even more than in other months, because people aren’t sending gifts and throwing parties as much as they do in December or February,” Krigman said. “But people still go to the zoo — when it’s open.”

Private museums have worked with tour guides to fill gaps in tourists’ schedules left by shuttered public attractions. The Newseum and Madame Tussauds wax museum are offering free admission for furloughed federal workers.

“During shutdowns, we always see an increase — especially of tour groups who are trying to change their itineraries at the last minute,” said Sonya Gavankar, director of public relations for the Newseum.

The National Geographic museum isn’t fully operational, with two rotating exhibits closed for construction, but spokeswoman Lexie de los Santos said the museum also has seen a “significant increase in the number of people visiting.”

Still, museum officials and city leaders say no one wants to see the shutdown persist.

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“During a shutdown, there are no winners and our nation’s federal workers, including the 170,000 federal employees who work in Washington, DC, pay the highest price,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser wrote in a letter to Trump last week.

Dawit Kassa, 41, a full-time Lyft driver from Arlington who works primarily in downtown Washington, said his earnings have been halved since the shutdown began.

During periods that would normally be busy, Kassa has sat idle up to 40 minutes between calls. Usually, he said, he has another ride lined up by the time he’s dropping a customer off.

“It’s so slow,” he said. “And it’s not just me. You know, drivers talk. We call each other. I have friends who drive taxis and Uber and we all call each other to ask, ‘Hey, do you have a ride?’ Everyone who works out here on the street is suffering.”

Unemployment claims in the District since the shutdown began exceeded 1,200 as of Friday, which marked a full pay period for unpaid federal workers.

Claims typically spike during shutdowns because federal workers are not guaranteed back pay and government contractors lose their source of income.

During the 16-day shutdown in 2013, the city processed about 5,000 unemployment claims. District officials expect to meet or exceed that number, depending on how long the present shutdown lasts. About 800,000 workers around the country are affected, with about a quarter of the federal government shuttered.

As the sun set Friday, a smattering of tourists posed for pictures on the Mall outside wrought iron fences.

Minwa and Khafe Oshingbemi, a married couple from Nigeria, took turns taking photos that appeared to show each being pricked by the top of the Washington Monument. It was their first time in Washington.

“What are we going to do?” Minwa Oshingbemi said with a shrug. “We’re here now.”

A few feet away, a tour guide on a Segway rolled past, trailed by a line of visitors.

“Usually, this is just overflowing with people,” he said. “Not today.”

Read more:

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