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Shutdown leaves thousands in DC area in limbo

By Jessica Gresko

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2 2013 8:43 a.m. MDT

Visitors gather in the main entrance of the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, Wednesday, April 6, 2011.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The usually bustling District of Columbia will be uniquely affected Wednesday by the first government shutdown in 17 years, with thousands of federal employees who make up the backbone of the metro area's workforce ordered not to report to work.

Furloughed workers facing the prospect of an uncertain time without work — and without paychecks — were offered everything from free burgers, sandwiches and cups of coffee to admission to private museums, pilates lessons and activities at community centers.

At Pork Barrel BBQ in Alexandria, Va., just outside the District of Columbia, the disdain for the stalemate in Congress that led to the shutdown was clear. The restaurant gave away 275 pulled pork sandwiches to workers with a government ID on Tuesday, though it took pains to note in its Twitter announcement that the offer "EXCLUDES CONGRESSMEN."

Many workers were on edge, unsure of how long it may be before they could head back to work.

"Even if it's just shut down for a week that's a quarter of your pay this month. That means a lot to a lot of people," said Marc Cevasco, 30, who works in Congressional affairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Washington region is expected to lose $220 million per day in federal payroll while the government is closed, said Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis. So federal workers won't be spending money at small businesses and restaurants while they're not being paid, he said.

"They won't be buying anything," Fuller said. "They're just going to hunker down."

The effect on tourism already was being felt. Barricades were erected around some of the nation's most cherished monuments, from the Lincoln Memorial to the World War II Memorial. More than 100 veterans passed the barriers at the World War II with help from several federal lawmakers. But most visitors could only admire landmarks from afar and found themselves staring at locked doors and "CLOSED" signs at the Smithsonian Institution's popular museums.

On Wednesday morning, traffic was still heavy on 16th Street heading to downtown Washington, and buses in the area were full. Some Metro rail lines were far less crowded, however. At the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station downtown, normally packed train cars had empty aisles and seats.

Elizabeth Eide, a geologist, said cars were about half their usual weekday capacity. She worried whether Metro would have to change its schedules for a time if ridership dropped dramatically during the shutdown.

"If you have several hundred thousand people not using Metro, I have a feeling Metro will have to change its operations," she said.

The city government is beholden to Congress, which has yet to sign off on a spending plan for the District. But the D.C. City Council approved an emergency measure Tuesday to keep tens of thousands of municipal workers on the job, including everyone from trash collectors to librarians. City officials expect an emergency fund to cover about two weeks of operations if Congress can't reach agreement on the budget.

Nationwide, about 800,000 federal employees were sent home — a number greater than the combined U.S. workforces of Target, General Motors, Exxon and Google. The effects played out in a variety of ways, from scaled-back operations at federal prosecutors' offices and the FBI to closures at national parks.

Campers and hikers at the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone and other national parks were given two days to pack up and leave, and new visitors were being turned away. St. Louis' landmark 630-foot-high Gateway Arch was off-limits as well.

In Philadelphia, Paul Skilling of Northern Ireland wanted to see the Liberty Bell up close but had to settle for looking at the symbol of democracy through glass. And he wasn't optimistic about the chances of visiting any landmarks in Washington, the next stop on a weeks-long visit.

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