They shine Washington’s shoes and pour its drinks. Another shutdown would hurt

Business owners are watching the impasse in Congress with a familiar sense of dread

David Kirkley, owner of Union Station Shoe Shine in Washington, is worried about the loss of walk-in business from federal workers heading to their jobs. Photograph: Michael A McCoy/New York Times

On most days, more than half of the customers at Union Station Shoe Shine in Washington’s main train hub are federal employees and others heading to Capitol Hill, who stop in for a $10 shine.

So if the federal government were to shut down, the owner of the shop said he would inevitably see fewer customers stepping into one of his five chairs to have their boots, brogues or wingtips polished on their way to work.

“It would be catastrophic because we’re still trying to recover from the pandemic,” said the owner, David Kirkley. He could buy ads on Facebook or Yelp, he said. “But there’s not a lot you can do if people are not in the city,” he said. “Our main business is walk-by traffic.”

A shutdown could inflict serious pain on many small businesses in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, where hundreds of thousands of federal workers help power the local economy during their daily commutes. Many are watching the debate in Congress with growing frustration and a familiar sense of dread.

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During a shutdown, thousands of federal workers would be furloughed or would continue to work without pay. And many would cut back on spending.

And unlike furloughed workers who will eventually receive back-pay when the shutdown ends, shops that have lost business will have no such recourse. In Maryland, which is home to about 139,000 civilian federal employees, businesses such as day care centres, coffee shops and retailers could feel the effects.

“It’s those extras that people won’t do,” said Mary Kane, president and chief executive of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. “Maybe they won’t take in their laundry or dry cleaning or go out to eat or to the local coffee shop. And there is no way that you will get that money later.”

The capital’s economy is fuelled by commuters from the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, who leave a trail of spending during the work week at local lunch counters and bars. If they stay home, Uber, Lyft and taxi drivers also see fewer customers.

Terra Preston working at Lee’s Flower and Card Shop in Washington. The owner of the shop predicted that flowers would be one of the first expenses eliminated from federal workers’ budgets. Photograph: Michael A McCoy/New York Times

Stacie Lee Banks, owner of Lee’s Flower and Card Shop in Washington, said fresh-cut flowers might be the first thing furloughed federal workers cut from their budgets. “People need food, and they need housing and shelter,” Banks said, “but they don’t need flowers.”

Mr Henry’s, a restaurant and jazz club less than a mile from the Capitol, could lose 20-30 per cent of its business during a shutdown, said Cathy Nagy, the general manager.

“We’re a small business – that’s significant,” Nagy said, adding that lunch, dinner and after-work drink sales would suffer without the usual crowds from Capitol Hill. She said Mr Henry’s, which has a happy hour from 4-7pm, might offer additional specials during a shutdown.

“You just have to pivot,” Nagy said, noting that Mr Henry’s survived previous shutdowns and the coronavirus pandemic. “Sometimes I’m pivoting so fast I feel like a ballerina.”

Efforts to avert a shutdown have splintered over whether the associated legislation should increase aid to Ukraine or enact spending cuts, among other issues. If Congress can’t reach a deal, federal funding will lapse at midnight on Saturday. The dispute has exasperated some business owners.

“Do your job. It is ridiculous,” said Eddie Lofton, who owns JC Lofton Tailors, a shop near the U Street Metro station in Washington that tailors suits for many federal employees.

Lofton, whose grandfather started a Washington tailor shop and school in 1939, said members of Congress would still be paid during a shutdown. “It’s not going to affect them as much,” he said, “and they’re not thinking about the regular people.”

Some who work near the Capitol expressed a sense of fatalism about the dysfunction.

After all, the United States has experienced 21 gaps in government funding since 1976. During the longest and most recent shutdown, in 2018, roughly 800,000 of the federal government’s 2.1 million employees were sidelined for 34 days.

Eddie Lofton, owner of JC Lofton Tailors in Washington, says members of Congress will still be paid during a shutdown. Photograph: Michael A McCoy/New York Times

“We’re used to it,” said Nu Dang, who cuts hair at Capitol Barber & Stylist, a short walk from the Capitol. “Nothing can help.”

Business would be “very slow” during a shutdown, Dang said, and she would pass the time watching TV and YouTube.

Nationwide, 70 per cent of small-business owners said in a recent survey by Goldman Sachs that their businesses would be “negatively impacted” by a government shutdown. Of those, 67 per cent said customer demand would drop because of economic uncertainty and instability.

Cycled!, a Washington cycling studio about a block from the Takoma Metro station near the Maryland border, is planning to offer free classes and discounts to furloughed employees, similar to what it did during the last shutdown.

During that closure, more people showed up to work out at first, said Shayla Cornick, the studio’s owner. But as the shutdown dragged on, customers cancelled memberships and sales declined. “In this area, everyone is impacted when the government shuts down,” Cornick said.

Lacey Huber, vice-president of Stone Tower Winery in Leesburg, Virginia, said she noticed a similar change in customer behaviour during the last shutdown.

“The first few weeks of that was kind of fun,” she said. “It had a lively atmosphere because everybody was off work, and we did offer some discounts. Our weekday traffic customers were much higher, but then that quickly dissipated because once that first pay cheque doesn’t show up, people get worried.”

Caffe Amouri in Vienna, Virginia, which opens at 6am to capture the morning rush of government employees, might offer free drinks or other promotions, as it did during the last shutdown, said Michael Amouri, the owner. In the short term, the cafe could become busier as furloughed employees suddenly have free time on their hands.

“We do provide a place to go and to commiserate,” Amouri said. “Whether it will help or not is hard to say.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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