Tourists' plans foiled by the federal shutdown

Michael and Mary Morton drove all the way from Rossville, Ga., to soak up some history in Philadelphia and then Washington this weekend.

Instead, they, like lots of other tourists, found themselves peering at the Liberty Bell through a window because of the federal government shutdown that began at midnight Friday.  While there had been reports that President Trump wanted to keep national parks open, the two big draws at Independence National Historical Park — the bell and Independence Hall — were closed to visitors.  The visitors center, along with its restrooms, cafe and the gift shop, was open Saturday.

Camera icon Stacey Burling
This is the notice that visitors to Independence National Historical Park saw Saturday morning.

It was easy to see why people might be confused. There was nothing about the shutdown on the National Park Service’s home page on Saturday morning. The Independence National Historical Park’s website and recorded phone message said nothing about the closures. Valley Forge National Historical Park posted a message on its website that all park buildings and restrooms were closed but grounds and parking areas were open. Gettysburg National Military Park had no shutdown news on its home page. The phone line said the park was “closed due to weather conditions.” Tweets from earlier in the week said roads had reopened.

By late afternoon, Independence park had a budget announcement on its home page and explained that the visitor center was staffed by people who work for Independence Visitor Center Corp., not the federal government. Gettysburg had a new phone message saying its museum, operated by a foundation, was open but park roads were closed.

People wondering how other government services might be affected, especially starting Monday, also would not have found it easy to figure out what will and won’t be open.  Post offices and Veterans Affairs facilities will be open.  The Social Security Administration had nothing to say about the shutdown on its home page.  Its last press release was dated Nov. 27 and it hasn’t tweeted since Oct. 13.  There was also nothing from the Internal Revenue Service.  The Department of Health and Human Services, on the other hand, posted a detailed staffing plan for furloughing half its staff.  It notably calls for reductions in work at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in food safety activity of the Food and Drug Administration. According to the Washington Post, federal courts have enough money to stay open for three more weeks.  Most federal departments will be closed, but people who receive government benefits should keep getting their money.

In Philadelphia Saturday morning, Mary Morton was clearly unhappy. “We drove all the way from Georgia. It’s very disappointing.”  As an alternative, the couple signed up for a bus tour of the city and were re-evaluating their trip to D.C.

The building that houses the Liberty Bell was host to small groups of tourists, many of them from other countries, waiting for their turn at the window with the best view.  Many shot pictures outside.  “Can you see the bell?” one photo subject asked.

Camera icon ELIZABETH ROBERTSON
The only way to see the Liberty Bell is through a window due to the government shutdown. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Several morning visitors were surprised to wake up to a shutdown foiling their plans for the day.

Tracy Snyder came from Phillipsburg, N.J., with a friend for her first trip to Philadelphia since maybe third grade.  She had no idea the government budget had been on precarious ground for ages.  “I try to stay away from the news. Sorry,” she said to a reporter. “All we’d heard about was the Eagles.”

Devin and Jodi Wissler, of  Mount Joy near Lancaster, knew about the shutdown, but left home too early Saturday morning to know whether they’d be able to see the park.  They were going to a Flyers game later in the afternoon and decided they’d go to Reading Terminal instead of taking their children, Mia, 10, and Jack, 8, to see the bell and Independence Hall.

They said they were mostly not personally affected by the shutdown.  “It’s disappointing the political parties can’t put things aside and keep playing the blame game,” Devin Wissler said.

He thinks it’s time for some new politicians that “vote for the people.”  They’re Republicans and he’s inclined to blame Democrats, not Trump, for the budget mess.  “I don’t blame him at all for this,” Devin Wissler said.  “Not one bit.”

“I don’t know if I agree with that,” Jodi Wissler said.  They would have plenty of time to discuss their differences before the game.

Michael Morton was also blaming Democrats – specifically Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “I think Schumer needs to be ousted,” he said.

Still, he wasn’t angry. “That’s politics,” Morton said.

Camera icon STACEY BURLING
Michael and Mary Morton drove to Philadelphia from Georgia only to find out Saturday that they’d have to see the Liberty Bell through a window because of the federal shutdown. STACEY BURLING/Staff

On the other side of Center City, where people were preparing for the Women’s March, the mood was less charitable toward Republicans.

Tracy Siebold held a sign that read “I served my country. Your turn Congress. Impeach or go home.” The 57-year-old from Egg Harbor Twp, N.J., served in the Air Force during Desert Storm and said she was attending the march Saturday to fight for constitutional rights.

But the coincidence of a government shutdown occurring on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration wasn’t lost on her. She said she “truly believes” Congress should pass a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) fix and fully fund CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) before arguing over a government spending plan.

“For Republicans to hold those two programs hostage,” she said, “is reprehensible.”

Just like many other Republicans and Democrats, Pennsylvania’s senators – Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey –blamed the other side for the impasse. In a written statement, Toomey said Senate Democrats made a “crass political calculation meant to appease the extreme left wing of their party.” Casey countered that Republicans “gave in to the extreme right wing of their party.”

Casey said bipartisan agreement is possible on many issues but also said President Trump provoked the shutdown by failing to work with Democrats on adequate funding for veterans, community health centers, retired coal miners and people affected by the opioid crisis. Toomey, meanwhile, said Democrats held “the entire country hostage” by prioritizing “select illegal immigrants over governing, supporting our military and providing health insurance to poor and middle-income children.”

The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania Saturday raised concerns that a prolonged shutdown could force hospitals and other health providers to “make difficult decisions that will impact access to care.”

In an interview, Laura Stevens Kent, the organization’s vice president for federal advocacy, said the budget showdown is intertwined with complex funding problems for two programs that serve the working poor and uninsured, CHIP and community health centers. Reductions in those programs could lead to more serious health problems in those populations, she said, and an increase in payment issues for hospitals.

In addition, the shutdown affects money that supports medical education in children’s hospitals, National Institutes of Health research grants and CDC public health programs. All could also affect hospital bottom lines if the shutdown drags on.