The office buildings in the American capital are largely deserted, the streets deserted. This makes something possible that is otherwise not recommended: an exploration by bike. A queue only forms in front of a local arms shop.
Since the end of March, the population of the American capital region has been ordered to stay at home under the threat of punishment – $5,000 buses or up to one year in prison. The schools have been closed for a month. Only essential errands are allowed.
There are no border controls between the District of Columbia with the capital Washington and the states of Virginia and Maryland, but leaving the legal area is not advised. Anyone returning from a longer stay abroad, for example in New York, is required to quarantine for two weeks.
Most people stick to it. There are hardly any cars on the streets anymore. That means something in America. What could be more natural than to go on a bike tour on a beautiful spring day? Exercising outdoors is not prohibited, cycling is explicitly allowed as long as you keep your distance. We set out for the unthinkable: a city tour by bike in the middle of the week.
The federal administration is gaining weight
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, has justified his relatively draconian stay-at-home order with the importance of the capital region as a place of work for around 440,000 federal employees. He wants to avoid that an uncontrollable Corona outbreak paralyzes the authorities, which are particularly challenged by the national crisis.
We deliberately take the main thoroughfare that connects the suburbs of Rockville and Bethesda with downtown Washington. And we leave at 2:45 p.m. when the school day normally ends and after-work traffic begins to roll up. We don’t have the streets all to ourselves. The patrol cars of the DC Metropolitan Police seem even more numerous than usual. But what would otherwise be a kamikaze undertaking becomes a real blust ride?
Conditions as feared in New York
The Mayor of Washington DC, Democrat Muriel Bowser, fears conditions in New York City. This is even though the population density in the capital is not even half as high as in New York City. One in seven citizens will become infected, says Bowser. That would be 100,000 Washington. “We have to avoid that everyone gets sick at once,” she explains her stay-at-home order. The capital region has over 6 million inhabitants. On Saturday noon (local time), 14,572 Corona cases were known regionally. So far, 384 people have died.
We dash down Massachusetts Avenue toward downtown, also known as Embassy Row. Here the messages from all over the world line up. There is hardly any operation, and here too the company has switched to a home office. Consular services are reduced to a minimum. Neighbor Alessandro, responsible for security policy at the Italian embassy, has not gone to the office in two weeks. Another diplomat says that the only message left to the embassy is who needs to use special working tools such as encryption devices.
The capital region is also suffering huge economic damage due to the crisis. However, many employees are currently working feverishly to minimize this damage. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have their headquarters not far from the White House. One hardly speaks of the effects of the Corona crisis on developing and emerging countries, although IMF boss Kristalina Georgieva recently said that over 90 countries had already applied for help. For its part, the World Bank is in crisis mode and already supports health programs in over 65 countries.
It’s ghostly quiet around the headquarters of the two institutions, each of which occupies entire blocks. The army of economists, poverty experts, and development specialists has long been working from home. The IMF and World Bank spring meeting, which would have brought thousands of government officials and experts to the US capital next week, was canceled in early March. You will meet virtually.
Only a few world improvers
It is now 3:45 p.m., the streets in the city center would normally be clogged with commuters. We pedal to the White House in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. The north side of Lafayette Square, which is otherwise closed to motorized traffic, would be full of tourists, demonstrators, and other pedestrians at the time. Today there are still three people demonstrating for a better world. The Secret Service has expanded the security perimeter around the White House. In the evening, however, the Corona task force will again give the government a briefing, with President Trump in the middle, in front of a now very thin audience. Several prominent media houses are no longer participating because no reasonable social distancing is possible in the briefing room.
The Ministry of Finance right next door is more important these days anyway. It is responsible for ensuring that the money from the enormous federal support package quickly reaches the man and woman. In contrast to other ministries, many still have to apply here. The temperature of the employees is measured before they enter the building. From a distance you can see that the large lights in the conference rooms are also on during the day; Work is currently going on here day and night.
We take 14th Street down to the National Mall and drive past the Department of Commerce. Its chief, 82-year-old Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, is reportedly working from his residence in Palm Beach, Florida. Palm Beach is also the place where President Trump loves to stay in his Mar-a-Lago estate. The Corona crisis currently prohibits the President from spending his weekends there on the golf course. Not only because it would not do well in the public eye in times of crisis. But also because the resort had to close and therefore, like practically the entire hospitality industry in the country, applied for state aid.
Millions of tourists are missing
The National Mall around the Washington Monument has never been seen so empty. Now and then a jogger gets lost, even cyclists have it. But the host of tourists is missing. April is usually the time when school classes from all over the country visit the capital, families look at the monuments, scout groups march up and down.
There would normally be no space to park, and after-hours traffic would accumulate on the multi-lane Constitution Avenue and Independence Avenue. What do we do? We cycle to the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of Independence Avenue. After all, a few people are sitting on the stairs at a good distance from each other, looking out over the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument and the Capitol.
We’re turning back onto Constitution Avenue, the headquarters of the mighty American central bank. It also looks orphaned. Fed chief Jerome Powell himself works from home as much as possible, as he recently revealed at a conference call. He wanted to set a good example.
Only the cyclists are numerous
After an inspection on the deserted campus of George Washington University, we advise the route for the way home. Over a dozen universities and colleges with tens of thousands of students provide business and income in the capital region; higher education is the most important employer in the private sector. The switch to online operations hurts Washington not only in financial terms.
We could just take the main road and thus the shortest way back to Bethesda. There is hardly any traffic even at 5 p.m. We still take the Capital Crescent Trail, the bike path built on the former trackbed of the B&O Railroad between Georgetown and Bethesda. And lo and behold: instead of in their cars, the many cyclists and joggers are annoyed by a higher, if non-motorized, traffic volume due to the crisis. However, the authorities are still making no move to close the trail due to insufficient social distancing.
Guns and alcohol are essential
For shopping in Washington, you don’t go to the city but go to the shops along the default routes. The next day we leave Bethesda again on the bike, but this time in the other direction. Everything is geared towards car traffic, and cycling is not recommended in normal times. Not so in the Corona crisis: the streets and the parking spaces in front of the shops in Rockville are empty, except for course the supermarkets and the drugstores with integrated pharmacies. A little away from the main artery, the MD 355, there is also an arms shop, the United Gun Shop.
The store makes it clear on its website that even in corona times, anyone who wants to get their firearm. The opening times are restricted from Tuesday to Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. In an emergency, however, you make an individual appointment. Gun outlets – as well as alcoholic beverages – are now considered “essential business” in Maryland.
Anecdotally, it is reported that the gun and liquor stores are currently doing the business of a lifetime. How well the United Gun Shop is doing is unclear. Inquiries remain unanswered. On-site inspection, however, it is the only building far and wide in front of which a queue has formed on Tuesday afternoon. We take a bike ride in the parking lot and try not to stare.
We are so grimly eyed by the waiting people that we refrain from asking why the weapons were bought. It would also be an idiotic question. The statistics of the federal police FBI speak a clear language. In March 2020, the FBI carried out 2.375 million personal checks related to arms purchases, more than ever since the current system was introduced in 1998. In March 2019, the number was 1.3 million.
The cars are still there
We are enjoying the undisturbed return journey on the six-lane main street on this new splendid day. Until we are pushed by a pick-up truck driver who has the feeling, even on empty streets, that bicycles don’t belong there. Back in our neighborhood, we are confirmed that all the cars have not simply vanished. As well as? There are as many registered passenger cars in the capital region as in all of Switzerland.
So the cars in our street are currently parked close together. Of the twenty or so families living on the street, everyone now works and learns from home. They all have at least two cars, and temporarily more because the children have been sent home by universities and colleges. Before the Corona crisis, the residential street was empty during the day. Only Alkis’ car is gone even during the pandemic: the immunologist with Greek roots is currently working at the National Health Institutes.
A different kind of shutdown
Shutdowns have occurred repeatedly in Washington over the past 25 years. The current corona-related shutdown, however, is the opposite of the (partial) closings of the US federal administration that resulted from political calculations from the end of 1995 / beginning of 1996, October 2013, beginning of 2018 or, as most recently, from December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019, In this latest shutdown, around a quarter of a million federal employees and contractors were forced to take leave or had to work without wages in the capital, affecting around 800,000 civil servants nationwide. That cost the region about $ 100 million a day.
The recovery came quickly, however, because other important economic sectors such as education were only minimally affected. In the corona shutdown, it is the other way round: The federal administration is running at full speed, albeit decentralized. In contrast, the crisis will leave deep wounds in tourism, hospitality, and education.