Tradition-bound Washington adjusts to life in a pandemic


In this March 23, 2020, file photo a Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police vehicle is parked on the other side of a tape police line along the Tidal Basin as cherry blossoms cover the trees, in Washington. (Photo: AP)

The cherry blossoms were the first to go.

Not the pink flowers themselves; they arrived on schedule in mid-March along Washington’s Tidal Basin. But for Washingtonians, the cherry blossoms are more than a tree. They’re the kickoff to the capital’s prettiest season: yes, clogging downtown streets with tour buses, but also spurring locals to make a predawn detour to the National Mall or providing a good excuse to cut out of work early.

But as the coronavirus began bearing down on the United States, hulking dump trucks and police cars swept into downtown, blocking off the streets around the Tidal Basin and abruptly halting one of Washington’s most cherished traditions.

As it turns out, Washington is indeed still a city of traditions, even in the era of Donald Trump, whose presidency seemed to have turned the nation’s capital upside down. But the pandemic has wreaked more havoc on Washington than even Trump could, forcing old institutions to draft new playbooks, upending the city’s prized social calendar and narrowing the gap between the political elite and the average Americans they’re supposed to be serving.

“Washington has never had an experience like this,” said George Condon, historian for the Gridiron Club, the capital’s oldest social club for journalists, and a reporter for the National Journal. “Right after Pearl Harbor, we canceled dinners but everything else resumed. Things didn’t shut down like this for the (1918) flu pandemic.”

Even in the anxious and fearful days after 9/11, which initially sent lawmakers and West Wing staffers fleeing the Capitol and the White House, the return to those landmarks was swift. Being physically present in the center of Washington was seen as a sign of American resolve.

Now, the nation’s capital, like most of the nation itself, is largely shuttered. Everything from the annual White House Easter Egg Roll — a tradition dating to 1878 — to a lavish state dinner for the Spanish royals has been scrapped (not to mention opening day for baseball’s Washington Nationals, fresh off their first World Series title).

Of course, since it’s Washington, a see-and-be-seen town where proximity to power is currency and actual power brings real responsibilities, the three branches of government and many of the institutions that have sprung up around them are scrambling for ways to adjust.

The few congressional lawmakers still required to show up to Capitol Hill during spring recess are scouring the internet or turning to family members for help sewing homemade masks. Wealthy political donors are still shelling out money to politicians but in exchange for a spot in a Zoom meeting instead of the opportunity to mingle over wine and hors d’oeuvres in hotel ballrooms.

Even at the Supreme Court, an institution that has long prided itself on resisting the encroachment of modern technological advances, the justices are making one of their most significant breaks with tradition in decades. Next month, for the first time, the public will be able to listen to live audio of arguments before the high court. The justices themselves will be listening and questioning lawyers over the phone.

“I can’t think of anything comparable to the court. They just don’t change,” said Lucas Powe, a Supreme Court historian and former high court clerk. He expressed surprise at the justices’ decision.

At the White House, the pandemic at first revived a tradition that had been dormant through much of the Trump presidency: the daily press briefing. When Trump began adding his evening coronavirus briefings to his schedule, journalists literally cleaned cobwebs and dusted off briefing room chairs that had sat empty for months.

But the briefings, too, have been altered by the pandemic. Entry is no longer conditioned simply on a press pass but a normal body temperature, recorded each day by a staffer from the presidential medical office.

The carefully allocated seating chart in the briefing room — the networks and wire services in the front row, smaller regional outlets in back — has also been upended. Several news organizations have been told to stay away, while those that have retained a seat were asked to spread out to account for social distancing.

“It loses a lot of flavors,” Trump said Friday of the more sparsely attended briefings.

On Capitol Hill, breaking with tradition has proved harder to do.

The pandemic and the swift economic collapse that followed have increased pressure on lawmakers to pass a rescue package to help struggling businesses and individuals. The big problem: congressional rule-makers never envisioned lawmakers might need to vote remotely instead of on the crowded House and Senate floors.

So lawmakers stayed in session until they could pass the $2 trillion rescue package. Some even continued to use the Senate gym, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — despite the fact that he was waiting for the results of a coronavirus test.

He tested positive. So did multiple other lawmakers.

Now Congress is in recess until early May when another economic relief package is certain to be needed. Congressional leaders, particularly in the 435-member House of Representatives, are scrambling to figure out a way to vote without violating the guidance of public health officials.

Meanwhile, a rotating cast of lawmakers is still showing up to preside over pro forma sessions of the empty chambers. The podium is disinfected before they arrive, a black covering has been placed over the microphone and most of the lawmakers are wearing face coverings. Like many Americans, they’re using whatever will do.

That was true for Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif. Gesturing to his homemade mask, he told reporters: “I have an 11-year-old daughter. She made this out of an old T-shirt.”