We’re currently in the midst of the longest partial government shutdown in US history: About 800,000 federal employees are affected, with around 380,000 of them furloughed and 420,000 expected to work without pay. While crucial programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and the US Postal Service are still mostly up and running, many workers are left unable to pay rent or mortgages. If the shutdown continues through February, the 38 million people on food stamps could be left hungry.
The US economy as a whole is also losing money — the tally could soon reach $5 billion, which, ironically, is equivalent to the amount of money President Trump is asking for his proposed border wall.
But along with the vandalization of national parks and canceled vacations, there’s another unlikely victim of the government shutdown: weddings. Not only were some couples in DC unable to acquire marriage licenses during the shutdown (the City Council eventually approved emergency legislation that allowed the Marriage Bureau to grant licenses), but for some couples, the details of their big day were left entirely up to fate — or rather, the federal government. Though of course a lost deposit or a rescheduled event is nowhere near as serious as defaulting on a mortgage or suddenly being unable to afford food, many people have been impacted, financially and otherwise, and it’s another example of the ways government policy trickles into our social lives and the private sector.
Lindsay Benkel met Andy Warnock at a video game convention, and a few years later, Warnock proposed in the exact same spot. As self-described “super dorks,” they dreamed of a wedding inspired by the work of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki.
“Since it would have been impossible to bring everyone to Japan to get married in the actual forests that those movies are based on, we decided on the Sequoia National Park which, to me, is one of the most truly awe-inspiring places on the planet,” said Benkel.
The park, however, is operated by the federal government, so on December 31, two months out from the couple’s wedding date, it closed indefinitely.
“After spending a year planning and creating everything myself (since no one caters at all to super-dork weddings) and skipping a ton of things we usually do every year, I basically sat on the floor and cried for a good 30 minutes,” Benkel said.
The couple immediately began informing guests who hadn’t yet booked flights and reviewed their options: a “fake cowboy town” that the wedding planner’s friend owned (that was a hard no) and a few spots around Big Bear and LA, all of which were either too expensive or already booked.
The National Park Service, meanwhile, sounded “just as sad and confused as everyone else,” and told Benkel that even if the government does begin functioning as normal soon, it might still be a while, due to damage from visitors, until the park would reopen.
“I personally can’t hold anything against the [National Park Service],” Benkel adds. “They work there because they want the parks to be open and thrive. But if this all goes to shit, I’m personally going to DC in my full wedding attire and demanding my deposit money back.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Janessa White, the co-founder of the wedding planning company Simply Eloped. Though she said they had about 30 weddings affected so far starting in late December, most of which were scheduled to take place in national parks, most were able to be relocated thanks to round-the-clock overtime work from her staff as well as employees of national parks, who she said were “amazing” and “incredibly caring.”
“Being in the wedding space, we’ve experienced plenty of last-minute changes, but never anything of this magnitude,” she said. “It’ll be a few weeks before we really understand what the financial impact will be, though the impact on my team has been massive. We’ve all been working overtime to make everything pan out for our clients and admittedly it’s been exhausting and stressful.”
Buffalo, New York, residents Samantha and Salvatore Schifano, two of White’s clients, did manage to get married on Monday, January 7, but not before the shutdown threw a wrench into their original plans. Though they wanted a private, intimate ceremony in Rocky Mountain National Park, just four days beforehand, they were forced to relocate.
“Picturing the site in your head and then being told we couldn’t go there only four days prior upset us at first,” said Samantha. Luckily, they were able to hold the ceremony at Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado, and said they “wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Like the Schifanos, Jacey and Chance Bloodworth, another pair of White’s clients, had to move their Rocky Mountain National Park wedding on New Year’s Day to Chautauqua Park with just five days’ notice.
“The wedding was beautiful and the drive wasn’t so bad, but it was definitely a big disappointment for me to not be able to get married in the Rocky Mountain National Park,” Jacey said, adding that the last-minute move didn’t end up costing any extra beyond the cost of the drive to Boulder. “Unless you count the hospital bill I encountered because my stomach ulcer wasn’t a fan of the extra stress,” she added.
It’s actually not surprising that none of the affected weddings were scheduled to take place in Washington, DC, the city at the center of the government shutdown. That’s because most government-owned and -operated buildings, like the Smithsonian museums, don’t currently allow weddings to take place there, and not very many people are planning to get married in January on the National Mall, where there is currently about 10 inches of snow.
During the government shutdown in October 2013, however, this was not the case. Five days before MaiLien Le and Michael Cassesso were scheduled to wed at the Jefferson Memorial, Le received an email from the National Park Service informing her that their permit for the site would be terminated.
“The first thing we did was call the Park Service to confirm this wasn’t a joke,” Cassesso said. The resulting few days were a logistical nightmare — cross-country flights had been booked, and nothing in DC was available on such short notice. But after a story about them in the Washington Post went viral, another event site reached out to say they had an opening. Another happy result of the Post story: Le and Cassesso scored a second wedding ceremony on The Colbert Report.
That’s not to say that events in DC haven’t been affected by 2019’s shutdown, although people in the event industry say it’s probably the best time of year for it to happen: Holiday party season is over, while major social and corporate events are still a few months away. But many businesses will likely lose thousands of dollars.
“Right now it’s producing anxiety,” said the owner of one of DC’s top catering companies, who asked me not to use his name or company (it regularly caters events for both the Republican and Democratic parties, and he didn’t want to come across as blaming one party for the shutdown). “On the calendar right now, we have four or five events in the next couple of weeks, all from 800 to 1,000 people, that all are in Smithsonian buildings that the clients are starting to get pretty nervous [about].”
Events held in Smithsonian buildings, he said, usually run between $80,000 to $100,000 in total costs. And it’s not just event businesses that lose out on those opportunity costs — it’s the hourly event workers who don’t have the stability of a federal job to return to.
Dan Rose, the vice president of DC-based Well Dunn catering, says the company will likely lose $100,000 in opportunity costs in January, and up to $150,000 in February if the events in government-owned buildings are canceled. But for the staff, it’s a much more dire situation.
“For people who rely on that hourly paycheck who don’t have those hours, it’s a bigger impact on their actual financial situation at home,” he said. “We try to be creative to keep people’s households running.” He added that the company will sometimes try to give their employees hours in other ways or bring in extra people for a job.
As a former federal employee who worked for the government during a few shutdowns, Rose says that for the most part, federal workers will be paid when they return to their jobs. “But the money’s not coming back to the non-federal workers,” he said. “Then, if you think about the events themselves, the vendors who are hired — lighting vendors and valets and florists, the equipment rentals, AV guys, printed materials — all those vendors who, because the industry is slow these months, aren’t doing a lot of work. When they lose that work, then all of them are impacted as well.”
The situation hasn’t improved since we spoke on January 8. “We’re starting to sweat over here,” he said in an email on January 14. If some of Well Dunn’s January and February events get canceled, it’ll lose about 20 to 25 percent or more of its January and February revenues, and the impact could worsen for hourly workers throughout the event industry, including maintenance workers and security guards at government-owned buildings who could have needed the overtime hours events bring in.
The story does, however, have a happy ending for Lindsay Benkel and Andy Warnock: On January 11, Sequoia National Park reopened to guests, which means that their dream Miyazaki wedding is officially on. But should the shutdown continue, there’ll be more couples, “super dork” or otherwise, who won’t be saying “I do” in the destination of their dreams.