Shutdown Farce

New York’s Tourists Are Laughing at Us

Spencer Platt/Getty

You know what's funny? An America without a government.

That's what some tourists in lower Manhattan were saying on Tuesday as they mulled around figuring out what to do instead of hopping on a boat to the Statue of Liberty. It's closed, by the way. So are many other federal buildings in the city, putting an estimated 72,000 workers out of a job in New York state alone. But while the country seems gripped by shutdown fever, many tourists from here and abroad had no clue it would affect their plans. Their reactions ranged from outrage to despair—but mostly they had a good laugh at our expense.

Shopping for an “I Love NY” T-shirt to take home to a friend in Brazil, 36-year-old Mario Pereira seemed unfazed by the news. “I’m more or less sad, but it’s OK,” he says smiling. Pereira said he and his mom had already made other plans—visit the 9/11 memorial (which is still open because it’s not a federal building), then take a walk around town. When I asked if he thinks people in Brazil care about the shutdown he reveals a huge smile: “No.”

Posing for a picture with 49 bright-eyed students from India, mathematics teacher (turned chaperone) Mr. Uniyal looks stressed. “We were expecting that we would go. It was unfortunate, but what can we do?” he tells me. The group, consisting of students from grade six to grade 12, just arrived in New York from India last night for a 10-day trip. Unable to see the statue up close, as planned, the students are already antsy—running around the fountain behind us. “This is our first day,” Uniyal says, looking suddenly exhausted.

“It’s closed because of the hurricane, it’s the reason that the statue is closed!” shouts George Wagner, an exuberant 62-year-old from Leipzig, Germany. When I explain the real reason it’s closed, he and the six other Germans with him look stunned. But when George starts giggling, the entire table erupts into laughter. “That is the reason?” George says, with a thick German accent. “That’s a big problem!” he says. “So you don’t have enough money?”

Employees who make their living in Battery Park have mixed feelings about the shutdown. One woman, who requested to remain anonymous, moved to NYC from South America and now makes a living selling paintings of the skyline to visitors who come to see Lady Liberty. With less people in the park today, she’s worried that the shutdown is going to put an end to her business. “I haven’t sold a painting yet today,” she says, visibly anxious. For employees at Table Green, a small café in the Bosque Garden of Battery Park, it’s a welcome change “The Statue of Liberty might be closed but Table Green and Table Green Cafe are open,” reads a post on the company’s Facebook page.

“We’re definitely busier, which I think is because all of the other food trucks are gone,” says Ike Vorhees, a 23-year-old employee of Table Green who hails from Bath, Maine. “They know the statues closed, so they went somewhere else.” Besides being the only place with food, it has a large seating area where people who’ve just been told the statue is closed seem to be migrating. “They have nowhere else to go, so they’re congregating here,” he says. With the dramatic increase in customers that they’re likely to experience, I wonder aloud if they’ve stocked up enough hot dogs to keep people happy. Vorhees chuckles. “Yes. But I’m a little worried about the lemonade.”

For employees who host the Statue of Liberty cruises (which are largely still running), it’s going to be a long road. In the few minutes I spend with one such employee who asks to be called “Mike,” he’s forced to inform at least seven different groups of tourists—who’ve come from places ranging from Belgium to Chile—that the statue is closed. “Sorry folks, the Statue of Liberty is closed because the government was unable to pass the budget,” he yells. As the gatekeeper to Battery Park, Mike will likely have to deal with hundreds of fuming tourists each day. So far, he says, it hasn’t been that bad. “There was this one guy who was really angry. He was a foreigner in a Notre Dame hat,” Mike recounts. “He was running around over there [pointing to the fountain] yelling. I guess he felt he was being ripped off,” he adds.

Two 20-something girls from Argentina feel his pain. After planning their trip in June, they immediately went online to buy tickets to see the Statue of Liberty. “We bought tickets to go up there today. We bought them in advance like two months ago, by credit card,” one says smiling. After sleeping in this morning, they grabbed a quick pack of M&Ms for breakfast and then headed to see Lady Liberty. It wasn’t until they arrived that they realized what had happened. “We couldn’t believe it,” the other girl says. “There were no dates available to buy for yesterday, they were all booked. The first day we could find was today. That was two or three months ago!” While they hope that they’ll be refunded the $27 they paid for the tickets, they don’t seem too bothered by missing the view. “We’re going to go see The Lion King instead!”

Food vendors can go elsewhere, and so can street artists. But for tour-bus drivers, who depend on the Statue of Liberty tours to help sell their tickets, it’s a big problem. “This is the worst day we’ve had, and I have worked here for six years,” says Alex, an employee of CitySightsNY. Standing in front of an empty bus, surrounded by other CitySightsNY employees in yellow jackets, he looks worried. “I get paid on commission. If I don’t sell tickets, I can’t get paid.”

For Charlie Liu, a 40-year-old on a first-time visit to New York from China with his daughter, wife, and parents, the entire situation is a bit comical—if not ridiculous. “We just found out when we got here. We went to buy the tickets and a gentleman told me it was closed,” Charlie says. Instead, he and his family were given the option to simply take a boat tour around Lady Liberty, something he seems to find amusing. When I ask if he’s angry about the shutdown, he laughs. “Not too much, because we’re not Americans.”

On the way out of the park, I spot a man—who appears to be standing on a block—dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Usually cast off as cheesy and ridiculous, the faux statue is suddenly the star of the Battery Park show. Fake green face paint aside, it’s the closest these people will ever get to the Lady Liberty—and they know it. As they pose smiling with the green man, it becomes abundantly clear: this is our loss, not theirs.

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the American Museum of Natural History is closed due to the government shutdown. This is not true; the museum is open for normal business hours.