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Shutdown woes pile up as gridlock continues

Shutdown woes pile up as gridlock continues

SHUTDOWN DRAGS ON: ark Ranger Joseph Darling directs visitors away from the entrance to the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway southwest of Asheville, North Carolina, Oct. 4, 2013. Photo: Reuters/REUTERS/Dillon Deaton/Asheville Citizen-Times/Handout.

By Emily Stephenson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Tourism sagged near U.S. national parks, Washington-area workers filed more unemployment claims and futures markets grappled with a lack of data as the government shutdown, now in its second week, stretched across the nation and upset many aspects of American life.

On the national seashores along North Carolina’s Outer Banks islands, business owners compared the financial magnitude of closed beaches and waterways to that of a hurricane-forced evacuation. Scott Geib, who sells photographs near the closed Cape Hatteras lighthouse, said sales were way down last week from what would normally be a good week for him in early fall.

Foreign visitors are few and far between at Rod’s Steak House in Williams, Arizona, near the Grand Canyon, owner Larry Sanchez said. Business fell off about 25 percent by the end of the first week the park was closed, he said.

At remote Grand Canyon National Park, where thousands of restaurant, hotel and other workers went without pay, a Phoenix food bank delivered about 600 boxes of food to workers.

“We got a call for help,” said Beverly Damore, chief executive of the St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance.

In Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski said, hunters are barred from federal lands, placing their year’s supply of game meat in jeopardy.

“This is hunting season. This is when Alaskans are filling their freezers for winter,” Murkowski, a Republican, said during a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.

President Barack Obama called for “reasonable Republicans” to pass legislation to fund the government and end the pain for millions of tourists, workers and other Americans who rely on federally funded services.

On their part, congressional Republicans insist that any legislation to fund the government should also delay carrying out Obama’s signature healthcare law. Democrats have refused to include changes to the law in a government-funding deal.

Safety personnel and other federal employees deemed “essential” have been working without pay since the shutdown began, but hundreds of thousands of other workers were sent home. Lawmakers have discussed authorizing back pay after the shutdown ends, but it is not clear if that would apply only to “essential” staff.

The effects are being felt across the country, but the Washington area, home to thousands of federal workers, not surprisingly has been hit hard.

Moody’s Investors Service said on Monday that it had a negative credit outlook for the Washington area because of the shutdown. Counties in Maryland could see income taxes hit, while sales taxes would dip in Virginia, Moody’s said.

Maureen O’Connor, public information officer for the Maryland labor department, said about 16,000 furloughed employees had sought unemployment benefits in the state as of Sunday night. They would have to repay the benefits if lawmakers wind up approving back pay for furloughed workers.

“The claims are coming in,” O’Connor said. “There’s a lot of overtime being coordinated to make sure our customer service is there for these folks.”

RIPPLES WIDENING

Business leaders initially shrugged off the impact of a shutdown, pointing out that the bigger fireworks would come if Congress failed to raise the government’s borrowing limit in mid-October.

Washington hung out the “closed for business” sign when federal funding ran out on October 1. Now, on the eighth day of the shutdown and with no agreement on spending in sight, the problems of the long-term shutdown are mounting.

The Agriculture Department could not issue vital data on sale prices for hogs and cattle around the nation, which caused trading volume to dwindle. The industry has searched for ways to replace the government data.

Hog farmers say USDA’s daily price reports should have been considered essential services. “It gives producers an idea what they should be getting for hogs,” said Dave Warner of the National Pork Producers Council.

Government contractors also have found themselves in tough spots. Humana Inc, which provides administrative services for military health care, said on Tuesday that it had been told to adhere to its contract for two weeks.

The federal government usually covers the cost of the actual health benefits, but Humana said it was told it would not be reimbursed during the shutdown period. That could leave the company on the hook for up to $175 million worth of health claims, Humana said.

The families of four U.S. soldiers killed by insurgents in Afghanistan on Sunday and a Marine who died there on Saturday will not receive the standard payment to help with funeral costs or financial hardships, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

SOME SPARED

Not everyone was hurting on Tuesday.

Boeing Co was likely relieved after the Federal Aviation Administration called back safety personnel from furloughs, allowing the manufacturer to continue deliveries of 787 Dreamliners from its South Carolina plant.

For those federal employees who did head in to work in Washington, typically crowded commuter routes have become much easier to navigate.

Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, said during an event in Washington that his commute to Capitol Hill from Baltimore usually takes about 2-1/2 hours in traffic.

On Tuesday, Ruppersberger said the shutdown shaved an hour off his travel time.

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