Tradition-bound Washington adjusts to life in a pandemic

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FILE - 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. The nation's capital, like most of the nation itself, is largely shuttered. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

WASHINGTON – 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 the institutions that have sprung up around them are scrambling for ways to adjust.