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The novel coronavirus has made its way to the District of Columbia, and the city that can be brought to a full stop by a few flakes of snow has responded the way only D.C. can: with a fair amount of confusion and a generous dose of panic. As health officials and local leaders learn more about the menace known as COVID-19, plans for how to prevent its spread are evolving rapidly. Some schools have closed temporarily for cleaning and reopened, and local universities will transition to online-only instruction in the coming days. Even journalists are being encouraged to work from home.
D.C.’s robust dining, arts, and sports scenes are figuring out ways to cope with the virus without suspending all activities, but event cancelations continue. In the midst of all this news, spring has sprung and the District’s tourism industry is scrambling to respond to significant revenue losses. Burning questions remain unanswered. Chief among them: Have the cherry blossoms really bloomed if they’re not captured in a million Instagram stories?
Although we’re all trying to remain upbeat during a trying time, COVID-19 is a big deal and we’d be remiss if we didn’t advise our readers to take it seriously. Consider avoiding crowded places, don’t touch your face, cough into your elbow, and PLEASE wash your hands. All the information in this package reflects what was accurate as of 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11. Further updates can be found on our website, washingtoncitypaper.com.
Pick a song and start scrubbing. —Caroline Jones
IN THE NEWS
On Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency and public health emergency in response to the novel coronavirus.
Declaring a state of emergency gives the executive expanded authority to respond to the disease caused by the virus, COVID-19. This includes giving the mayor the ability to request federal disaster assistance, mandate quarantines or curfews, and make price gouging illegal.
As of Wednesday, 10 D.C. residents have tested positive for COVID-19. These are presumptive cases that still need to be confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. DC Health suspects there will be additional cases in the District because of the nature of those cases. A message from the agency Wednesday morning recommended that non-essential mass events that would attract more than 1,000 people be postponed or canceled.
As health officials continue to seek out those who came in contact with patients who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, D.C. expects the number of tests to climb. The Department of Forensic Sciences says its public lab has the capacity to test 50 samples a day, and has not had any capacity problems so far. Right now, DC Health has a set criteria for when it approves testing to be done at the public lab. This includes showing severe symptoms associated with COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath) and having contact with a patient who’s tested positive for the disease or having a history of travel flagged by the federal government.
For most people, the novel coronavirus can cause cold-like symptoms. But those who are older or who have weakened immune systems can get seriously sick. That is why government officials are trying to protect the possible spread of virus to vulnerable populations like the elderly or people experiencing homelessness.
Unsheltered individuals, for example, do not always have access to restrooms where they can regularly wash their hands, or cannot simply “stay at home” if they are sick, so homeless agencies have had to prepare as best they can, offering medical masks and hand sanitizer.
Events connected to the National Cherry Blossom Festival, scheduled to run from March 20 through April 12, are canceled through March 31. Whether the festival that typically attracts 1.5 million people will continue as planned after that date remains in flux.
—Amanda Michelle Gomez
IN THE SCHOOLS
So far, four local universities and several public, charter, and private schools have closed their facilities at least temporarily.
On March 10, American University became the first university in D.C. to have classes move strictly online until at least April 3. Students are now on spring break and the policy is effective Wednesday, March 18. Between March 18 and April 3, the campus will remain open and operational.
“While the risk to our community remains low at this time, this could change quickly,” AU President Sylvia Burwell wrote in a public statement. “Our precautionary actions will help limit potential exposure to COVID-19 and enhance our ability to manage and/or isolate any suspected or confirmed cases that may occur at the university.”
Howard University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland followed suit, announcing shortly thereafter that they too will move to online-only instruction. Georgetown University’s policy is effective until further notice starting Monday, while the other universities will begin when students return from spring break.
Meanwhile, at least one traditional public school and six charter schools have closed over COVID-19 concerns at some point. The first, School Without Walls High School, closed after it was discovered that a staff member came into contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19. The school was closed on Monday, March 9, underwent a deep cleaning, and operated normally on Tuesday, March 10.
DC International School and Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School’s P Street NW campus also closed for cleaning on March 9. Four campuses with Center City Public Charter Schools closed on March 10 to undergo cleaning, but the mayor’s office did not make this recommendation. Richard Wright Public Charter School will close for a deep cleaning March 12 and March 13.
DC Public Schools decided to temporarily close all its schools to students on March 16 so staff can prepare for “distance learning.”
Traditional public schools are subject to mayoral and D.C. Council control. A spokeswoman with the DC Public Charter School Board says individual charters are following guidance provided by DC Health and coordinating with it and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education.
When asked during Tuesday’s press conference if she would like to have a say on whether schools close out amid COVID-19 concerns, Bowser’s answer was vague. “For the most part,” she said, “we want to make sure they all have available to them our best thinking that is driven by the science and what’s best for the District.”
—Amanda Michelle Gomez
“Don’t touch stuff” is difficult advice to follow if you depend on public transportation, which is why the other instructions to prevent transmission—don’t touch your face, wash your hands, don’t cough on people, and cover your damn mouth—become more imperative if you’re riding Metro.
As of March 6, the pandemic task force (which sounds a lot cooler and ominous than it actually is) is operating at phase two of four, which means they’re giving hand sanitizer to employees who don’t have regular access to bathrooms, closely monitoring employee absences, and frequently communicating with customers and employees.
In a March 10 email to its customers, Metro general manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld ran through the list of extra precautions the agency is taking, such as “deep cleaning and disinfecting railcars, stations, bathrooms, buses, and MetroAccess vehicles.”
People who are feeling sick are asked not to take public transportation. —Mitch Ryals
IN THE ARTS
The D.C. Environmental Film Festival, which was originally scheduled to serve as the subject of this week’s City Paper cover package, was canceled Monday. But don’t worry, film fans: Beginning next week, the festival will host a virtual showcase featuring select films, so you’ll have something to watch if you end up quarantined. DCEFF plans to host a smaller festival in the fall, and will schedule other screenings later in the year.
Many venues insist that the situation is fluid and in the meantime, they will remain open. Decision makers will continue to monitor Centers for Disease Control and local government health guidance, and unless artists and performers are unable to appear, the shows will go on. The Kennedy Center remains open and the performances it produces will continue, though Vital Voices’ 19th Annual Global Leadership Awards, scheduled to take place Wednesday, March 10, got pushed to June 10. Strathmore currently has no plans to cancel events, Atlas Performing Arts Center remains open for all performances, and Wolf Trap is forging on until further notice. Pearl Street Warehouse, Union Stage, City Winery, and Sixth & I are open and taking precautions. I.M.P. has canceled all its events at The Anthem, 9:30 Club, U Street Music Hall, and The Lincoln Theatre from March 12 through April 1.
The Washington Ballet has not canceled any upcoming performances or school classes. But the Chamber Dance Project has canceled its March 29 Anchors Aweigh 2020 Gala, its major fundraiser for its annual June season, and will move the auction that was set to take place at the gala online.
At this time, the National Geographic Museum will also remain open, and says it has increased cleaning of all high-touch areas, including its public bathrooms, auditorium, dining hall, and museum interactives. On March 9, the National Gallery of Art canceled its “NGA Nights” programming for March 12 and April 9, but it will remain open with its typical hours for now. However, because of a virus-related lockdown in Italy, it will postpone its May exhibition, A Superb Baroque: Art in Genoa, 1600–1750, made up of Italian works. Other large museums, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Smithsonian museums, are also staying the course. Many smaller museums, like Glenstone, are doing the same. The Phillips Collection will postpone all museum-sponsored public events at both the museum and THEARC through April 3. The special exhibits and permanent collection will remain open. VisArts in Rockville and the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria plan to stay open until state health officials tell them to close. The Korean Cultural Center has canceled previously announced March and April programming, including two exhibitions, True and False and Landscape of the Mind.
American University announced Tuesday it would transition to online classes after its current spring break ends and the American University Museum will be closed from March 16 to April 16. As of Wednesday afternoon, The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum are open to the public, despite the school moving classes online. The U.S. Botanic Garden also remains open to the public.
In Virginia, the NoVA Teen Book Festival and Virginia Festival of the Book have been canceled. In the theater world, Studio Theatre, Arena Stage, Signature Theatre, Keegan Theatre, and Ford’s Theatre are taking extra precautions, but shows remain as scheduled.
Nearly every venue City Paper contacted emphasized an increase in sanitization, keeping a watchful eye on CDC, OPM, and other governmental organizations’ recommendations, and stressed that patrons or staff who feel ill should stay home. —Kayla Randall and Emma Sarappo
By early Wednesday evening, the NCAA ruled that fans would not be allowed at the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and a number of road races this weekend had been canceled.
On Wednesday afternoon, the D.C. government pulled permits for two road racing events in March: the Rock ‘n’ Roll DC Marathon and Half Marathon and 5K, originally scheduled for March 28, and the Scope It Out 5K on March 29.
The Annapolis Striders canceled the B&A Marathon and Half Marathon in Severna Park scheduled to take place this Sunday. The Pacers Running Four Courts Four Miler in Arlington on Saturday, March 14, or the St. Pats 5K or 10K in D.C. on Sunday, March 15 have also been canceled. All runners for the Pacers events will be automatically deferred into the 2021 St. Pats Run Fest.
“This was a very difficult decision for our team but one we felt was necessary for the well-being of our community,” Pacers senior race director Lisa Reeves says in a statement.
Organizers for the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run, scheduled for April 5, are set to make a decision on the race by the end of Thursday, March 12.After press time, the NBA announced that it would suspend play indefinitely after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus. The Wizards last played the Jazz on Feb. 28. The virus has an estimated incubation period of two to 14 days. In a press release, the NBA says it will “use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Before the NBA suspended its operations, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the parent company for the Washington Wizards and Capitals, announced it would hold all games as scheduled with spectators. The decision drew plenty of criticism.
“It’s equal parts unconscionable and scary, with straight lines drawn from there to arrogance and greed,” wrote Washington Post sports columnist Barry Svrluga.
The Capitals have games scheduled for Thursday, Saturday, and Monday at Capital One Arena. —Kelyn Soong
Most major food and beverage festivals are still going off as planned. Event organizers confirmed to City Paper that the following events are still a go, but many noted that they are carefully monitoring the situation:
- The DC Shamrock Crawl on March 14
- Capital BrewFest: Blossom Bash on March 28
- New Kitchens on the Block at Mess Hall on April 5
- The DC Wine Fest on April 18
- The DC Chocolate Festival on April 25
- The Beefsteak at Charlie Palmer Steak on April 24
A few notable events have already been called off. HopFestDC, scheduled for March 14, is postponed, and Taste of Iceland, scheduled to take place from March 19 to 22, has been canceled.
Poverty nonprofit So Others Might Eat had to cancel both dates of their Empty Bowl soup supper fundraiser. “Due to ongoing health concerns, the 2020 Empty Bowls events have been cancelled,” the nonprofit explains. “If you purchased a ticket, we’d be happy to have you come to SOME to pick out a bowl and go on a brief tour. If you would like a refund, please contact Siannah Marcellin at email@example.com.”
Restaurants remain open and are feeling the pinch of slowed consumer spending. The small, independently owned restaurants that make up the bulk of the D.C. dining scene operate on extremely thin margins and are experiencing anxiety about how they’ll be able to pay staff and purchase ingredients if business becomes unpredictable or drops off. If you’re looking for a place to spend your dollars, restaurants near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center are feeling particularly vulnerable because they depend on steady business from conference attendees and conferences are being cancelled.
Kathy Hollinger, the president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, issued the following statement: “Diners can be confident that when they go to any of the restaurants and foodservice establishments in our region, their food is prepared safely, served by a trained employee, and in compliance with strict health department guidelines while following protocols outlined by the industry’s leading food safety and certification program, ServSafe.”
RAMW sent out safety tips to its member restaurants, in addition to a two-minute video with tips and protocols such as remembering to exclude sick staff from work during their illness; provide hand sanitizer for guests at the host stand; ensure that staff disinfect and wipe down each table between turns with a new, clean cloth; and regularly sanitize frequently touched surfaces. —Laura Hayes
Tim Krepp is watching the cancelations roll in as we talk.
“Huge, huge numbers,” says the school tour coordinator. “It’s going to be a very different season for us and for all the guides that we work with who are normally independent contractors.”
Coronavirus is hitting D.C. right at the beginning of spring tourist season, a crucial time for those who lead tours around the District and for businesses that depend on out-of-towners.
“I’m used to working every day in March and making a pretty serious chunk of a nest egg,” says Rebecca Grawl, who has guided groups around D.C. for the past 15 years. “It’s definitely going to be less, but how much less is uncertain.”
Krepp, who coordinates tours, hotels, airfare, and buses, says groups flying into the District are canceling at higher rates than those coming by bus, but he’s reluctant to give any ballpark numbers on how many cancelations his company has seen in the past few days. Any figure would be outdated in a matter of hours, he says.
“Frankly, if you’re a guide in D.C. I would look for another job right now,” he says. “Because tour season just isn’t going to happen.”
D.C.’s chief financial officer, Jeffrey DeWitt, has cautioned that the District could lose out on $52 million in tax revenue if the virus becomes a serious health emergency.
International tourism, which made up about 10 percent of D.C.’s visitors in 2018, could potentially take the biggest hit after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued travel warnings for several countries, including China, the top tourism market for the District.
“What’s killing us right now is the uncertainty,” Krepp says. “If we could say this will be over by June, we could do something with it, but there’s a real fear this will be prolonged. We can withstand a shock. We can’t withstand a sustained campaign on a lark.” —Mitch Ryals