Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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D.C. began Phase Two of its reopening plan on June 22, relaxing more coronavirus-related restrictions and allowing select businesses to reintroduce indoor services at reduced capacity, without meeting critical metrics. Newly released emails dated June 20, 21, and 22 are raising questions and suspicions among some as to whether the Bowser administration manipulated the publication of coronavirus data ahead of moving to Phase Two. The administration denies any suggestions that officials cooked the books.

Emails suggest staff within the Executive Office of the Mayor delayed the release of coronavirus data that could have cautioned against further reopening. Once it was released June 22, data was published on the District’s coronavirus dashboard in such a way that made it appear as if the city was ready for Phase Two. Only by looking past the dashboard’s homepage would the public see that D.C. did not meet the metric related to community spread—14 days of sustained decrease—the day the city entered Phase Two, a decision requested by a staffer within EOM, according to a review of emails.

The optics look bad. But a spokesperson for the mayor’s office emphasizes the bottom line—that D.C. met the metric related to community spread on June 18, and the metric never required the city to experience a decrease beyond 14 days. D.C. did not enter Phase 2 as soon the city met the metric and waited a few days, the spokesperson went on to explain, to give businesses more time to prepare.

“Throughout this pandemic, D.C. has been a leader in transparency and making data publicly available so that Washingtonians have the information they need to protect themselves, their families, and our community. We have and will always strive to ensure the data we present is clear, concise, and accurate,” says the spokesperson. “The emails reflect the process, and we present the data in a way that is understandable and gives residents and press confidence in our response and recovery efforts.”

Reopen metrics have been a point of contention before. Officials moved to Phase One only after they changed the metrics required to lift the stay-at-home order. The administration denies this, but an April 29 town hall suggests this to be true. At the town hall, DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said her agency would be following 11 metrics, but later denied ever saying they’d be using all these benchmarks to make a decision on phased reopening.

D.C. experienced an increase in cases during Phase Two, with thousands more people becoming infected and dozens more dying of COVID-19 complications, but Bowser declined to restrict any Phase Two activities. Compared to two weeks ago, the number of cases again appears to be decreasing. 

D.C. did not technically meet Phase Two metrics relating to community spread and contract tracing the day the city opened, according to an internal email sent at 10:38 a.m. on June 22 from Stephanie Black with the mayor’s Office of Communications.

The email says D.C. experienced a 13-day decrease in community spread the day the city reopened. The Phase 2 metric requires a 14-day decrease. (Again, the mayor’s teams argues D.C. already hit that metric, rendering the point moot.) It also says contact tracers attempted to reach 78.3 percent of new positive cases within a day of being reported, and 69.8 percent of close contacts, well below the 90 percent benchmark.

Meanwhile, during a press conference on June 22, Bowser was asked “Are we where we are supposed to be according to your metrics for contract tracing?” “Yes we are,” she replied. At the press conference, Bowser only acknowledged a spike in cases that set D.C. back in DC Health’s community spread metric as “a reset of the peak.” She also said “We achieved the 14 days and that’s the metric and we always know that we can have different experiences with the data.” On June 19, she announced her decision to further reopen the economy, and she proceeded as planned on June 22. 

The emails were released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request made by Allison Hrabar, a resident who tracks the dashboard and shares her observations on Twitter. She shared the results of her FOIA request, which runs more than 1,000 pages, with City Paper.  Hrabar’s Twitter thread on her FOIA request prompted strong reactions. Some accused the mayor’s office of deception.

The emails provide further insight into why data related to community spread was scrubbed from the dashboard on June 20, as first reported by DCist. It would appear that staff requested the delay of this data once learning of a spike in COVID-19 cases. The District eventually released the data, only to remove parts again. Emails do not mention the reason for the removal, but a FOIA officer says in their response letter that “substantial portions” of Microsoft Teams chats mentioned the spike of cases and how to handle the reporting. The officer, however, did not publicly release this information, citing D.C. law. Hrabar plans on appealing. 

D.C. needed to see 14 days of decrease in community spread before moving to Phase Two, and measures this by the date a person first experiences symptoms; it excludes cases in congregate settings. A screenshot captured June 20 at 12:22 p.m. by Hrabar shows D.C. reported a spike in community cases on June 11, meaning the city only experienced 11 days of decrease in community spread. Just a few hours later, the dashboard no longer reported the June 11 spike of 56 cases. 

“On Thursday, the sustained decrease metric reached 14 days. Although this metric is met, we continue to monitor the data, and have predetermined triggers in place to identify concerning changes that may result in a change in recommendations,” DC Health spokesperson Allison Reeves told DCist at the time.  

Emails provide more context about discussions in the days preceding the start of Phase Two. “Please hold on posting data. Thank you,” writes Benjamin Fritsch, a staffer in the mayor’s office of communications, in a June 20 email sent at 9:40 a.m. to various EOM staff, after Kimberly Henderson with DC Health sent an email to the group two hours earlier saying, “DC Health has confirmed that a new peak was detected in the data, resetting the District’s Phase One count to 11 days of sustained decrease. That data is represented in the chart below.” Fritsch eventually gave the OK to publish data related to peak at noon, but it was quickly taken down.

The emails look suspect. A spokesperson with the mayor explained the exchanges as an attempt to try and prevent any confusion. Seeing a spike in community cases could create alarm among some, even if D.C. already met the 14-day decrease days before, the thinking goes. The executive sometimes tries to contextualize anything posted on the dashboard via a press release or press conference. For example, Nesbitt hosted a Sunday night press conference over the phone once to explain the first time D.C. experienced a setback in community spread.

In a June 21 email sent to staff at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer at 9:38 a.m., Fritsch writes, “Please do not update the community spread element of the ReOpen dashboard.” Hrabar’s screenshots of the dashboard confirm community spread data was not updated that day. A press release from the mayor’s team on coronavirus data that day only says “On Thursday, the District reported its 14th day of sustained decrease in community spread, thereby clinching this metric for entering Phase Two.” 

On June 22, Fritsch asked the tech team to say that D.C. experienced a 14-day decrease in community spread on the homepage of the dashboard. Only if residents opted to read more about community spread by selecting the appropriate tab would they have seen that D.C. actually experienced a 13-day decrease, something Fritsch specifically requested. 

“Can we have it still say ‘Over 14 Days’ on the front page of the dashboard, but display the current 13-day decrease on the chart itself?” Fritsch writes, acknowledging that a disclaimer would need to be added to the chart to signify that the “current count is being monitored for future criteria.”

Community spread data on the dashboard was updated the afternoon of June 22, and the June 11 spike in community cases returned to the chart. The spokesperson’s explanation here reverted back to what was emphasized throughout the conversation: D.C. met the 14-day decrease in community spread. And the communications department within the mayor’s office is always rethinking how it presents COVID-19.