Pile of masks
Credit: Laura Hayes

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Mayor Muriel Bowser took D.C. businesses for a bumpy ride over the weekend when she issued an order lifting mask requirements for fully vaccinated people late Friday afternoon. Had blogger Barred in DC not shared it as Friday stretched into Saturday, those it impacted may not have been aware of its existence. It was immediately labeled a “disaster” and “a total mess” by those who would ultimately have to enforce it—public-facing workers at bars, restaurants, and other businesses.

But Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., a Bowser spokesperson told City Paper the city was “updating” the mask order “to make it clear.” It disappeared from the website that catalogues COVID-19 mayoral orders, though a PDF version of the initial order remains online. Come 6:45 p.m., a new order landed that reversed many of the provisions pertaining to masks included in the Friday version.

Friday’s rescinded order permitted those who are fully vaccinated to enter an indoor business maskless so long as the business doesn’t have stricter rules in place. It also authorized businesses to request to see someone’s vaccine card or some other vaguely defined proof of vaccination to verify whether or not they could indeed ditch their masks indoors.

The new order keeps in place the mask mandate in indoor settings where people gather, like restaurants, stores, and apartment common areas. It says instead that the city will follow current DC Health guidelines that more closely align with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommend. The CDC says vaccinated and unvaccinated diners should still wear masks inside bars and restaurants except when eating and drinking. Saturday’s order keeps the provision that businesses can always establish rules for mask wearing that are more stringent than the city’s. 

Some of the language that paves the way for businesses to ask for proof of vaccination also remains in the new order. But if a business requires vaccination for “admittance, registration, or employment,” it must make exceptions for those who are medically unable to be vaccinated and those with sincerely held religious beliefs “forbidding them” from getting vaccinated.

Navigating the pandemic has challenged every local government, but the confusing events of this weekend suggest D.C. isn’t learning from past mistakes. The people who make up the District’s hospitality industry have lamented two shortcomings throughout the past year. 

First, the city hasn’t always given the hard-hit sector ample time to prepare before implementing significant policy changes. Remember when City Paper broke the news on Dec. 18 that the mayor was planning to pause indoor dining in D.C. starting on Christmas Eve? Even though the pause was a sure thing, the city hadn’t alerted anyone and it was unclear when they planned making the news public. Restaurants were stocking up for celebratory nights ahead instead of calling diners to cancel reservations. 

Restaurant owners, many of whom are frustrated that the District has maintained a 25 percent capacity cap on indoor dining, are fed up because the city won’t set a reopening roadmap based on clearly defined metrics that would allow them to plan in advance.

Michigan’s “Vacc to Normal Challenge,” for example, has four reopening steps that clearly describe what will be permitted based on what percentage of the state’s population is vaccinated. Only in step four, when 70 percent of residents are vaccinated, will Michigan consider lifting the face covering order. The steps leading up to that point focus on gradually increasing capacity limits for various activities.

Restaurant employees have been policing patrons’ actions for more than a year because of the way reopening rules are structured. Should these public-facing workers fall short in their enforcement duties, they risk getting exposed to COVID-19 or getting their workplace a citation, all the while knowing they’re dependent tips from those same customers. 

Sometimes clashes between customers and restaurant employees turned dangerous, which is why a local organization held deescalation courses. A number of restaurant and bar employees told City Paper that dealing with “entitled customers” who put them or the vulnerable people around them at risk is one reason they’re not returning to work in the field now or ever again

The order the mayor rescinded would have created a clusterfuck as hosts and other employees grappled with how to verify that those walking in maskless for dinner were vaccinated or how to gently relay that even though the city says they can be maskless indoors, the restaurant plays by different rules. 

That’s why, based on their reading of Friday night’s order, some establishments like Number Nine in Logan Circle and Ivy and Coney in Shaw announced they would continue to make customers wear masks whenever they’re not actively eating and drinking. 

When Friday night’s order came out, Michael Haresign was shocked the mayor was willing to loosen the mask mandate so swiftly and aggressively when many bar and restaurant workers have yet to be fully vaccinated. He works at Homestead in Petworth, which is still closed for indoor dining. He believes the District is at least a month and a half away from even having the conversation about altering mask rules.

 (According to the city, only 33.6 percent of the population is partially or fully vaccinated. That percentage could be higher because Washingtonians traveled elsewhere to get shots.)

“I don’t think it’s right to put people in the position where the workforce might be unsafe for the benefit of an economic reopening,” Haresign says. “We have to make sure people have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated.” 

His bar is across from Mary’s Center’s Petworth location. He says representatives from the community health organization visited recently to talk to staff about getting vaccinated. Kitchen workers are lagging behind, according to Haresign. “They’re not looking at Twitter,”  he says. “They’re not looking at the general news sources we all take for granted right now. It does take that direct community involvement and direct contact with people to be able to talk about what the opportunities are.”

Recognizing that hospitality industry workers are still in need of vaccines, the Mayor’s Office on Nightlife and Culture is teaming up with Hook Hall in Park View to host a day of walk-up vaccines on May 3. 

Eric King got his second shot on April 20 and won’t be fully vaccinated until the middle of this week. He’s hoping to return to bartending and managing once he’s fully inoculated and feels confident there won’t be another spike in cases that would cause an employer to lay him off. He doesn’t want to wrestle with the city’s troubled unemployment system again.

Even though he’s currently unemployed, King carefully tracked the events of the weekend. “My initial reaction was laughter and then disgust because it didn’t make any sense,” King says of Friday night’s order. “It was all over the place as a written document. I was like, ‘I must have misread something.’ I read it again, but all the same words were there. It seemed like they were taking all onus off the government because they’ve had enough of this shit. I read it as, ‘We don’t want to deal with this anymore, you guys handle it.'” 

King imagines a nightmare scenario at the front of a restaurant where no one can agree on the rules or who gets to set them. “I think that it was dangerous,” he continues. “You’re creating tension between consumers and business owners who want business but also want safety and want to follow regulations. You threw that all into a tailspin.”

Both King and Haresign were pleased to see Friday night’s order rescinded because of the enforcement challenges it would have created. They also hope for greater transparency and data-based decision making as the city moves forward with reopening. They emphasize that engaging both restaurant owners and workers in the process is critical so another order like Friday night’s isn’t issued.

Something felt off about Friday night’s order not only because it was posted without any formal announcement, but also because of how far it went in terms of removing the mask mandate for fully vaccinated Washingtonians. D.C. has been relatively conservative in its reopening process lately, which has paid off.

City Paper hopes to learn at the mayor’s Monday press conference whether Friday night’s order was posted accidentally or if the city changed course based on public opposition.