Credit: Laura Hayes

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Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is a man calling for a plan. He wrote Mayor Muriel Bowser a letter on May 2 requesting a step-by-step reopening strategy. His goal is to help business owners and faith leaders prepare and make important decisions. “It’s incredibly hard for businesses to sustain themselves when they’re forced to respond to ad hoc reopening announcements,” McDuffie says. “A roadmap will help them.” 

On several occasions, the mayor’s office didn’t give businesses much notice before new restrictions were imposed or lifted. “Communication is essential to any effective relationship,” McDuffie continues. “The city and the executive can’t ask businesses to continue doing what they’re doing. Some of them are barely surviving. The government can’t ask them to do that without some form of a plan to reopen that is clear and helps them hire.” 

In addition to a way forward containing specifics, McDuffie requests immediate financial relief for hotels and movement on enabling houses of worship to “reopen and congregate safely.” Several states unveiled strategies to support these industries in recent weeks.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer unveiled the state’s “MI Vacc to Normal” plan on April 29. It has four steps tied to the percentage of residents over the age of 16 who are vaccinated. Take step two as an example. Two weeks after 60 percent of people are partially vaccinated, Michigan will increase indoor capacity at sports stadiums and conference centers to 25 percent, increase capacity at gyms to 50 percent, and lift the curfew at restaurants and bars. The state can enter the final step, which is essentially full recovery, two weeks after 70 percent of people received their first dose. There’s a caveat that allows for dialing back should the virus threaten to overwhelm hospitals again.

“Michigan is the gold standard right now,” McDuffie says. Others with expertise agree. “The mayor and District executive officials could learn from what they’ve done in terms of laying out a step-by-step guide. To be clear, the guiding principle must be keeping people safe. Everybody agrees with that, but we need to give a clearer picture to small business owners and their workers.” 

Illinois is hoping to enter Phase 5 in July, which removes all capacity limits. The state is currently in Phase 4, but a new “Bridge Phase” was recently added. Illinois will enter the Bridge Phase once 70 percent of residents 65 and older have been vaccinated, barring any reversals in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths over a 28-day period. They can move on to Phase 5 once 50 percent of residents 16 and older have been vaccinated and the state is seeing stable or declining COVID-19 metrics also over a 28-day period. 

Further west, California’s “Beyond the Blueprint” plan posted on April 6 explains that the state will fully reopen its economy on June 15 if there are enough vaccines available for all Californians who are 16 and older and hospitalization rates are low and stable. 

D.C. does have color-coded “ReOpening Metrics” rubric it shares daily with data about new COVID-19 cases and deaths. It’s what the city has used since the start of the pandemic to indicate whether the District should be in Phase One (red), Phase Two (yellow), or Phase 3 (green) and hasn’t been updated with more specifics or nuance. Once you know what phase D.C. is in, you can look up what activities DC Health has permitted and forbidden. As of publication time, the city is still in Phase 2.

City Paper asked Bowser at a May 3 press conference if she would consider system like Michigan’s, which is based on what percentage of residents are vaccinated. She responded that the city still thinks case count is the best metric and did not say whether she or DC Health is working on a similar reopening plan. Bowser then sympathized with restaurant, bar, and music venue owners: “I feel where they are. Our restaurant and venue operators, they were the first impacted and last to come back. We want them to be able to open, stay open, keep workers safe, and keep patrons safe.”

McDuffie also received a non-committal response from the mayor’s office about his letter. He says a representative relayed only that the city is focused on “crushing the virus” and vaccinations. 

City Administrator Kevin Donahue offered the Council some rationale as to why the city is hesitant to tie the loosening of restrictions to specific metrics like vaccination rates on April 30. “We haven’t had a binding metric because we have seen elsewhere that it can tie the hands of jurisdictions and the importance of metrics can evolve over the course of the pandemic,” he said. In other words, D.C. would be stuck in place if it never hits certain milestones.

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Restaurant workers and owners back McDuffie’s plea. “It’s going to help everybody if there is a more clear communication between what the city government is planning and the stakeholders, which aren’t just owners but people who work in restaurants and even restaurant-adjacent businesses,” says Paul Hofford. He was running the bar at A Rake’s Progress when he got laid off in March 2020. He recently got his second vaccine and is finalizing a contract to return to work in the industry.

“I think a plan would be extraordinarily helpful,” Hofford continues. “As far as the specifics of the plan, I’m no epidemiologist so I don’t want to make assumptions about what is reasonable or not. But, from a worker’s perspective I think it’s really important to factor in that back-of-house workers may not be vaccinated yet. Any reopening plan, I would want to ensure that all resources are available for staff to get fully vaccinated.”

Centrolina and Piccolina chef and owner Amy Brandwein thinks if there were more of a plan in place it would inspire greater confidence among restaurant workers who are still hesitant about coming back to work. The city is in the middle of a staffing crisis. “There’s instability in the industry because our former employees, and workers in general, don’t feel comfortable that the industry is stable enough that they’ll have a stable paycheck,” she says. “They don’t know when restaurants are going back to normal so they’re choosing to do other things.” 

Brandwein acknowledges that the hospitality industry is “at the apex of” becoming a better place to work writ large. Wages, salaries, and benefits lag behind other employment sectors and sexual harassment and discrimination can run rampant in restaurants that largely don’t have HR departments. “We’re trying hard to get that done,” Brandwein says. She wants to lead the charge, but says that’s hard to do when her restaurants don’t have enough customers because of restrictions. “It takes a constant revenue stream to do those things.”

Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger adds that without a game plan, restaurants are struggling to know whether to staff up, reopen if they’ve been takeout only, or re-engage vendors that supply them with products. “Planning is critical,” she says. “We’re not just, ‘Thank you for the announcement, now we can dial up.’ It takes a lot of weeks to plan to offer the kind of service that was paused for a 15-month period.” 

Recognizing that people from all eight wards “remain in the dark,” McDuffie is hoping to include his colleagues on the Council in his call for action, along with others. He says he is currently gathering formal support from business owners, labor leaders, and faith leaders to further pressure the mayor’s office to develop a plan to reopen safely.

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While McDuffie says his main goal is to convince the city to share its future plans, his letter also argues it’s time to loosen restrictions to come more in line with other cities. He cites New York Governor Andrew Cuomo‘s recent announcement allowing restaurants in New York City to seat indoor dining rooms at 75 percent capacity starting May 7. The city’s goal is to get to 100 percent capacity in July.

“Surely if the largest city in the country can announce this measure, the District can move to increase indoor capacity,” McDuffie’s letter to Bowser reads. “This is urgent and must be done now to give our business [sic] a fair shot to recover and compete.” 

The District is also behind Maryland and Virginia. The Commonwealth announced May 6 that it plans to lift all capacity and social distancing restrictions on June 15 if progress continues. McDuffie worries that Washingtonians will go to neighboring states to eat, shop, and find work if nothing changes soon.

Bowser did loosen some bar and restaurant restrictions this month, such as increasing the party size limit from six to 10 people, allowing live music outdoors, and removing the food-purchase requirement in outdoor settings.

“What we’ve seen and done throughout the pandemic was look at the dates at which we turn up activity, which was May 1, and watch what that could do to our case rate,” Bowser said at the “Leadership During CrisisWashington Post Live session Thursday morning. “They could go up or continue to go down and then after a reasonable time watching that activity and what it does then we can turn up more activity.”

She also responded to a question about why D.C. is lagging behind other jurisdictions like New York and New Jersey. “I think they were crushed by this virus early on,” Bowser said. “We didn’t experience that level of infection or death or have the experience that they had with their hospital capacity. I’m proud of the District’s response to COVID. We were very aggressive with mask mandates and restrictions that have kept our residents safe.”

While she suggested at the Post event that turning up vaccination is currently more important than turning up activity, she offered some hope. “I think you will see the capacity restrictions go up and I think that we are going to continue to be concerned about physical distancing inside,” Bowser said before sharing that she’s focused on how the city can best maximize its outdoor spaces like streateries.

Restaurants owners want to know exactly how soon they will be able to increase their dining room capacities. “A lot of full-service restaurants like mine are losing so much revenue at 25 percent,” says Jeff Miskiri, who owns Po Boy Jim on H Street NE and Creole on 14th in Columbia Heights. He pays close attention to what the mayor says on Mondays because that’s when she typically makes announcements about reopening. Like McDuffie, he’d like to see more transparent decision-making. 

“We see what’s going on throughout the country where businesses are able to open up and thrive,” Miskiri says. “That means more tax dollars and more people off unemployment. We want to create jobs to save the economy. It’s sad and depressing that there’s no end in sight.”