Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser's decision to reverse mask and vaccine mandates has attracted fast pushback. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Mayor Muriel Bowser announced plans to further reopen the District’s economy at a press conference this morning after business owners, faith leaders, and even a couple of councilmembers called for action earlier this month. Starting May 21, capacity limits at D.C. restaurants will be lifted. Nightclubs and taverns will be able to increase their indoor capacities from 25 to 50 percent on the same date. Come June 11, when Bowser is projecting a full reopening of the city, capacity restrictions at all D.C. businesses will be eliminated.

“We are grateful that the mayor has lifted restrictions on the District’s hospitality industry,” says Cork Wine Bar & Market co-owner Khalid Pitts. “It was critically important that small businesses could operate on the same playing field as others in our surrounding jurisdictions. We look forward to working proactively with the city to ensure we create a safe working and dining environment within the industry, for our guests, and in our community.”

Additional reopening recommendations will come from DC Health sometime in the next seven to 10 days. Restaurant and bar owners have many questions, including whether tables must remain six feet apart, whether the midnight alcohol curfew will be lifted, and if customers will be able to sit at staffed bars. Bar owners say lifting capacity limits doesn’t do much if tables must remain far apart.

Update: The city now tells City Paper that previous restrictions on things like table spacing and sitting at a staffed bar will be lifted on May 21, while the emphasis on vaccination and mask wearing will remain. This information is not final until the official guidance is made public.

This announcement likely surprised some bar and restaurant leaders because the city has been conservative in its reopening process thus far. They could struggle to staff up and make other preparations in time, and want diners to know what to expect. Walter’s Sports Bar in Navy Yard tweeted: “When you show up to your favorite restaurant on May 21 thinking everything will be back to normal. It won’t. Most places are drastically understaffed, that will take time to fix. Not trying to rain on a good day, happy we’re in this position, but there’s a lot of work to do.”

The news comes as DC Health reported 15 known new positive cases and zero deaths related to COVID-19 Monday morning. Sunday’s known case count was 16 and there were also no known deaths. At 6.6 cases per 100,000 people, D.C. nears minimal community spread—something the District hasn’t seen since the summer.

Last month, a report from the Office of the D.C. Auditor found that the city’s COVID-19 case and fatality rates, per capita, were among the lowest in the country thanks to swift policy action that slowed the spread of the coronavirus. 

“Throughout this process, I have said how proud I am of D.C. residents and businesses who have responded, who have followed health guidance, and have worked together to help protect our community throughout the pandemic,” Bowser said at this morning’s press conference.

The focus lately has been on getting D.C. residents vaccinated. DC Health says 23.9 percent of residents are fully vaccinated as of May 6, while the CDC reports that 41.7 percent of people over 18 years old in D.C. are fully vaccinated. What’s most encouraging is that close to 80 percent of seniors are fully vaccinated, according to DC Health data.

DC Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt reminded Washingtonians to proceed with caution this morning. “There are risks inherent with certain activities and while we’re moving to the next phase of our response, we still want people to be cautious,” she said. “If you are not fully vaccinated, your degree of risk is still going to be higher than someone who is fully vaccinated. The more you want to be without a mask, the more we need people to get vaccinated.”

Leading up the announcement today, Bowser received a number of letters from stakeholders. She says they did not impact decision-making process.

On May 2, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie kicked things off by sending the mayor a letter requesting a step-by-step reopening roadmap that would allow businesses like restaurants to plan ahead instead of waiting for “ad hoc announcements.”

Restaurant owners and workers backed him up. Centrolina chef and restaurateur Amy Brandwein made the case that not having a clear plan is preventing employees from returning to work because there’s so much uncertainty about the future. McDuffie has an affinity for Michigan’s “MI Vacc to Normal” strategy, which he told City Paper is the “gold standard.” 

Michigan’s plan has four steps leading up to a full reopening based on the percentage of the population that has been vaccinated. Bowser didn’t tie her reopening plans slated for May 21 and June 11 to specific vaccination metrics.

McDuffie also made a case for bringing D.C.’s restrictions more in line with other big cities and neighboring states, which have advanced further in the reopening process. Virginia, for example, announced May 6 that it plans to lift all capacity and social distancing restrictions on June 15 if progress continues. D.C. will now beat the Commonwealth to that status.

Five days later, McDuffie wrote another letter , this time with Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto. “As we continue to urge all residents to get vaccinated, there are steps the city must take to instill confidence to bring back workers and visitors and revitalize our communities,” it reads.

Hours ahead of Bowser’s May 10 press briefing, McDuffie sent out an announcement reiterating many of the same points with the help of others who have been vocal about reopening. Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger says the 25 percent indoor dining capacity limit has local restaurants operating at a loss.

Monumental Sports joined I.M.P. venues 9:30 Club, The Anthem, Lincoln Theatre to pen their own letter to the mayor on May 6 that offered up their facilities as vaccination centers and suggested that the city allow venues to fill their venues at full capacity starting July 1. 

Bowser’s chief of staff and Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio, didn’t seem to like his full inbox of letters. He tweeted minutes before Monday’s press conference: “Letters don’t move the needle (health metrics). Vaccinations do. We’re all in this together. #DCHOPE

Amanda Michelle Gomez contributed reporting.