Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Amid a drop in COVID-19 cases and calls to reopen, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced she’d lift restrictions on public and commercial activities, including capacity limits, on May 21—with the exception of bars, nightclubs, and large sports and entertainment venues. Capacity limits for those businesses and venues will lift on June 11. Mask guidelines will remain in place. Businesses and institutions should expect DC Health to update guidance in the next 7 to 10 days.  

Bowser thanked residents and businesses for their sacrifices that resulted in D.C. blunting the curve. “We see it in these numbers today,” Bowser said at Monday’s press conference. D.C. never had to use the hospital at the Convention Center, and officials are now dismantling it. “We are approaching containment of the virus,” said DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt at the presser.

Both Bowser and Nesbitt stressed that there are risks, particularly for those who are still unvaccinated, with reopening. Therefore more people need to be vaccinated and people should continue to mask. At a huddle after the presser, John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff, told reporters that the incoming mayoral order and DC Health guidelines wouldn’t require rules for businesses and institutions beyond masking.

Bowser has repeatedly said that the best indicator for when she’d ease more coronavirus restrictions is D.C.’s case count. On Monday, DC Health reported 15 new positive cases and zero deaths related to COVID-19, as of May 9. The daily case rate stands at 6.6 per 100,000 people, meaning D.C. is nearing minimal community spread. The city has not seen this—a daily case rate of 5 or below—since the summer. The death count has decreased in recent weeks too. DC Health reported zero deaths on six different days over the last week.

Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have been on the decline as more and more residents have gotten vaccinated. According to DC Health, 23.9 percent of residents are fully vaccinated and 37.8 are partially vaccinated, as of May 6. The CDC reports that 41.7 percent of people over 18 years old in D.C. are fully vaccinated, as of May 9. Coverage is even higher among residents who are most at risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19; over 70 percent of seniors have received their first dose. The District is striving towards a federal goal of 70 percent. President Joe Biden hopes to have 70 percent of adult Americans across the country at least partially vaccinated by July 4.     

Meanwhile, most everyone from councilmembers to business owners to faith leaders has been calling on the mayor to roll back more restrictions or at the very least offer a plan for when D.C. could expect to be fully reopened. Bowser was under immense pressure, given that neighboring states have eased more restrictions faster and offered a plan for when they should expect to return to some semblance of normalcy. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, for example, says all capacity and social distancing restrictions will lift on June 15, so long as cases continue to fall and vaccinations keep up.  

At the last press conference on reopening, on April 26, Mayor Bowser left some in the business community disappointed and frustrated. They wondered whether they’ll ever be able to reopen like the Before Times. Bowser let live music return to the District, but music could not be above a conversational level and no one would be allowed to stand up and dance. With a few exceptions, like on retail businesses, capacity indoors would be limited to 25 percent. 

“The only thing that is more financially debilitating than being fully shuttered is being partially open,” Audrey Fix Schaefer, the head of communications at I.M.P., told City Paper last month. 

On May 6, I.M.P., the entertainment company that operates venues like 9:30 Club, the Lincoln Theatre, and The Anthem, along with Monumental Sports, wrote the mayor, requesting that she let them reopen at full capacity on July 1, two months after residents were able to go to a walk-up vaccine site where no appointments are needed. The venues offered to help officials with their vaccination efforts, from transportation to marketing. 

“This benchmark—two months after everyone who wants a vaccine has had easy access to it—will enable us to start the process of booking concerts, events, and games for audiences in the late summer and fall of this year. Unlike other industries, we cannot flip a switch to reopen,” says the letter.  

The entertainment venues weren’t the only ones to pen a letter to the mayor. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is another name that comes to mind. Mayor Bowser said those letters did not influence decisions about reopening. 

Mayor Bowser defends her more conservative approach to reopening by citing the city’s case and death counts. The Office of the D.C. Auditor found that the mayor’s swift policy actions, along with Council legislation and the public’s willingness to embrace public health guidance, led D.C. to fare better than most other states during the pandemic. 

Bowser largely abandoned her phased approach to reopening, instead easing specific restrictions depending on what the data told health officials. Strict metrics, particularly around vaccination, would hamstring officials, the executive argued in recent days. It’s true that the mayor received criticism when she had D.C. enter Phase Two of reopening before the city met its contact tracing metric. At Monday’s presser, Bowser said her team will continue to monitor metrics, particularly those around health care capacity, to decide if restrictions need to be reinstated.

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