The COVID-19 pandemic forced people around the world to instantly change the way they lived their lives: how they bought groceries, how they traveled, and if and how they worked. Elected officials on the local and national level responded with financial resources, rent and utility assistance programs, emergency housing for those experiencing homelessness, and initiatives that gave residents staying closer to home more use of their streets. Neighbors got to work as well: They organized mutual aid groups, helped one another book vaccination appointments, and offered helping hands. The past 14 months have by no means been good, but at least we know we’re all in this together.
Although the pandemic continues to ravage the globe, things in D.C. appear to be turning around. Vaccines are readily available and this week, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her intent for the city to fully reopen without any capacity restrictions by mid-June. What will this reopened world look like? Despite a widely expressed desire for a return to normalcy, we know there’s no going back after a world changing period like this one. Nor should we. What if instead of going back to normal, we incorporate improvements to issues the pandemic highlighted into a new normal? Below, City Paper writers reflect on those improvements. While many of these ideas are far from new, the pandemic reminded us of their importance. Above all, they reflect the need to care for all Washingtonians, regardless of where they live, where they work, or what language they speak. —Caroline Jones
Improving Language Access for Non-English Speakers
The only way to enforce D.C.’s language access laws seems to be through public shaming. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration launched two critical websites during the pandemic—one where residents could register for the COVID-19 vaccine and the other where they could sign up for rental and utility assistance—but neither was translated at first. It took a month after vaccinate.dc.gov launched for the site to be translated into six commonly spoken languages, and two weeks for stay.dc.gov to be translated. Officials fielded plenty of questions (and criticism) before the websites were accessible.
“They’re welcoming immigrants to the city, but at the same time you don’t see that equality in services,” Veronica Hernandez, a program supervisor at Mary’s Center who helps non-English-speaking patients apply for government benefits, told City Paper at the time. “They are not getting the same access as any other community.”
D.C. law requires equal access to information for residents who cannot or do not proficiently speak English. The Language Access Act of 2004 says the D.C. government has to offer oral language services and written translations of programs and “vital documents” if they are likely to serve 3 percent of non-English speakers or 500 individuals, whichever is less. But when the government was charged with connecting residents and workers to health care and aid during an unprecedented public health emergency, information was not immediately translated into Amharic, Spanish, or other languages primarily spoken by 17 percent of the D.C. population. What gives? Advocates say the law has no teeth.
“There was an assumption that people would follow the law and provide language access … but that obviously hasn’t been happening,” says Allison Miles-Lee, a managing attorney with Bread for the City and member of the D.C. Language Access Coalition.
“Even the jurisdictions that are doing the best at language access still have a long way to go,” says David Steib, the language access director at Ayuda, a nonprofit offering legal, language, and social services to immigrants across the region. “It’s complicated. It takes a lot of expertise and funding to make sure that you have professional interpretation and translation services.”
The Council amended the original 2004 law more than a decade later, empowering the D.C. Office of Human Rights to impose a fine of $2,500 on entities for any violations. However, the Language Access for Education Amendment Act of 2018 was subject to appropriations, and the Council has yet to dedicate any funding for the bill, including enforcement. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer said the bill would have cost $35 million over four years, in part because OHR, which monitors compliance with the law, would have to expand.
Advocates are hoping that changes this budget cycle. They believe that fines will compel D.C. government agencies to comply with the law. The fines could also incentivize more residents to file complaints with OHR when agencies fail to translate materials, advocates say. The process can be time consuming, so complainants might be more willing to file if they knew OHR could do more than just notify an agency that they are not in compliance with the law.
According to the most recent report from OHR, 19 complaints were filed in 2019—that was one more than in 2018 but 21 less than in 2017. Of the 19 complaints, OHR determined that one agency (the Metropolitan Police Department) did not comply with the Language Access Act by failing to provide a translation service. In the report, OHR says that most agencies did better at complying with the law than they did the year before. The Department of Corrections, Department of Health Care Finance, and Department of Small and Local Business Development had the lowest overall compliance scores. While DOC failed to provide training to staff or its providers in 2019, DHCF had no language access policy. All three struggled with reporting requirements. Meanwhile, the District of Columbia Public Library, Department of Employment Services, the Office of the People’s Counsel, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education had the best overall scores.
It’s unclear how agencies scored in 2020, but a report is expected in the coming months. The pandemic underscored the importance of language access. Everyone needed to be on the same page to collectively flatten the curve. —Amanda Michelle Gomez
Making Voting Easier
In the face of a pandemic that severely restricted human contact, the D.C. Board of Elections had to revamp the entire voting process for the primary and general elections. To make voting easier, BOE placed 55 ballot drop boxes throughout the city weeks before the general election (the most popular voting method), opened “super voting centers,” and mailed every D.C. resident a ballot.
Of the 346,491 ballots cast in the November 3 general election, 234,758 came in the form of mail-in ballots, according to the BOE. Fifty-five percent of voters returned their completed ballot either by mailing it or dropping it in a drop box or at an early voting center, which opened 10 days before Election Day. Only 29,036 ballots were cast in person on Election Day, according to BOE data.
Other steps designed to ensure public safety during the pandemic, such as ballot tracking and the ability to vote anywhere in the city rather than at a designated precinct, helped facilitate a higher turnout than any of the previous five presidential elections.
The increase in democratic participation prompted advocates to push for the permanent implementation of these initiatives.
“The 2020 elections were … unique because of the pandemic but there are definitely opportunities to expand on things that we said were only for the pandemic that are better for elections in general,” says Michelle Whittaker, who managed Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George’s successful campaign. “Vote by mail is one of the biggest examples.”
Still, these innovations came with growing pains.
During the chaotic and frustrating primary election, for example, BOE asked residents to request absentee ballots instead of proactively mailing ballots to every registered D.C. voter as it did in the general election. Many people never received ballots despite submitting their requests on time, and long lines on Primary Election Day suggested ineffective public messaging about the early voting period. In deeply Democratic D.C., the primary election is decisive for most local races.
Some campaigns took advantage of the confusion over the ballot request process. Whittaker says phone canvassers for George essentially offered to help voters willing to provide them with the required information apply for absentee ballots. And Chuck Thies, who ran Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray’s reelection campaign, says his team mailed a targeted set of voters campaign-made ballot applications with stamped envelopes.
“Mail-in voting and early voting is here to stay,” Thies says. “There are lots of kinks to work out, but until then, there is an opportunity for campaigns to take advantage of that.”
Five months later, in the run up to the general election, the new processes again came with a few hiccups. A confusing ballot tracker on BOE’s website caused concern that votes would go uncounted. And a design flaw in a BOE form asking residents to update their addresses left many confused. The double-sided mailer instructed residents to provide a different address if they wanted to receive an absentee ballot or update their address. But if they tore the mailer along the perforated line as instructed, the updated information would be separated from BOE’s return address.
Since the election, the BOE has held two town halls to gather feedback on how the public thinks elections should look going forward. Mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes are among the more popular initiatives.
Whittaker also encourages the board to consider using multiple methods to inform the public about new voting methods. The public outreach campaign should include yard signs, postcards, phone calls, and town halls, as well as text messages, emails, and social media campaigns, she says.
BOE spokesperson Nick Jacobs says the board hasn’t made any decisions on what will stay and what will go, and it might hold a third town hall before the 2022 election cycle to gather more input. “The challenge is from a capacity point of view,” he says. “We can’t quite do something of that magnitude again. So we’re trying to figure out what makes the most sense.”
Cost is one of the biggest hurdles, Jacobs says, and uncertain availability of large venues is also a potential obstacle for the super voting centers. Printing and postage for mail-in voting alone cost $900,000, according to Jacobs. Additional costs included temporary workers and machines to help process the ballots. —Mitch Ryals
Closing Streets to Cars
Ask D.C.-area bicyclists what they’d like to see remain as the city continues to open up to pre-pandemic levels and two words will consistently come up: Beach Drive. In April 2020, the National Park Service closed Beach Drive NW to motor vehicles from Broad Branch Road NW to Joyce Road NW, from Picnic Grove 10 to Wise Road NW, and from West Beach Drive NW to the Maryland border, to allow car-free recreation until the beginning of Phase Four of Mayor Bowser’s COVID-19 reopening plan.
Local bicycling advocates want the closures to be permanent.
“It’s a great safe space to spread out,” says Rachel Maisler, the Ward 4 representative on the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council. “It’s wider than a regular multiuse path, so there’s room for all sorts of users in that space. There’s room for runners. There’s room for the kids on the little scooter things and kids learning to ride their balance bikes and people who are walking … And if you’re one of the roadies who’s training for some event that got canceled, there’s even room for you to ride without menacing other users.”
This April, six D.C. councilmembers—Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Brooke Pinto (Ward 2), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Janeese Lewis George (Ward 4), Charles Allen (Ward 6) and Anita Bonds (At-Large)—introduced a resolution to close upper Beach Drive to cars on a permanent basis, writing that “many District residents have found the closure of upper Beach Drive to cars to be a safe and pleasant space for biking, walking, and enjoying the serenity of Rock Creek Park.” On May 4, the D.C. Council retained the resolution and it could be brought up for a vote before the Council as soon as May 18, during the body’s legislative meeting.
The Council does not have authority to close Beach Drive since it’s technically federal property, but the resolution will be used as a tool to demonstrate support for the road closure.
“The closure of upper Beach Drive to car traffic has provided residents with a safe, expansive outdoor space during the pandemic and, importantly, it has also brought us closer to the original intent of the founding of Rock Creek Park: to provide access to beautiful natural spaces and to help preserve the District’s woodland environment,” Cheh writes in a statement to City Paper. “When the Council advocated for the parkway to remain open to cars back in 2003, the focus was primarily on traffic congestion. But, as we’ve seen from the more recent 2017–2019 closures, congestion actually decreased when upper Beach Drive was closed. The pandemic has provided us with the rather unexpected opportunity to reimagine our roadways and priorities, and I’m hopeful that the National Park Service will join us in recognizing the extraordinary local and environmental benefits of permanently closing upper Beach Drive.”
NPS spokesperson Jonathan Shafer tells City Paper that the agency will “continue to consider the needs of all visitors in making decisions about how to manage the park.”
“We recognize that temporarily limiting vehicle access to Beach Drive has provided value to many people,” he adds. “We are taking steps to evaluate how to best manage Beach Drive in the future and need to consider factors such as accessibility, the effects of traffic diversion, and impacts to park resources.”
In addition to the closure of Beach Drive, which falls under federal purview, the District Department of Transportation has created a Streatery program, reduced speed limits on local roads, extended sidewalks, and launched a Slow Streets initiative, which is set to end later this month, in response to the decrease in car traffic during the pandemic and to make the city more accommodating to bicyclists.
DDOT “remains committed to bolstering the District’s bike infrastructure by installing 20 miles of protected bike lanes by 2022, prioritizing improvements at locations with high injuries and crashes and supports Mayor Bowser’s Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries,” DDOT Interim Director Everett Lott tells City Paper. “These changes will increase safety for all users by reducing vehicular capacity on the corridor and simultaneously increasing bicycle and pedestrian capacity.”
But to biking advocates such as Maisler and Jeremiah Lowery, the advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, some of these initiatives leave much to be desired. Lowery believes the Slow Streets program was not effectively communicated throughout the city, and Maisler says it was “too little, too late”; the latter wrote in a Nov. 16, 2020, testimony that “without a clear understanding of what Slow Streets are, drivers don’t respect them.” Ultimately, closing portions of Beach Drive to vehicles, extending sidewalks, and implementing “slow streets” for cars are just the first steps of many that local bicyclists believe will make the city safer. According to Metropolitan Police Department data, there have been 16 traffic fatalities this year as of May 10, an increase of 60 percent from this time last year.
“I think the idea of open space needs to remain … like the idea of open space for people to bike, to walk, and to be,” Lowery says. “We need to expand upon the idea. Beach Drive is great, but Beach Drive shouldn’t be the only location. It should be one of many locations. We need to be looking at how do we get people more access to the streets.” —Kelyn Soong
Better Supporting Gig Workers
The pandemic has been financially crippling for artists, musicians, performers, and the venues they work in. Artists often work as independent contractors paid gig by gig or night by night (whether in cash or on the books) and, as a result, are typically ineligible for traditional unemployment benefits. But pandemic unemployment assistance, authorized by the federal CARES Act, made a difference for workers who could get it. (Not everyone could, or can—the Department of Employment Services has miscommunicated with claimants and the Council for months, plus sent payments late or not at all. Despite an $11 million investment announced in February, improvements have yet to fully materialize, and the D.C. Office of the Inspector General is now performing an audit.) “PUA, for me personally, it pays my rent right now,” says Graham Smith-White, a musician and local advocate. It doesn’t cover other costs—but it represents musicians being “really considered as workers by the government” in a way they weren’t before. “What we do is commonly referred to as play, but a more professional way to talk about it would be performance,” he says. “We are a really important part of livability and standard of living.”
But this isn’t just a musicians’ issue. Programs such as PUA “also set the tone for just thinking about the entire landscape of freelancing and how many different doors are closed,” says Ajoke Williams, a program manager at Guilded, an initiative of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives that focuses on providing benefits such as health care and tax preparation to freelancers. “Right across the border in Virginia, Senator [Mark] Warner was promoting portable benefits, and that’s what Guilded kind of gets at, that we need benefits that are independent of a worker being tied to a particular employer. They need to be tied to the worker. So that means just because you lose your job, you shouldn’t lose your health insurance. Just because a freelancer has to switch gigs or is not in that employment structure doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have health insurance,” she says. That would be a sea change for all freelance workers, whether they’re app-based couriers and drivers or theater artists.
Smith-White and other members of the DMV Music Stakeholders are beginning to advocate for a new program: universal basic income for artists. They point to a pilot program operating in San Francisco where some artists will receive $1,000 a month from the city for half a year as a model. “[PUA] was the first step toward a precedent showing that we need to support our artists on a regular basis and make sure that they’re able to continue to provide the public good that they do,” says Chris Naoum, co-founder of Listen Local First. “So we’re taking the thought one step further.” Guaranteed income could be a “buffer” against artists being driven out of D.C. by rising costs of living, he says, and could represent “infrastructure to recognize artists” and provide more opportunities for them to make money.
Local artists need more infrastructure, says Angela Byrd, founder of Made in the DMV. That can come in multiple forms: She mentions a need for more recording studios and artist housing, and praises artists’ residencies such as the Nicholson Project in Southeast. “There should be some type of funding that artists can apply for,” says Byrd. “You know, especially for creators and musicians. We really need D.C. to get it together with the venues and the artists right now,” adding that DJs and go-go artists are specifically in need of support.
But infrastructure can also look like the government being easier (and cheaper) for artists to work with, Byrd says—whether that’s by waiving fees, making RFP processes easier to navigate, or collaborating more easily with local artists and freelancers to fill their web, video, and other creative needs. “We just don’t need the petty rules. We need to be able to come out and be able to eat and let artists work,” she says. “We don’t need them to make us jump through hoops to do this.” Naoum also mentions that dispersing government or grant money to individual artists takes far too long, and that grant timelines meant for large artistic entities or nonprofits don’t work for self-employed artists.
Williams says gig workers should feel empowered to band together. “I think I would just stress the ability of freelancers to join unions and advocate for themselves, because right now there are very few avenues for artists and musicians to feel as if they can voice their concerns as a unified front and have them taken seriously.” —Emma Sarappo
Practicing Mutual Aid
“I’ve been doing mutual aid all my life,” says Maurice Cook, the founder of Serve Your City. “Mutual aid is how we survive from the system.” Before the pandemic, Serve Your City focused on youth enrichment programming, including tutoring and college visits. “The way that it works is that people who have access support the work to acquire access for those who do not have said access,” Cook says.
Mutual aid is nothing new, but more people have embraced the concept since the pandemic started, and the idea has grown in response. Some residents have established new mutual aid groups, and organizers have expanded their work. Serve Your City, for example, branched out with virtual tutoring, organized food deliveries, and providing personal protective equipment.
Organizers say mutual aid has been powerful and essential during the pandemic for the same reasons it was necessary before the pandemic.
For one thing, mutual aid is not charity. “In charity, there’s a power dynamic,” Cook says. “Charity absolves the complicity of those who benefit from the systems that put people in the place where they supposedly need charity.”
Mutual aid is also different from government assistance. Lark, an organizer with Ward 5 Mutual Aid, says asking for government help can be demeaning and demoralizing, and comes with a lot of red tape. With mutual aid, “you don’t feel like you’re a smaller person for asking for stuff,” she says.
The other big difference is that mutual aid fills gaps the government leaves—gaps that are often intentional. “Every law that comes out of America is racist and classist,” Lark says. “Because it’s not going to intentionally help people, it’s going to help the powerful and there’s an innate prejudice that the weak and the vulnerable have to be punished more, just to keep the powerful in strength.”
Systemic oppression pervades every aspect of life in the U.S., from home loans and highway construction to voter suppression. And the systemically oppressive systems that necessitate mutual aid, or “mutual survival,” as Cook likes to call it, will not disappear when the pandemic ends.
COVID-19 may have “exacerbated the situation, may have definitely expedited people’s suffering,” says Cook. “But it was built upon structures that were normalized. I will say this, people died outside on the street here in Washington, D.C., way before COVID-19.” —Will Warren
Releasing Old and Sick Prisoners
The First Step Act, which Congress passed in 2018, provided old and sick people incarcerated within the federal prison system an avenue for release. But the law did not apply to those convicted of felonies in D.C. Superior Court who serve their sentences in federal facilities.
The D.C. Council did not act for nearly two years, until a deadly virus threatened the lives of people in prisons. In March 2020, the Council included a provision in its coronavirus emergency bill that allowed older and sick people convicted of D.C.-specific crimes to ask a judge for release. To qualify for compassionate release under the new D.C. law, a person must be at least 60 years old, have a terminal or debilitating illness, a medical condition related to aging that puts them at acute risk of dying from the coronavirus, or have served at least 20 years, among other qualifications. Judges also consider a person’s risk to public safety.
So if a combative Congress could pass similar legislation, what took the D.C. Council so long?
“We can ask that about so many things,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. “When we think about the criminal justice system, it’s hard to separate the politics that are behind it. We’ve seen what took place in the ’90s and early 2000s when it was easy for people to run for office on a tough-on-crime message.”
The new law is showing early success.
As of March 16, 2021, 693 people had filed motions for compassionate release in D.C. Superior Court, 433 have been decided, and 143, or roughly one-third, have been granted, according to the D.C. Corrections Information Council. An analysis of 135 people released under the new law between March 16, 2020, and Feb. 26, 2021, by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council showed that none have been rearrested.
“I don’t know how much more you could ask for,” Allen says.
Jessica Steinberg, the director of George Washington University Law School’s Prisoner & Reentry Clinic, helped push for the legislation. Although health risks associated with COVID-19 was the impetus, she says judges are now granting release independent of the virus.
“Many prisoners have gotten COVID and have gotten better, and still get released,” she says. “So we’re moving away from COVID as a justification to a more broad, humanitarian aspect.”
Steinberg works on a handful of compassionate release cases with her law students, and recalls one man who had been incarcerated for 50 years and was in declining health. He was most recently housed in a federal prison in rural Kentucky, far from friends and family. Letters correctional officers sent over the years to then Mayor Marion Barry spoke highly of his character and advocated for his release.
“For 30 years, prison officials were throwing their weight behind his release,” Steinberg says of the man, who she did not identify because she did not have his permission. “And it didn’t take effect because there was no mechanism for it to do so.”
D.C. mayors have some pardon authority, though the U.S. Department of Justice has opined that the president has exclusive clemency authority over D.C. felonies.
Steinberg also pushed to add another piece to the Council’s emergency coronavirus bill that addresses people serving long prison sentences but has gotten less attention: the expansion of “good time” credits. People convicted of D.C. felonies during the tough-on-crime era in the 1990s earned no good time credits, which shave off about 15 percent of a sentence per year. D.C. eventually reinstated good time credits in 2000, but did not make the law retroactive, creating another unequal system.
“It just gives them what everyone else in the system has gotten,” Steinberg says of the recent changes.
It’s unclear how many people have been released due to the new good time provisions, but Steinberg says she’s aware of at least two people who became eligible for parole hearings as a result. Their cases are pending, she says.The Council passed legislation to make compassionate release and expanded good time credits permanent in December. —Mitch Ryals