Credit: Laura Hayes

Washingtonians who are fully vaccinated can now go maskless everywhere except where masks are required, according to new guidance issued Monday by DC Health. D.C. joins other cities and states in aligning the District’s policies with the recommendations the Centers for Disease Control released last Thursday. People are considered fully vaccinated 14 days after their final dose of the vaccine. Those who are not vaccinated or are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks. The change took effect immediately. 

Masks are still required for everyone regardless of vaccination status at schools and childcare facilities, in healthcare settings, on public transportation including the Metro, in taxis and ride-share vehicles, at homeless shelters, and in correctional facilities. 

But don’t plan a totally ridiculous mask-burning party if you’re fully vaccinated. Everyone with plans to run errands, dine out, or go to a fitness class should bring a face covering with them. Businesses have the right to set rules that are more strict than what the city or CDC recommends. In the case of restaurants, the easiest way to think about this is pretending you’re going to a new friend’s house for dinner. If they tell you to remove your shoes before entering or ask you to say grace, you’ll likely oblige. The city shared a sample sign that businesses can print and post throughout their establishments. 

Businesses that do not require mask wearing may be putting themselves, and their workers, in the precarious position of determining whether or not their patrons are indeed fully vaccinated. Most legal experts agree that non-health care businesses don’t violate HIPAA when asking potential customers to prove they’ve been vaccinated. If you’ve damaged or misplaced your vaccine card, you can access your vaccine records electronically here. Employees in customer-facing roles have moonlighted as policy enforcers for 14 months now, which can escalate into dangerous or stressful situations. 

Otherwise, there’s the honor system. CNN’s Dana Bash asked CDC Director Rochelle Walensky about whether we can rely on it. “Do you trust that people who are not vaccinated, given what we’ve seen over the past year plus, will keep masks on?” Bash inquired. “I think people who were not inclined to wear a mask were not inclined to wear a mask before Thursday,” Walensky replied. “What we’re really asking is, in terms of the honor system, people have to be honest with themselves. You’re protected if you’re vaccinated. You’re not if you’re not vaccinated.” 

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s messaging matches that of Walensky. “If you’re not vaccinated or not fully vaccinated, we need you to continue to protect yourselves. If you’re 12 or over, make a plan to get vaccinated,” she said Monday.

D.C. is simultaneously reopening its economy. Bowser issued a fresh order Monday that lifts most restrictions at the end of the week. Starting on May 21 at 5 a.m., both restaurants and taverns/bars can fully reopen at 100 percent capacity. Restrictions tied to social distancing such as spacing tables out six feet apart, early closing times, and forbidding patrons from sitting at staffed bars will be lifted. Nightclubs can jump to 50 percent capacity on May 21 and later to 100 percent capacity on June 11. 

Not everyone is ready. Some are anxious. “Who’s to say whether guests in general, and my staff, will be comfortable in such close proximity to strangers?” asks Chris Francke. He owns Adams Morgan cocktail bar The Green Zone. “While it’s exciting and long-awaited, I feel that flipping the switch back on at this point seems hasty.” 

Others are frustrated and confused. “I worry about the rush to open,” says Jodie Goldberg, a District resident and parent of two children. “Especially since not all the people in our household are eligible for vaccines. It feels that the mayor doesn’t care about families or kids with many of the baseless decisions she has made this year. She has kept kids from returning to a learning environment for a good portion of the year with her restrictions, but everyone [can] go out and eat and drink.” 

Goldberg also shares that she wants restaurants and other small businesses to succeed and notes she’s been supporting them from afar, like by ordering takeout or occasionally dining on restaurant patios. “I just don’t know that I’m comfortable with full-throttle reopening.”

Those who choose to dine out should know that restaurants and bars are forever changed. While restaurant workers, managers, and owners say they’re happy to see old and new faces, there will inevitably be growing pains that impact the dining experience. Customers have the right to expect quality food and drink backed by welcoming hospitality as restaurants and bars swiftly navigate reopening, but there are a number of ways patrons can play a part in making the experience better.

“The last year we’ve gained empathy and understanding with service industry workers,” says Nam-Viet Restaurant co-owner Richard Tai Nguyen. “Keep having that empathy and don’t go back to looking down at your servers or thinking they’re inferior because they’re in this line of work. The sense of understanding and compassion should be there moving forward, not just expressed when it’s convenient.” 

— Laura Hayes (tips? Lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com)

By Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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