Credit: Photo illustration by Julia Terbrock

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Update 1/14: This story has been updated to include information on enforcement and violations.

In late December, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced D.C. would join a host of other major cities in instituting an indoor vaccine mandate for businesses ranging from restaurants to sports arenas before the holidays.

Starting Jan. 15 at 6 a.m., customers 12 and older will need to prove they’ve received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. One month later, the requirement jumps to two doses for those who received Moderna or Pfizer.

Valid proof includes an original version, photocopy, or photo of a CDC-issued vaccine card; an immunization record from a healthcare provider or public health authority; and a COVID-19 verification app like VaxYes, CLEAR, or MyIR. Those 18 and older must also show matching photo identification.

Earlier this week, both DC Health and the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration released additional information. (The ABRA information incorrectly states the mandate applies to people 13 and older.)

There are a lot of moving parts to the mandate and how it will play out at businesses. City Paper solicited questions from the community and sought responses from the mayor’s office, ABRA, and DC Health to learn more about what to expect when the first phase of the mandate takes effect next weekend. The city says it will hold another town hall early next week for business leaders to get more of their questions answered.

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Why only one dose to start when we’re in a winter surge of COVID-19 cases tied to the highly contagious omicron variant?

“Our goal here is to use this as one more intervention to get people vaccinated because we’ve seen data that shows those who are vaccinated and boosted fare better than if they aren’t,” says Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio. “This gives businesses time to put measures in place and the public time to get vaccinated. We gave people a couple week’s heads up about when this would go into effect in order to encourage more people to get vaccinated.”

Why aren’t employees included?

DC Health guidance says “the vaccine requirement does not apply to employees currently.” The word currently opens the door to including employees in the future. “Bowser is supportive of President Biden’s efforts to create an employer mandate and while he has done so, there are some court challenges,” Falcicchio says. “We’d like to how see they are adjudicated.”

Which businesses are covered by the mandate?

Indoor areas at restaurants, bars, clubs, food halls, food courts, distilleries, wineries, breweries, concert and live entertainment venues, sports venues, movie theaters, pool halls, bowling alleys, cigar bars, hookah bars, strip clubs, gyms and fitness studios, and event and meeting spaces such as banquet halls and convention centers.

Why aren’t places of worship included in the mandate?

The city declined to comment. It’s uncommon for indoor vaccine mandates in other cities to include places of worship.

What exemptions can individuals claim?

Patrons can claim a medical exemption with documentation from a healthcare provider. So can patrons with a “sincerely held religious belief.” Asked what form of proof is required for a religious exemption, Bowser said at a Jan. 6 press conference: “I don’t know exactly what they’re going to show other than attestation that they have a religious objection.”

If someone claims either exemption, they must provide the results of a negative PCR or antigen test from within the last 24 hours.

“If we think that we have promoted a foolproof system that people can’t skirt, there is no such system like that,” Bowser added, noting that she thinks most people will cooperate. “Will there be people who will try to cheat? Probably. But we know if we get majority of people participating and getting vaccinated, then we will be better off as a community.”

Who is responsible for verifying proof of vaccination at businesses covered by the mandate?

Businesses must check proof of vaccination at the entry point or at the first point of contact between the customer and a staff member, according to the city. They say the “safest place to execute the vaccination requirement is at the point of entry and, where possible, before the customer enters.”

Almost 100 bars and restaurants already have their own proof-of-vaccination policies in place and have had practice with enforcement going back to July 2021. But come Jan. 15, employees of private businesses will once again be saddled with enforcing government rules.

For bars and restaurants, checking proof of vaccination will likely fall on doormen and hosts, hopefully with the backing of management if there are confrontations. Throughout the pandemic, workers have encountered unruly customers and learned to deescalate dangerous situations as they’ve enforced capacity restrictions and other city regulations.

The omicron variant is currently burning through the hospitality industry, making staffs even smaller than they were when businesses reopened at full capacity last spring. Restaurants aren’t sure if they will have the manpower to enforce the mandate.

“We empathize and have been providing support throughout this pandemic to do everything we can to make sure businesses can stay open and operate with health staff and patrons,” Bowser said when asked about potential hostile situations between patrons and employees. “We’ve seen with omicron how contagious it has been. The vaccine, to participate in higher-risk activities, is so key to how we keep our businesses open.”

How will D.C. enforce the vaccine mandate at bars and restaurants?

ABRA will issue warnings and citations similarly to how they enforced restrictions during phase 2 of reopening. Investigators from the agency will give verbal warnings followed by written warnings. If an establishment still isn’t compliant, investigators can issue a $1,000 fine for a third offense and $2,000 for a fourth offense. Any more violations result in a hearing with the ABC Board, where penalties could include liquor license suspensions.

On a Jan. 11 town hall about the vaccine mandate hosted by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, the city shared that people who wish to report a noncompliant business can call 311 instead of looking up which enforcing agency to call or any dialing any separate hotline.

When you make a “quick trip” indoors to pick up takeout or use the restroom you don’t have to show proof of vaccination, but how will the vaccine mandate work at fast food restaurants, fast casuals, and cafes?

The vaccine mandate only applies to customers who sit down in an establishment to eat or drink. Those taking their food or coffee to go are exempt. This sounds simple, but these casual places don’t have hosts at the door, nor is it easy to discern who will stay to dine. The city points to language that says if there’s no one at the door, the first staff member who makes contact with customers is responsible for checking proof of vaccination. That could be a cashier.

There’s also potential for confusion at casual eateries that do a mix of takeout and dine-in sales because the signs the city is requiring businesses to post say, “Proof of vaccination required for entry,” when that’s not accurate for people making a “quick trip.”

What about food halls like Union Market and food courts like the one inside Union Station?

Only patrons who sit down to dine need to prove they are vaccinated. The city says the venue is responsible for checking proof, not the individual food stalls.

Retail businesses are exempt from the mandate, but event and entertainment spaces are not. What happens when a bookstore or record shop hosts an event?

If an exempt facility conducts a non-exempt activity, the vaccine requirement applies. The city offers examples: If a house of worship is rented for a non-religious purpose, or a retail bookstore hosts an indoor seated event, proof of vaccination would be required to enter the area where the event is being held. The same is true at a public library.

Is there a chance D.C. will release its own vaccine app or passport?

“We haven’t created one,” Falcicchio says. “We represent a small part of a region and the nation. In addition to people able to carry their card, a photo of their card, or a photocopy of their card, there are easily accessible commercial products. Those are the right combination the public can access, plus the commercially available products carry the benefit of being useful in other jurisdictions.”

When international tourists visit businesses covered by the mandate, what forms of proof of vaccination are acceptable? 

Any official document issued by a foreign government.

What is the anticipated racial and socioeconomic impact of this policy since there are lower vaccination rates among some communities of color? 

According to the city, vaccine access is universal—meaning there have been vaccination sites located throughout the city.