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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D.C.’s vaccine mandate for crowded indoor spaces lasted a month, giving it a shorter lifespan than most house flies. The sudden change has diners, politicians, and restaurant workers scratching their heads. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s move to end the mandate, effective Tuesday, took much of the District by surprise, especially considering that Feb. 15 was supposed to be the day restaurants, concert venues, and other businesses would be required to start checking vax cards for proof of two shots instead of one. At the same time, the mayor announced the city would let its indoor mask mandate expire for many of the settings covered by the vaccine mandate at the end of the month. 

Masks will still be required in schools, child care facilities, libraries, medical facilities, D.C. government buildings, and on public transit, along with other congregate settings.

Bowser is painting the decisions as prudent ones, responding responsibly to the city’s declining COVID case rates, but the condemnations are coming in fast and furious from just about everyone affected by the change. While she says COVID-19 cases have dropped by about 90 percent, the city’s transmission rate remains “high,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Many prospective visitors to these indoor establishments say they feel less safe without a mandate in place, particularly those with young children who still can’t get vaccinated. Some restaurant owners fear they will lose business, and can’t understand why the city made such a rapid change just as they were getting accustomed to the mandate. And some city leaders feel this is yet another instance of the government rushing into risky public health decisions, loosening restrictions at the first sign of improved conditions.

“It feels like we’re running the wrong way on a treadmill,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. “It defies logic. It defies science. It’s a terrible move. I’m just flabbergasted.”

Nadeau says Bowser did not communicate her intentions to roll back the mandate in advance, and suspects business owners feel just as caught off guard as she does. Just as Bowser had to reimpose the city’s mask mandate just weeks after rescinding it, Nadeau fully expects the District will find itself reviving its vaccine mandate soon enough if a new COVID variant emerges. And, she adds, that will end up hurting small businesses and their employees instead of helping them—leaving them on a “rollercoaster” they don’t want to ride.

“It’s exhausting and stupid that she’s doing this,” says Sam Peters, the general manager of Shaw wine bar La Jambe. “I felt like my job was going to kill me for quite some time, and now it feels even more defeating.” 

Peters was grateful when Bowser reinstated the mask mandate and when she implemented the vaccine mandate because it made enforcement easier. “It was so helpful for staff and guest interactions to point to a regulation that we have to follow,” he says. “There’s always someone who wants to push back and make sassy comments. It’s easier to say, ‘Just don’t get me fined, bro.’ People understood that.”

Some restaurant workers can understand Bowser’s willingness to ditch masks inside (again), but question her call to rescind the proof of vaccination requirement. “It’s sad that the mayor is willing to go backwards on this so quickly,” says Dani Paulson, a server at Jackie – American Bistro in Navy Yard. “The proof of vaccines was working better than the masks. If you’re going to ditch one, ditch the masks since as soon as a person is seated they take them off.”

One server, who works at a restaurant in Northwest, D.C. and declined to be named, questioned the effectiveness of both the vaccine and mask mandates and therefore isn’t as opposed to the mayor’s changes as some of their colleagues. “Not everywhere checked, and even if they all did, someone could have COVID at that moment and still come into the restaurant,” they say. “As far as the masks, I’m fine with that too for similar reasons. Asking someone to walk in with a mask then go two feet and sit for hours without one never made much sense to me.”

The response from the restaurant industry certainly hasn’t been uniformly negative—in fact, its most powerful booster, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, is supporting Bowser’s changes. 

“Throughout the pandemic, restaurants have been on the frontlines of enforcing city and state mandates, and the execution has proven to be a complex and burdensome role for restaurant employees,” Kathy Hollinger, the group’s CEO, wrote in a statement. “We are pleased with the mayor’s decision to lift the mandate recognizing that, in doing so, it will allow more flexibility for local businesses.”

Hollinger and other business groups, like the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, were supportive of the vaccine mandate when Bowser first announced it in December, at the peak of the omicron wave. There wasn’t too much pushback from covered establishments either. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration inspectors visited license holders during the time period the vaccine mandate was in place for indoor dining and only The Big Board faced consequences beyond written or verbal warnings after flaunting that they would defy the mandates on social media. 

Some big players in the hospitality industry have more recently expressed their frustrations with checking proof of vaccination. Dan Simons of the Farmers Restaurant Group tweeted that the mandate was “keeping people out of D.C.,” dubbing it a form of “Covid segregation.” He later apologized for his language and deleted his posts amid a flood of criticism. 

Many people who live and patronize businesses in D.C. don’t share that sentiment. “I’m devastated, scared, exhausted, and also not surprised,” says Leilah Mooney Joseph, who is the parent of three kids, two of whom are still too young to be vaccinated. “Throughout the pandemic, the mayor has repeatedly refused to follow public health guidance or do much of anything to protect the most vulnerable, including young children and those who are immunocompromised.” The FDA just delayed its rollout of vaccines for children under 5.

Mooney Joseph says she doesn’t understand why the city would take steps to make spaces where the public gathers indoors less safe. “This puts everyone at risk, including restaurant and business employees who unfortunately have very little say when it comes to their health and safety at work and who need to show up to work in order to pay their bills,” she says.

“It’s a terrible decision,” echoes D.C. resident Tiffany Cain. “Especially since Mayor Bowser did a complete 180. Something seems suspicious and driven by something other than concern for the health and residents and workers. I’d truly like to know what’s driving this. D.C. is still in the high-risk category and so many people from the area and outside of the DMV travel into D.C. We are heading into the start of tourist season with cherry blossoms just around the corner.”

At-Large Councilmember and mayoral candidate Robert White, is also suspicious of Bowser’s motives. He sees the mandate reversal as yet more evidence that Bowser is “making COVID decisions based on feedback from the donor class,” one of many critiques he’s leveled against the current administration as part of his primary challenge. 

“Businesses are a very important part of our city but they can’t be the only ones at the table when major decisions are being made,” White says. “I wish they’d talked to people like me, parents of kids under 5, or frontline workers, who have to go into work every day, before making this decision.”

For what it’s worth, Bowser’s other mayoral rival, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, declined to comment on the matter, via a spokesperson. He tweeted Thursday that the mandate is “killing our local restaurants and business establishments” but he later pulled that post down.

But the politics of the vaccine mandate don’t map neatly onto the city’s existing ideological fault lines. For instance, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson told DCist that he thinks the mayor’s move was premature, even though he’s considerably friendlier to business interests than most of Bowser’s other critics. Nadeau says she struggles to “understand the politics” behind the mayor’s decision, herself.

If anything, the change could generate a backlash from parents of unvaccinated kids, who already feel “isolated,” Nadeau says. As the parent of two children under 5, she can relate to Mooney Joseph.

And At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson notes on Twitter that the mayor’s move to relax these restrictions on restaurants comes as standards in D.C. schools are still strict. “Otherwise healthy and COVID-negative toddlers still have to quarantine for [two weeks] for being a close contact because DC Health still hasn’t updated their childcare guidance to *match* the CDC,” she writes, adding that “the public is only willing to follow these public health rules so long as they make sense.”

Indeed, Nadeau expects people will feel frustrated by the “discrepancies” in the city’s response. And she expects the mayor’s move will create a “wild west” environment, with some venues choosing to keep the mandate in place and others dropping it. 

Some have already announced their plans to keep checking vax cards, like All Souls in Shaw and City-State Brewing in Edgewood. 

James Warner, who founded City-State, says on Twitter that his decision stems from the fact that they’ve had one staff member out with COVID-19 every day since the start of 2022. “We take our role as a gathering place very seriously, including for families with children under 5,” Warner says in the tweet

“Given that bars, restaurants, and taprooms have been made the enforcers for the mandates, we should have been consulted on the timing and pace of this change,” Warner says in a follow-up interview.

Before the city’s vaccine mandate took effect in January 2022, City Paper catalogued which D.C. bars and restaurants imposed their own vaccine requirements for on-site dining. We will continue to update this list after checking in with the establishments that are listed. 

“Going forward I hope restaurant and business owners will do what the mayor has failed to do and make safety a priority by keeping their mask and vaccine mandates in place,” Mooney Joseph says. “Those that do will have my family’s support.”