D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Monday she is dropping the city’s requirement that people show proof of coronavirus vaccination before entering many businesses in the city, as coronavirus transmission continues to trend downward throughout the region.
The District’s requirement for residents to show proof of vaccination to enter most businesses — announced in December — will cease Tuesday, Bowser said. She also said she’s allowing the city’s mandate to wear masks in all indoor public spaces to be lifted starting March 1. Bowser had rescinded the indoor masking mandate in November before the surging omicron variant spurred her to bring it back.
Despite the change, D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said officials are still advising residents to wear masks indoors. And masks will still be required in some congregate settings, like schools, public transit and emergency shelters, Bowser said. D.C. government and health care employees and health care workers will still be subject to a vaccine requirement specific to those workers.
A council bill mandating eligible students be vaccinated will still go into effect in March, Bowser said, though enforcement will not begin until next academic year.
Bowser’s decision to end the mandates comes amid mounting economic and political pressure on the region’s leaders to loosen pandemic restrictions; while a slew of other states and cities relaxed indoor or in-school mask rules last week, many jurisdictions that enacted vaccine mandates still have them in place. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced Monday that masks will not be required in state buildings starting next week.
As city officials have mulled how to balance residents’ safety with the desire to return to normalcy, Bowser, who is running this year for a third term in office, has repeatedly said the city would enact and ease restrictions depending on the course of the virus.
Bowser and Nesbitt said Monday the mandate had achieved its desired effect: the city administered over 50,000 vaccinations within three weeks of the announcement of the vaccine requirement in late December, half of which were first or second doses. Nesbitt said that number of new vaccinations has been trending downward in the past few weeks. According to city data, more than 90 percent of residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine.
“We also know that people who have been vaccinated, and others are wanting to get back to their normal lives and know what they need to do to keep themselves safe,” Bowser said. “But really getting vaccinated and boosted, we can’t emphasize enough.”
The announcement was met with mixed reactions Monday from lawmakers, residents and members of the business community. Darren Norris, owner of Death Punch and Shibuya Eatery in Adams Morgan, was surprised to hear the vaccine mandate was ending so soon. Under the mandate, customers needed to prove they had at least one vaccine dose by Jan. 15. The requirement for two doses would have taken effect Tuesday.
Staff at the bar and restaurant had settled into asking patrons for a vaccine card, and Norris said he’d heard that some guests said the requirement made them feel more comfortable knowing that everyone in the building was vaccinated.
Norris said he wasn’t sure if his business would continue requiring proof of vaccination without the city requirement. But, he said, the mandate felt like a good move that encouraged people to get vaccinated — he even knew of a few people who got the vaccine specifically to comply.
“I think it was important that it happened,” Norris said. “And I think it helped overall.”
Meanwhile, some Republican members of Congress accused Bowser of making a politically motivated decision to lift the mandate. And several members of the City Council voiced concern and frustration with Bowser’s decision, including Ward 1 Council member Brianne K. Nadeau, who tweeted, “Why would we give up on vaccines when we have come this far?”
“As a [council member], and a parent of 2 kids under 5, I am flabbergasted and angry,” she wrote. “Why are we not protecting the workers in these industries? Why are we telling parents we don’t care if they participate in society?”
Bowser said in making the decision, she and other health officials considered the city’s case rate, hospitalizations and vaccinations, but her administration has been reluctant to tie restrictions to any specific threshold.
Asked Monday if it was premature to ease restrictions due to the unpredictable nature of the virus, Bowser said simply: “It’s not.”
“What we know is we have to be nimble,” Bowser said. “I don’t think any of us can say here there won’t be other variants that would require us to do something different.”
The District’s weekly coronavirus case rate per 100,000 residents was about 253 on Friday; it was about 1,300 per 100,000 residents just before Christmas when Bowser first announced the vaccine requirement. D.C., along with every other state in the country, is still in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as “high” transmission — or a weekly case rate above 100.
“From a public health perspective, ideally we’d like us to have low to moderate transmission,” Nesbitt said. “As we shift from an indoor mask mandate … the D.C. Dept of Health will recommend people wear masks indoors until we have low to moderate community transmission.”
Bowser also said Monday that the coronavirus testing at city firehouses, which has been in place since 2020, will end Feb. 26. Residents can still get tested at any of the eight “Covid centers” the city has set up.
Neighboring jurisdictions also are cutting back on pandemic restrictions. Explaining his decision to drop Maryland’s mask mandate, Hogan said the state’s health metrics warranted the change, noting hospitalizations have declined by 78 percent from last month’s peak.
Despite the rapid drop in new cases, a lot of virus is still circulating in the region. Maryland remains in high transmission, according to the CDC, with a seven-day average of 128.8 new cases per 100,000 residents.
The move follows Hogan’s advocacy last week pressing school officials to drop classroom mask mandates.
Erin Cox contributed to this report.