But as new indoor masking rules took effect on Saturday in D.C., the normalcy that Dawson, and so many others, had begun to feel was dashed. With coronavirus infections ticking upward nationwide, spurred on by the hyper-contagious delta variant, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced on Thursday that indoor masking would again be required in D.C. — mere months after she’d done away with such provisions.
Bowser’s decision came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked places seeing sharp increases in infections — more than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents per week — to re-implement indoor masking. (The District falls into this category.)
So as Dawson exited an Anacostia Starbucks on Saturday morning, a cardboard carrier of cold drinks in one hand, he kept his blue mask on. He was already worried about what the next stage of the pandemic would look like. The previous year had already been difficult for his family, with six children doing online classwork at home.
“Having to go from not wearing a mask to wearing a mask definitely puts some doubt on whether the vaccine works,” Dawson said. “Hopefully we get safely past this.”
He walked down bustling Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE — a bag of pastries swinging from one arm — to his car, passing businesses with fresh signs in their windows. “No entry without face mask!!!” read one, next to an illustration of a masked emoji with only its eyes visible. “Germ-free zone!” another proclaimed.
Outside the Animal Clinic of Anacostia, a half-dozen women waited with their dogs and cats for veterinarian appointments. Tracey Hayes, 50, stood alongside her sister, who cradled a trembling brown-and-black terrier in her arms. Hayes, who works in the member services department for a major hospital chain, said she’s been dismayed by the vaccination numbers and infection rates in the District.
She’s tried to do her part — even ferrying four family members to get their shots — but she said she still worries about their health and safety.
“I never stopped wearing a mask,” Hayes said. “The vaccination rate wasn’t what we hoped it would be. People are still getting sick and dying. It’s scary, but what can we do? I just want to make sure me and my family don’t get sick.”
The receptionist called Hayes’s name. She paused to readjust her mask, then stepped inside the office.
Meanwhile, on the next block, Ken Williams, 48, settled at one of Busboys and Poets’ outdoor tables with a hot coffee. His 22-year-old son paced on the sidewalk, talking on his cellphone. Williams said neither of them were surprised to see the new mandate taped on the cafe’s front door.
“Go for it,” Williams, an electrical engineer, joked. “I’m not mad about this. I knew masks would be coming back. We’ve been fighting about masks since they told us to wear them — and we still are. But I plan on wearing mine for years.”
He sipped his coffee.
Across the Anacostia River, 14th Street NW bustled with weekend foot traffic. People filtered in and out of stores or sipped cocktails on outdoor patios. On the sidewalk, at least, few were masked. Nearly every storefront boasted new signage that outlined the new masking requirement. One yoga studio displayed a handwritten sign on the door, complete with swirly cursive and patterned mask doodles.
At the Fainting Goat — a restaurant on U Street — a posting read: “Wearing your mask inside this business is mandatory even if vaccinated.” Two women read the sign, then slid masks over their ears.
Ian Fletcher, the manager, was relieved. He said he’s been concerned about diner compliance. He knows it can be tough to get people to follow the rules when the rules keep changing. By Saturday afternoon, though, Fletcher’s fears had been unfounded. Most people were adhering to Mayor Bowser’s new guidelines without complaint.
The dinner rush, though, could always be different, he thought.
But for the most part, his worries weren’t new.
“It’s the same thing we’ve been dealing with for the past year,” Fletcher said.
More than two miles south at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, about 300 people — masked and otherwise — waited in line to enter. About half the crowd wore masks below their chins or looped around a wrist. The other half kept them firmly on their faces.
Emily Koller, who was visiting the museum with a friend from Minnesota, said that she was “super happy” about masks being mandated again indoors. Koller works as a program administrator at the National Law Enforcement Memorial & Museum. She said that it’s been difficult to understand what the risk of infection is while at work — especially because she’s not allowed to ask visitors if they’ve been vaccinated.
“Wearing a mask just makes the most sense,” Koller, 26, said.
Her friend, Stephanie Zweber, 28, said the mask mandate had made her feel safer while traveling — but it did little to assuage her fears about being in a densely populated city with a rising caseload.
“It’s a relief to hear it’s in place,” Zweber said. “But I was a little worried about coming here.”
The line moved, and Koller and Zweber shuffled forward a few more feet.
Near the entrance, a little boy whined and looked up to his mother with a question.
“Do we have to wear a mask?”
The answer: Yes.