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D.C. will no longer require masks in many public settings, Bowser announces

Washington’s local mask mandate, one of the strictest in the nation, will relax greatly beginning Nov. 22, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced on Nov. 16. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Reuters/Tom Brenner/The Washington Post)

Washington’s local mask mandate, one of the strictest in the nation since late July, will relax greatly beginning Monday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced Tuesday.

The District had required residents to wear masks in most indoor settings since the delta variant caused coronavirus case counts to rise over the summer. On Tuesday, though, Bowser said coronavirus vaccinations are working: While case rates remain far above the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended target of 50 new cases per week for every 100,000 residents, Bowser noted that vaccines are preventing most people who catch the virus from needing hospitalization.

That means it’s time to let residents choose whether to wear masks in their office buildings, retail stores, gyms and many other settings, Bowser said. Businesses can still require masks, but it will not be legally mandated — and some hope the change will help retailers struggling in a downtown that still resembles a ghost town most days.

As mask mandates lift, we're going to have to decide whether or not to wear a mask indoors. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

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In recent weeks, some residents and business owners had questioned the District’s reasoning for maintaining a strict indoor mask requirement. While some jurisdictions, including neighboring Montgomery County, Md., set measuring sticks for when they would lift mask requirements, based on data like coronavirus case rates or vaccination percentages, the District had no set metrics and repeatedly told business owners and reporters that epidemiologists in the D.C. Health department would know when it was time to change the rules.

Americans have for roughly 20 months navigated a hodgepodge of mitigation efforts depending on where they live and work. Along with D.C., just a handful of states currently require masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people indoors, but inside state boundaries, cities and counties have frequently loosened and tightened their rules, often using different benchmarks.

In the D.C. region, masks are still required indoors in Prince George’s County, Md., while many other jurisdictions, including Virginia’s Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, have recommended but not required masks indoors since the state ended its mandate six months ago. Montgomery County on Tuesday announced it would reinstate the indoor mask mandate that it removed in late October, effective Saturday.

Bryan Myers, CEO of the fitness chain Solidcore, which has 75 locations in 22 states, singled out D.C. as “the least transparent and least data-driven” among the jurisdictions whose changing policies his staff tracks in a massive spreadsheet.

“We are still quite frustrated and dismayed that it has taken D.C. leaders this long to adopt this approach that is more in line with what we see in other jurisdictions around the country,” said Myers, who welcomed the option of allowing people to exercise without masks in vaccine-required fitness classes.

The District’s case rate meets the CDC’s definition of “substantial” transmission — currently at a rate of 80 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents — and Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt acknowledged Tuesday that cases seem to have reached a “plateau” rather than declining recently.

But while the CDC recommends masks for communities with substantial transmission, Nesbitt and Bowser said they concluded it’s time to end mask requirements because the risk of hospitalization or death is low for vaccinated people.

Montgomery leaders have been working with much more specific metrics. They say residents can take their masks off again only when the county no longer has “substantial” transmission. And the jurisdiction will end the mask requirement entirely if 85 percent of the county’s population gets vaccinated; it is at about 78 percent currently, one of the highest rates of vaccination in the region.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said even when the highly contagious delta variant caused infection rates to balloon, his city never brought back its mask mandate because hospitalizations and deaths remained flat thanks to a highly vaccinated population. “There’s a psychology piece of this that’s really important, where you want to give people an opportunity to control their own destiny before you go to the next level. Given what we’ve been though, if you want people to comply, people have to feel like it’s data driven,” Wilson said.

While Northern Virginia doesn’t require masks, public health officials sent a statement on Tuesday — just hours after Bowser’s announcement — advising residents on Thanksgiving safety tips, including recommending wearing masks indoors around people from outside your own household, even if everyone is vaccinated.

“We certainly know families want to get together. It’s been such a long time with this pandemic. But it is important that people take precautions,” said Benjamin Schwartz, Fairfax County’s director of epidemiology and population health.

Some business owners have been clamoring for a change in D.C.’s rules for months, saying the mask requirement hurt their profits and didn’t make sense. Shortly after Bowser’s announcement, the company that runs Capital One Arena said masks would no longer be required for fans at Capitals and Wizards games — some of the largest indoor gatherings in the region — though the arena staff would still be required to wear them.

Bowser’s decision was met with vehement reactions on both sides of the mask debate: those who see ongoing masking as unfounded when vaccines offer such good protection vs. those who want broader community protections for vulnerable people (such as unvaccinated young children), especially as winter is likely to bring a rise in the prevalence of the virus.

Nesbitt noted that children under 5, who remain ineligible for coronavirus vaccines, are “a small portion of the population” and said that families can choose appropriate precautions to protect their preschoolers.

Children ages 5 to 11 only recently became eligible for the shots. Nesbitt said Tuesday that under 7 percent of the city’s children in that age group have gotten vaccinated so far and less than 65 percent of children 12 to 17, who have been eligible much longer, have been vaccinated. According to Washington Post tracking, 58 percent of the city’s adult population has been fully vaccinated.

Local regulations will still require masks in some settings, including Metro trains and buses, ride-share cars, some government buildings and public schools. Bowser said she will issue a mayoral order to bring the changes into effect but had not yet signed the order when she announced the changes at a news conference Tuesday.

Some District workers who have in-person jobs indoors, interacting with the public, said they appreciated that the city required masks longer than many surrounding jurisdictions and were not eager for Bowser to relax the rules.

Henry River, a janitor, wears a mask all day at work. “I have no problem with it,” he said. Even though he’s vaccinated, he worries about people going unmasked in some places he visits where he says “there’s no air circulation.” He’ll feel more comfortable, he said, once he knows more people are vaccinated. “Some requirements help at least.”

Bellamy Bell, a grocery store worker, also said he hoped the mask mandate would stay in place until “whenever they get solid evidence” that coronavirus cases are much scarcer. “I think it should be a requirement. You’re around other people. You’re out in public. It’s a crowded area. There are a lot of people.”

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Nine states have a mask mandate in place as of last week, according to Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Oregon is the only state that requires masks for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, indoors and in most outdoor settings. Four states — California, Nevada, New York and Connecticut — require unvaccinated people to wear masks. Four more — Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico and Washington — require people to wear masks indoors, she said.

There are additional requirements in certain places. For example, 18 states require masks in schools, many require them in health-care settings, and masks are generally required on public transportation by federal mandate, Tolbert said.

“States that have imposed mask mandates say they were following the science, but there clearly is a political component to it as well,” she said. “Masks have become a hot political issue.”

Grocery worker Katherine Scott was eager for D.C.’s requirement to end, so much so that she repeatedly emailed her council member’s office and the local health department, asking about the city’s metrics.

She spent the pandemic working full-time in a grocery store in New York and was elated when the state stopped requiring masks indoors and she could take hers off. Then she moved to the District in September and had to put her mask on again.

Since she got vaccinated, “I feel 100 percent safe. Everything I’ve read, from the CDC and any major newspaper, says the vaccine works — your risk of death goes to just about zilch,” Scott said. “We’re not requiring everyone to get in a car and wear a bike helmet. That’s kind of how the mask feels. Essentially you’re telling me I need to wear it, but I’m fully vaccinated. I’m doing the extremely safe thing. It’s frustrating.”

Scott went to D.C.’s 9:30 Club recently and was irritated that staff members told her to put her mask back on between sips of her beer. Thinking of the “glorious” rave that she attended in Manhattan, where attendees showed their vaccine cards at the door then partied without masks inside, Scott left the D.C. club early. “I just want to go to another city where they’re handling this better,” she thought.