The variant, called omicron, was identified by scientists in South Africa, where early data suggests it has spread more quickly than the now-dominant delta variant. Researchers say the omicron variant has a high number of mutations that could make it more easily transmissible. Several countries, including the United States, have curbed flights from southern Africa while epidemiologists work to identify how far the variant has already spread.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not identified any cases in the United States as of Sunday, but some officials and business owners have said they’re not going to wait until the new variant has begun to spread to take more aggressive measures to protect their customers and employees. Others are contending with anxiety over what a new coronavirus variant might mean for business and whether they could manage another shutdown.
“I haven’t stopped worrying since the first time we shut down,” said Lesley Bryant, who owns the Lady Clipper Barber Shop on U Street in D.C. “It’s a way of life now.”
The D.C. area has for months been a constantly shifting checkerboard of restrictions.
Virginia has not required masking since May — though some government buildings still require face coverings. The District only just lifted its requirement that all people mask up in public indoor settings, despite a majority of the D.C. Council urging caution. Businesses may still require masks if they wish. In the Maryland suburbs, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties require that masks be worn by all people in public venues, regardless of vaccination status.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said on Sunday that face coverings have always been the “first line of defense” against the coronavirus. He expressed relief that the county moved to reinstate its mask order last weekend — even as D.C. eased its rules amid high vaccination rates and a growing sense of ease.
If the omicron variant were detected in Maryland or any surrounding areas, Elrich said, he would push the county to enact more stringent requirements — such as a vaccine mandate at restaurants.
He wishes more public health experts and elected leaders would be frank about the potential dangers of a new variant, he said, and act quickly to protect the public instead of “fantasizing” about an early end to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “the alternative to not changing your behavior and your mind-set is that people might end up dead.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) did not respond to multiple requests for comment this weekend.
Businesses owners across the D.C. area greeted the news of the omicron variant with resignation. After 20 months of balancing turning a profit with keeping their staff and customers safe, small-business owners said they were not surprised to learn the pandemic may take yet another turn for the worse.
In the District, some businesses have eased mask requirements, including for fans attending games at Capital One Arena downtown. (Employees still have to wear them.) But many have continued to require that customers and employees wear face coverings.
Bryant, the D.C. barber shop owner, has required face coverings for more than a year and doesn’t plan to relax her rules any time soon. Employees are still double-masking, Bryant said, and she’s making contingency plans for a winter surge. Beard trimmings, which require customers to go barefaced, would be the first service to go if infection rates start to spike over the winter months.
“We have to roll with the punches and prepare the best way we can,” she said. “To be too lax or too comfortable is a mistake.”
Business at the barber shop has been booming since the city lifted major restrictions on social and commercial activities over the summer, Bryant said, but she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of the omicron variant spurring draconian shutdowns. She has been saving, she added, in case her shop again has to weather another months-long closure.
Andrea Vieira, owner of Nailsaloon in D.C., said if she had relaxed the masking requirement in her two nail parlors last week, news of the omicron variant would have sent her scrambling to reverse that decision. She’s glad she listened to her gut but added that there’s only so much she can do to protect her staff and her clients.
“I can’t fight a global pandemic in my little two shops in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “My job is just to stay steady on the little ship I do own.”
In Northern Virginia, where officials have mostly recommended — but not required — face coverings since the summer, some business owners wondered whether the new omicron variant and the looming holiday season would spur county officials to reinstate some health precautions.
Paul Roberts, who owns Sand & Steel, a CrossFit gym in Alexandria, said he has been watching news about the omicron variant with trepidation. The gym lost 10 percent of its members when it chose to implement a “no vaccine, no service” policy a few months ago, Roberts said, and he’s dreading the potential business impact of another shutdown or mask mandate.
An indoor mask mandate is hard for a business like his, he said. People sprinting back and forth have trouble breathing through their masks and often leave them sopping with sweat.
Francis Do, the owner of Pho, Banh Mi and Grill in Fairfax, sees things differently. He believes the county government reinstating a mask order is one of the few ways to avoid another total shutdown.
Do was among the first business owners to impose a vaccine requirement for patrons over the summer. He recently lifted the vaccine card check, he said, but still requires that all customers wear face coverings until they’re seated. The Vietnamese restaurant has over the past several months denied entry to numerous customers for not wearing face coverings, prompting heated exchanges that Do said have escalated.
“I don’t even think about money anymore. I’m just scared,” Do said, noting his business has already suffered over the past two years.
Do’s restaurant has gone from having 10 employees to four. Widespread staffing shortages have made it hard to recruit new staff, and inflation has narrowed profits. Being forced to shut down entirely because of a spike in infections would be disastrous, he said.
“Enough is enough,” he said with a sigh. “The government needs to step up, and people need to stop and put politics aside.”