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D.C. Mayor Bowser recommends masks but stops short of mandate as omicron variant of coronavirus creates anxiety

A pedestrian wears a mask walking on 14th Street NW in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser moved to beef up the District’s coronavirus response Thursday as the country braces for the impact of the emerging omicron variant, but she refrained from bringing back her recently rescinded indoor mask mandate even while her health department issued an “advisory” recommending indoor masking.

D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt announced new walk-up vaccination sites for any residents ages 5 and up, where residents can get both first doses and booster shots, at public libraries in Woodridge, Petworth and downtown. She said many existing D.C. vaccination sites that have offered vaccines only for children or only for adults will also start serving walk-up patrons of any age.

Nesbitt also said that the city’s at-home vaccination program — originally created for homebound people to get shots delivered to them — will expand to include any family who wants shots at home. Parents of children ages 5 to 11 can call the city to get a vaccination for their children at their own house. The on-call medical professionals can also administer first shots or boosters to the whole household.

Just weeks after Bowser ended her mayoral order that for months had legally required masks in all public indoor venues in the District, such as grocery stores and gyms, her health department announced Thursday what Nesbitt called a “mask advisory.” It is not a legal requirement to wear masks but a strong recommendation that anyone, vaccinated or unvaccinated, continue wearing masks in all indoor settings.

D.C. Council pushes Bowser to reverse course on ending indoor mask mandate

Nesbitt noted that the District’s case rate remains in the zone that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers “substantial transmission,” as it has since July, when Bowser first reissued the strict mask mandate that she eventually ended last month.

“According to the CDC recommendations that all people wear masks indoors if they are in areas classified as substantial or high transmission . . . D.C. Health has issued a mask advisory today that all people, regardless of vaccination status, should wear a mask indoors in public settings,” Nesbitt said. “This is consistent to our previous statements to folks.”

The city’s weekly case rate has been similarly high since before Bowser rescinded the mask order. At that point, Bowser and Nesbitt said people should make their own decisions about mask-wearing based on risk. But on Thursday, Nesbitt said she had been recommending masks indoors for everyone all along.

“Our communication was very clear that while we’re in high or substantial transmission, that people should wear a mask,” she said. “The level of transmission is the same and our recommendation is the same as it was two weeks ago.”

Ten of the 13 members of the D.C. Council objected to Bowser’s decision to rescind the mandate before the Thanksgiving travel season and the onset of cold weather, and parents of young children complained that Bowser’s action endangered those too young to get vaccinated.

Without changing her mayoral order, Bowser did note Thursday that the new variant underscores the need for masks. “Omicron is different from the last time we talked about masks. D.C. Health’s recommendation around masking is really the same, but they’re going to issue an advisory to make very clear that their guidance is related to the [case] rate,” she said.

Nesbitt said the city requires hospitals and labs to sequence at least 10 percent of the coronavirus tests they conduct, to see what variant of the virus a person has contracted. In November, more than 96 percent of the 681 tests sequenced were the delta variant.

Tara Kirk Sell, who researches pandemic preparedness at Johns Hopkins University, said it is most important for public health officials to communicate the numerical reasoning behind mask rules, and not necessarily strengthen restrictions in the face of a variant whose potency remains unclear.

“The indoor mask requirements are certainly really important if you have high amounts of transmission going on. But I also think having requirements goes hand in hand with people’s willingness to comply, and I think that’s really eroding,” she said. “I would make it clear that these requirements are based on the situation on the ground,” she added, noting, “It’s important to be transparent: Here’s the decision-making process. Here’s who was in on the decision-making.”

At Thursday’s news conference, Bowser also asked the D.C. Council to restore an emergency power that it granted her from the start of the pandemic until last month, which is the right for the city government to procure certain supplies, without the normal council review that allows the legislative body to approve of large city expenditures.

D.C. Health officials are looking into purchasing rapid tests for the District’s free testing sites, so that low-income residents won’t need to buy such tests at drugstores.

“I was made aware yesterday that D.C. Health was not able to get as fast as they need those [rapid] test kits,” Bowser said, explaining her request to the council.

In her letter, Bowser specifically noted that D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) proposed ending the emergency procurement authorization. White, who criticized Bowser’s decision to end her mask mandate, is running against Bowser in the 2022 mayoral primary election.