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D.C. to require coronavirus vaccination to enter restaurants, gyms and other businesses

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announces coronavirus restrictions on Dec. 22. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

People 12 and older will be required to show proof of coronavirus vaccination to enter many businesses in D.C., including restaurants, starting in mid-January under rules that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced Wednesday.

The change comes two days after Bowser announced a host of new restrictions to curb record-setting numbers of daily coronavirus cases that have made D.C.'s new daily case rate higher than that of any state in the nation this week.

The region, particularly the District, is staggering under a massive new wave of infections just days before the Christmas holiday, leaving many residents canceling plans, holing up sick at home, or standing in hours-long lines in the cold to be the first to take home the city’s new free rapid tests on Wednesday.

After initially responding to the surge by reinstating an indoor mask mandate, announcing a forthcoming vaccine requirement for government workers without a test-out option, and introducing at-home rapid antigen tests for residents, Bowser will now require thousands of businesses to check that patrons are vaccinated.

Tracking coronavirus deaths, cases and vaccinations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

The District joins a growing list of major cities that have implemented similar requirements, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Philadelphia. And Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), who has advocated for a similar vaccine mandate since the summer but has not put one in place, said shortly after Bowser’s announcement that he will now send a proposal for a mandate to the Montgomery County Council before its next meeting on Jan. 4.

“There’s great logic for doing this in conjunction with the District,” Elrich said. “We should have done it. Now I hope we can do it.”

The District’s mandate will cover businesses including restaurants, bars, nightclubs, theaters and gyms, Bowser said.

Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio said the rule will not apply to establishments where people normally pass through more quickly and keep their masks on, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, retail shops and museums. Religious congregations will also be exempt, and Bowser said she is considering an exemption for some fast-food businesses.

Businesses that are subject to the mandate will be required to check patrons’ vaccine cards or a printout, photograph or app showing their vaccination status, Bowser said. Proof of a negative coronavirus test will not be allowed as an alternative at first, though Bowser said she would consider that option later if the state of the pandemic warrants it.

She said she hopes the impending mandate will persuade D.C. residents to get vaccinated now, before they are shut out of their favorite restaurants and entertainment venues.

“I don’t make any of these types of decisions lightly, because I don’t like Big Brother intruding on my life. [There are] times when the government needs to make decisions for the whole society,” she said. “Mandates have the ability to help people who are not vaccinated to become vaccinated, and that is a huge public health benefit.”

To give businesses time to make plans to enforce the rule, Bowser said she will require businesses to see proof of at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine for anyone 12 and older starting Jan. 15. One month later, starting Feb. 15, the requirement will be at least two doses of an mRNA vaccine or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine for those 12 and older.

While some D.C. restaurants already require proof of vaccination for indoor dining, the rule creates another mandate for businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic and have had to follow changing regulations throughout the crisis on mask-wearing and social distancing. The District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration issued dozens of citations and fines this past year to establishments that serve alcohol and flouted rules around mask-wearing indoors.

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“We all have to respond to this virus as it presents. It is true that we’re asking businesses to do more, but we also think [the vaccine mandate] is a benefit to their business” since it will make some people more comfortable about visiting, Bowser said.

The mandate will apply only to visitors, not to employees of gyms, restaurants and other shops. Falcicchio said the city is still working on regulations for how it will apply to office buildings — likely, meetings and conferences open to the public will have a vaccine mandate, but private office space just for workers will not.

Ashok Bajaj, who owns the Knightsbridge group that operates 10 restaurants in the District, said his first concern when he heard about the mandate was for his staff members who will have to ask potentially irritated patrons to present their vaccination cards.

“I know some restaurants tried, and there was resistance from the guests to show the identification that you were vaccinated,” he said. “Hopefully people will comply with it without any issues. Because it’s not something we’re trying to impose. It’s the D.C. law.”

Bajaj noted that since vaccinated people can also become infected and spread the virus, he’s not even sure that an all-vaccinated restaurant will necessarily be a coronavirus-free space.

Kathy Hollinger, who leads the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said the vaccine mandate is yet another hurdle for her beleaguered industry. “Mandates are not ideal,” she said. “People are fatigued. These small businesses are fatigued. There’s a lot that’s already on their plates, and to have to consider additional requirements, it’s a lot.”

But she noted more optimistically that it may help restaurants overcome one of their biggest difficulties aside from supply chain problems. It’s what she calls “diner confidence,” which has affected demand at some restaurants.

The mandate, she said, “may be something that will help with that, as it creates these environments where diners feel more comfortable, staff feel more comfortable.”

Elrich said that as he weighs a similar mandate in Montgomery, he has heard from restaurant owners worried that the vaccination checks would require them to hire more staff or provoke confrontations with would-be diners.

“I get that,” Elrich said, “but it doesn’t give them a right to come into places and make other people sick, and it doesn’t give restaurants a pass. They need to acknowledge they are in a space, through no fault of their own, where people are more at risk.”

He added: “Maybe not being able to do things like going to a restaurant will finally get through to some people that if they want a normal life like the rest of us would, they should be vaccinated.”

Earl Stoddard, Montgomery County’s head of emergency management, said the county would provide guidance or training to reassure business owners worried about liability if a customer presents a fraudulent vaccination card.

The District reported 1,524 new cases of the virus on Wednesday, once again setting a single-day record and posting a higher seven-day average of new cases per capita than any state in the nation. (Maryland and Virginia’s case rates are about one-third that of the District this week, and closer to the national average.)

Maryland reported 4,072 new cases on Wednesday and Virginia, 5,972 new cases. Fifty deaths in the region were reported Wednesday, all of them in Virginia.

The District’s surge in coronavirus cases hit the D.C. jail this week: The D.C. Department of Corrections reported Wednesday that 117 inmates and 62 staff members had tested positive, accounting for about one-fourth of the facility’s total reported case count since the start of the pandemic.

The jail, already beset by complaints about conditions, implemented sweeping restrictions to slow the spread. The new rules allow inmates just two hours of out-of-cell time per day, reduced from 5½ hours.

Last year, D.C.’s ACLU chapter and Public Defender Service sued the Department of Corrections for its handling of coronavirus outbreaks inside the jail, alleging that the agency failed to provide adequate protective equipment or effectively quarantine individuals exposed to the virus. That case is still pending.

The department has also faced scrutiny for pandemic-related confinement measures that locked people in their cells for 23 hours a day for more than a year.

Neither Bowser’s office nor Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) responded to requests for comment on the jail outbreak.

George Washington University leaders announced Wednesday that the number of cases “continues to increase and remain high,” fueled by the omicron variant. Given that, and predictions by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that virus cases could peak in January, they planned to shift to a virtual start of classes for the spring semester. They anticipate a return to full in-person activities on Jan. 18, officials wrote.

On the first day of free rapid-test distribution at eight of the city’s libraries, lines initially stretched for blocks.

Emani Johnson, 29, of Congress Heights came to the Anacostia library after failing to find tests in stock at drugstores.

“I was up in New York for the weekend so I want to get tested before seeing my family for the holidays,” she said. While some at the library had waited two hours earlier in the day, by the time Johnson arrived, the wait wasn’t too long. Within 15 minutes she had made it inside. “I do like that they have this at the libraries,” she said. “With the new variant, everyone is trying to get the tests.”

James Reid, 82, followed her into the library after hearing about the free tests on the news. “Anytime a disease is spreading like this you need to be able to test at home for it,” he said.

Health department official Patrick Ashley said he hoped residents picking up the test kits wouldn’t see a negative test as license to hold large gatherings over Christmas. “Testing is not a free pass to do what you want,” he said. Bowser urged residents to consider only attending holiday gatherings where they know all attendees are vaccinated, and to make plans outdoors rather than indoors.

Bowser also said she plans to sign legislation that the D.C. Council passed Tuesday that will require coronavirus vaccination for children in public schools next school year. “This adds to the safety of our schools,” Bowser said.

Emily Davies, Joe Heim and Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.