Bowser announced during a Wednesday news conference that restaurants and stores will be able to operate at 50 percent capacity. Gyms, tanning salons and tattoo parlors can reopen as long as they keep plenty of space between their patrons.
According to the District government, the city has met most criteria it set for entering Phase 2, including hospitals filling fewer than 80 percent of beds and a sustained decline in community spread of the novel coronavirus. The major exception is contact tracing.
The city set a goal of contacting more than 90 percent of coronavirus patients within a day of their positive test to interview them about their interactions. LaQuandra Nesbitt, the director of the D.C. Department of Health, said Wednesday that until recently, the 300 contact tracers the District employs — 100 of whom are still being trained — have focused nearly all of their time following up on old cases.
Only in the past two days did contact tracers meet that 90 percent goal, following days near zero. Bowser said she expects contact tracers will continue contacting almost all new patients in the next five days, allowing Phase 2 to start Monday.
“We are trending in the right direction,” she said.
The District initially had targeted Friday as the earliest possible day it could lift more restrictions, but officials said the delay will provide more time to watch virus-related metrics.
Kathy Hollinger, the president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said that while many restaurateurs are eager to resume indoor dining, it won’t make economic sense for every business. A small restaurant adhering to the 50 percent capacity requirement, for instance, might find it couldn’t turn a profit by reopening, she said.
Hollinger said opening Monday, rather than Friday — and missing indoor dining business over Father’s Day weekend — will not be much of a setback for restaurants.
“I don’t know that anybody is disappointed. It’s a matter of what’s best with data and science,” she said. “If the mayor and the Department of Health say we are ready to approach Phase 2, then yes, we would agree that we are. This has been thoughtful, mindful and gradual.”
After weeks of being closed or only offering takeout, restaurants are eager to expand their offerings.
All week, groups of customers have flocked to Chicken + Whiskey, a popular fast-casual spot on 14th Street NW, to ask when the speakeasy in the back of the establishment will reopen.
“All these young people will come in here and point at the back door, asking if the bar is open yet,” said Ari Valdez, a manager at Chicken + Whiskey. “We have to tell them ‘No, we have not opened.’ But of course we want to.”
Valdez is itching for the city to move into Phase 2, which would allow him to seat customers indoors for the first time in months. While food sales, fueled by to-go orders in fried chicken, have surged over the past few weeks, liquor sales are about 25 percent of what they were before the pandemic.
“We are just hoping that Phase 2 happens so we can put a few tables in the back. That will help a lot, especially on the side of liquor sales,” Valdez said.
For the past month, Valdez has started each day by texting other managers to make sure they are on top of health regulations and the daily schedule. His staff has also been watching for any announcement about entering Phase 2.
“We are at the point where we are just waiting until Phase 2 actually happens,” he said. “Once we have the green light, we can start prepping and see where we are in terms of capacity.”
Ambar on Capitol Hill, which serves Balkan cuisine, reopened for the first time Wednesday after an extensive two-month renovation that transformed and expanded the restaurant. Employees and customers were waiting for indoor dining — and the debut of a new wine cellar, said Ljubodrag Mojsilovic, a restaurant manager.
“Our phone is ringing constantly with people asking when they can come eat inside of our restaurant,” he said. “We are just very excited to open and serve the guests outside today. Hopefully, we will be able to show the new interior soon.”
The city said it plans to reopen playgrounds and libraries as part of Phase 2 and is asking universities and theaters to submit reopening plans. Still, D.C. Health’s Nesbitt said, the virus’s long incubation period means it is too soon to know if the recent mass demonstrations over police brutality will lead to a spike in cases.
“Mass gatherings while we still have community transmission is a concern,” Nesbitt said, encouraging anyone who gets a phone call from a contact tracer to disclose if they attended a protest. “We need people to be very transparent with us with all the activities they have been participating in.”
If a spike emerges because of the protests or reopened commercial activities, Bowser said the city has the option “to turn up or turn down our reopening.”
The District will be the final jurisdiction in the Washington region to reach the second phase of reopening. Montgomery County is the only other locality still in Phase 1, but County Executive Marc Elrich (D) announced plans this week to move to Phase 2 at 5 p.m. Friday.
Under his plan, restaurants will be allowed to have indoor dining at 50 percent capacity if social distancing can be maintained. Gyms and fitness centers can reopen with one customer for each 200 square feet of fitness space.
Houses of worship can allow indoor services with one congregant or family unit for each 200 square feet of service space, while personal services — such as salons and barbershops — can operate by appointment with similar space restrictions.
Jurisdictions across the Washington region have lagged most other parts of Maryland and Virginia in reopening because the pandemic took a deeper toll on the District and its suburbs.
The region’s coronavirus cases have trended downward in recent days, but health officials continued to warn that the lifting of restrictions and daily protests against police brutality could lead to a new surge of infections.
The number of coronavirus cases in Maryland, Virginia and the District reached 128,591 as of 5 p.m. Wednesday. There were 1,033 new cases in the three jurisdictions, as well as 30 new fatalities, lifting the pandemic’s regional death toll to 5,102.
The District reported 29 new cases and three additional deaths.
The city has seen 13 days of a decrease in the community spread of the virus. City officials said in a statement that the sustained drop shows that the “epidemic is under control, and no longer in a period of rapid growth.”
Maryland reported 560 new cases and 14 deaths. State officials said the positivity rate of tests has dropped to 5.8 percent, while hospitalizations are at their lowest level in 73 days.
Virginia reported 444 new cases and 13 additional deaths. The state’s caseload Wednesday was higher than its seven-day moving average of 399, although the positivity rate for tests continued to drop.