More pandemic restrictions were lifted Monday in the Washington area as the region added its lowest number of daily coronavirus cases and deaths in several weeks.
The gradual steps toward reopening came as the District, Maryland and Virginia on Monday reported their lowest number of deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus since early April, part of a downward trend that officials have cited in allowing more nonessential businesses to reopen for the first time since March.
The three jurisdictions added 743 known coronavirus cases and 14 deaths. While numbers reported on Mondays are typically lower than other days, those this week represented the smallest number of daily cases added since April 2 and the smallest number of deaths since April 3.
The District reported no new deaths Monday for only the second time since the early days of the pandemic. Virginia’s death toll increased by six, while Maryland recorded eight additional fatalities.
As the region’s coronavirus cases trend downward, health officials have warned that the lifting of restrictions and daily protests against police brutality could lead to a new surge of infections. Crowds also gathered across the region over the weekend to enjoy the weather, with many opting not to wear a mask.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said declining rates in new covid-19 deaths, hospitalizations and coronavirus infections supported moving the county to its second phase of reopening. While the lifted restrictions brought a dose of economic relief, customers and employees encountered plenty of changes.
Local restaurant chain Succotash welcomed its first customers back at National Harbor with a list of new procedures to limit in-person interactions.
As guests entered the restaurant Monday, they could pick up disposable pamphlets with scannable codes that allowed them to see the menu on their phone. When the bill came due, customers could scan a code on their check to pay on their phones.
“We have been preparing for this day ever since we closed,” said Victoria Gradia, the restaurant group’s regional director of operations. “It is different in here, but it still feels amazing.”
Behind the QR codes and strict sanitation schedule, the restaurant’s management team encouraged its staff to take extra precautions.
Managers gathered staff members Monday morning to remind them of the importance of washing hands for at least 20 seconds — with “Happy Birthday” sung twice. Employees fill out a “wellness check” online before reporting for their shift.
Younghee Park, manager of Beauty Island in the Eastover Shopping Center in Forest Heights, spent days ensuring his staff would have adequate hand sanitizer, gloves and face shields for Monday. Still, Park said he felt nervous greeting his first customer.
“We are not sure about our safety, honestly,” he said. “We are all trying to wear protective gear, but even with all of the procedures, we have concerns about the coronavirus.”
Park said he is allowing fewer customers in the store than what the county allows.
“Our customers have the same feeling that we have right now,” he said. “We just want protection.”
Lori Valentine, vice president of policy and public relations for the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation, said she sensed excitement and hope among the county’s business owners.
“Folks are cautiously optimistic about a return to normalcy,” she said. “We are appreciative of the county taking its time to reopen safely.”
In addition to restaurants and retail businesses in Prince George’s allowing customers indoors, outdoor pools — both public and private — can open at 25 percent capacity, while parks also can reopen and youth sports teams can practice in groups of 10 or fewer.
Personal-service businesses — including nail salons, massage parlors and spas — can reopen by appointment, with one customer allowed per 200 square feet, while barbershops can operate at 50 percent capacity with appointments required.
Religious groups can open for indoor services, as long as they do not exceed 25 people, but gyms and fitness centers will stay closed.
Washington’s harder-hit Maryland and Virginia suburbs have trailed other parts of the two states in lifting restrictions. Northern Virginia entered Phase 2 of its recovery on Friday, while Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said his county will move to that phase at 5 p.m. this Friday.
Under Elrich’s plan, restaurants will be able to open to 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 businesses — such as salons and barbershops — can operate by appointment with similar space restrictions.
The District continues to look at Friday as a possible first day of its Phase 2 reopening, but LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the city’s health department, said officials are still working on recommendations for the types of gatherings and business activities that would be allowed.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) warned residents during a Monday news conference that more permitted activities will probably mean more cases.
“We don’t have a treatment or a cure, so therefore, when people start coming out, we’re likely to see more cases,” she said.
The District this week began to offer free antibody testing for the next month, as the health department tries to determine the extent of exposure to the virus in the city.
The antibody tests demonstrate that a person has previously been exposed to the novel coronavirus, but Nesbitt emphasized Monday that while the presence of antibodies in the bloodstream indicates immunity to many illnesses, scientists have not concluded whether a person with coronavirus antibodies can still become sick from new exposure to the virus.
“Even if you do have the presence of antibodies, we still need you to social distance,” she said.
The antibody test will be available by appointment in Canal Park in the Navy Yard neighborhood through early July, and eventually at a second location, Nesbitt said.
The District has tested an increasing number of people for the coronavirus, separate from antibody tests. Virus testing at firehouses has proved so popular — with lines stretching for blocks at a firehouse in Columbia Heights — that the city on Monday began doubling the number of open sites.
The city on Monday dropped the minimum age for testing from 18 to 6 years old.
The District reported 32 new coronavirus cases Monday, while Virginia and Maryland reported 380 and 331 cases, respectively. The three jurisdictions have reported 126,717 cases and 5,014 deaths since the region’s pandemic outbreak started in March.
The office of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Monday the number of patients hospitalized in intensive care units fell below 300 for the first time in 10 weeks. Officials said the state also hasn’t seen any confirmed virus cases in poultry plants this month after earlier outbreaks.
In a series of tweets, Hogan noted that Maryland moved into its first phase of recovery one month earlier, adding that key health metrics continue to trend in a positive direction.
“The virus is still out there, and this battle is not yet over,” he tweeted. “But I’m so proud of the people of Maryland for sticking together, for never losing hope, and for staying #MarylandStrong during this incredibly difficult time.”
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