The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With restrictions still in place, D.C.-area residents weigh safety against stay-at-home fatigue

Bikers and pedestrians enjoy King Street in Old Town Alexandria on May 23. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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The residents and restaurateurs of the District’s 14th Street corridor could hear the change before they saw it. As Memorial Day weekend began, the sounds of foot traffic, laughing — of people enjoying a Friday night “out” — grew louder. Lucas King, 30, held his boyfriend’s hand and skipped down the street, hopping between bars offering cocktails to go.

“We want to celebrate summer,” said King, 30, as he adjusted the bandanna he uses as a face mask. “We want to get out, we want to socialize, and this is the best we can get.”

No restrictions have been lifted in the District, and only a few have been lifted in the surrounding suburbs, but already, residents across the region are easing the limits they had placed on themselves. They are returning to once-crowded waterfronts, inviting family over for cookouts and sending their children on play dates. They are weighing a recent warning that the D.C. area has the nation’s highest rate of positive coronavirus tests against the pull of summery weather and the frustrations of months at home.

On Saturday morning, Mia’s Italian Kitchen in Old Town Alexandria blasted music through an outdoor speaker. “School’s out for summer, school’s out forever,” played the Alice Cooper song as throngs of people milled up and down King Street.

“I don’t think people are holding up anymore. I feel like people are really just, like, forget the restrictions,” said Cherise Mattheson, a 37-year-old social worker from Southeast Washington who had driven across the Potomac River for a long, fast-paced walk and a change of scenery. In recent weeks, she’d been rising early to exercise when fewer people were around. But this weekend, she had emerged a little later, and like most of those around her — runners, dog walkers, parents with small children — she wasn’t wearing a mask.

After months of quiet weekends in Alexandria’s tourist-friendly downtown, the new influx of visitors worried some residents.

“Honestly, having all these people come to Old Town that don’t live here makes me nervous,” said Allyson Hazzard, 51, who stood with a decaf Starbucks latte at the edge of Founders Park, which was filling with people. For only the second time since the stay-at-home order, she’d felt safe enough to go out for coffee. Her husband, Mike, a lawyer, said he understood the “desirable, competing goals” of preserving public health while allowing some pre-pandemic routines to resume.

“How do you balance all that?” he asked. “I think the honest answer is, nobody really knows.”

In other parts of the country, there are reasons to feel more certain: decreasing death tolls, fewer people testing positive for the novel coronavirus, and businesses that have been allowed to carefully reopen. But the District and its suburbs have yet to catch up. The city, Maryland and Virginia lead the country in the percentage of positive test results for the virus, White House coronavirus task force leader Deborah Birx said in a news conference Friday. The jurisdictions also lag behind other areas in a decline in infections, Birx said. While governors in Maryland and Virginia have begun gradual reopenings, restrictions remain tight in the Washington suburbs, as they do in Richmond and Baltimore.

Couples, friends and families are now split over whether to remain quite so vigilant, especially those who have had the privilege of working from home.

In Annapolis, 68-year-old Marianna O’Brien and her sisters decided to meet up for a walk on the waterfront, where a massive construction sign flashed, “Practice Social Distancing” and “Wear Masks — Save Lives.”

“With the weather warm, we decided we could finally see each other outside,” O’Brien said. On Saturday night, they planned to go one step further: hosting a family meal in the backyard of one of their homes. Normally, 30 relatives would gather. This time, only seven people felt comfortable attending.

Their decisions echo those being weighed everywhere — by recently laid-off workers considering new job offers, by patients now able to schedule non-emergency visits and by would-be beach vacationers facing the loss of deposits.

Jose Perales, who grew up in Puerto Rico, greatly misses the sights and smells of the ocean. But when beaches first reopen, he won’t be going anywhere near. Too many people, he said, and too many of them careless.

“I can postpone. It’s not a do-or-die type of situation,” he said while walking his beagle through Alexandria. “Although, literally, now it is do-or-die.”

But Tom Coumaris, 70, who lives in the District, felt like a vacation was worth the risk. He recently returned from a two-week trip to Clearwater, Fla.

“I was just cooped up in Washington for so long with the weather so cold and wet,” he said. “After two months of isolation, I needed a break.”

Silvana Yaroschuk decided to let her guard down in a much smaller way: After months of family-only rules, she’s allowing her sons to see their friends again. For the first play date, 9-year-old Lucas put his shoes on early and counted down the minutes. Then he and his friends spent hours splashing in a creek by their house in Arlington, casting fishing rods and playing games in the water.

“After all this time, it was such a relief to see my kids so happy and excited,” Yaroschuk said. “I feel like it is safe enough to see people outside at this point.”

She would occasionally shout when she saw her sons put their hands in their mouths or touch their faces, “but of course it is hard when they are horsing around,” she explained.

Not everyone has reached a breaking point. Zuleema Isaac, a 28-year-old in Prince George’s County, watched her grandfather battle the novel coronavirus from his bedroom two months ago. During his illness, she swore to stay vigilant about social distancing for as long as she could manage. While her grandfather has since recovered, Isaac remains hunkered down in her apartment with her boyfriend.

“It is hard for me to watch more and more people not taking it seriously,” said Isaac, who owns a hair salon that was shuttered by the pandemic. “Even though you may not have it, you make other people worried when you aren’t wearing masks, especially for those of us who have been directly impacted.”

She said that she would need to see everyone in her neighborhood wearing masks and staying six feet apart before she’d feel comfortable socializing or returning to work.

Some places are doing their part to push people inside. Maryland’s National Harbor, which would normally be full of shoppers and strollers on Memorial Day weekend, kept its public parking lots closed. An electronic sign in the middle of the commercial district warned sternly: “STAY AT HOME ORDER IN EFFECT.”

Peter Heimberg, a 54-year-old physicist, is losing patience with all of the well-meaning advice. He tried to soothe himself Saturday morning by paddling a kayak out on the Potomac.

“I’ve gotten way too good at making cocktails and bread, and it’s starting to show,” Heimberg said. “I have every privilege and access to personal space. But it’s still like being in a fancy jail.”

Still, he said, the scientist in him believes in data, and what the region’s coronavirus data show. Desirable as it is to return to normal life, he knows it makes sense to proceed more slowly.

“I think,” he said, “I err on the side of saving 100,000 people.”