Trump declares national emergency; DC bans mass gatherings

Andre of Washington, D.C., rides the escalator up at the Metro subway Congress Heights train station in Washington, Friday, March, 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The latest

  • President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.
  • In Montgomery County, Maryland, the first three patients to be diagnosed with the coronavirus have recovered, county health officials said.
  • Metro is limiting rail and bus service as part of its pandemic plan.
  • Virginia schools will be closed for at least two weeks.
  • Health officials in Maryland and Virginia announced a spike in the number of new positive results.
  • Pepco will suspend service disconnections, waive new late payment fees and help customers in extended financial hardship during the outbreak. Dominion Energy in Virginia is also suspending disconnections.

Here’s what to know about the coronavirus response in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.


President Donald Trump declared a national emergency Friday in response to the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.

Elsewhere in D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser also held a news conference Friday, stating that the city’s health department is upgrading a recommendation that large gatherings be canceled to an outright ban, and lowering the definition of a mass gathering to 250 people or more.

The Trump administration’s response 

Speaking from the rose garden, Trump detailed his plans moving forward. He said the declaration frees up access to $50 billion in funding to fight the outbreak. He also announced steps to speed testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus.

Trump said the Food and Drug Administration used emergency authorities to rapidly approve a new test from health care company Roche, which will expand testing capacity — 1.4 million more tests available by next week and up to 5 million tests available by the end of the month.

“We want to make sure that those who did a test can get a test very safely, quickly and conveniently,” Trump said. “But we don’t want people to take a test if we feel that they shouldn’t be doing it. And we don’t want everyone running out and taking — only if you have certain symptoms.”

Trump said Google is building a website that will help people determine if they need a test and, if so, the website will direct them to a drive-through testing clinic. Walmart, Target, CVS and Walgreens have offered space in their parking lots for the drive-through tests.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during the news conference at the White House.

The Trump administration is also issuing guidance to nursing homes nationwide to restrict visitors and nonessential personnel, with the exception of end-of-life situations, said Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Read full coverage of Trump’s news conference here.


More Coronavirus News


DC

Mayor Muriel Bowser also held a news conference Friday afternoon, stating that under an order from the D.C. Health Department, gatherings of at-risk populations would be limited to 10 people, according to Dr. LaQuadra Nesbitt, the director of D.C.’s health department. The rules do not apply to schools, workplaces or residential buildings.

“It is important that families understand that because children are not in school and their students are not in school, they should also not be congregating elsewhere. We are doing this to encourage the social distancing,” said Deputy Mayor for Educator Paul Kihn.

More than half of the D.C. government workforce, 53%, will be teleworking starting next week, said city administrator Rashad Young. He said some agencies would be teleworking entirely.

At-risk populations are defined as people over 60 years old, people with chronic health conditions and people who are immunocompromised.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said students and families will have access to a website that will include grade-level content as well as receive and submit assignments. Teachers will be holding virtual office hours to communicate with students.

D.C. Public Schools will close March 16 to March 31 as the school system moves to distance learning. Spring break will be March 17 to March 23, and there will not be a spring break in April. Students should not report to school during this time.

There will be no school-sponsored activities, such as athletics, extracurriculars, field trips, events or after-school programs.

Students will learn remotely from March 24 to March 31. Normal DCPS operations are expected to resume April 1.

DCPS will be providing meals to students from March 16 to March 31, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at specific locations, according to Bowser.

See her tweet below for locations:

As D.C. ramps up its response to the outbreak, a number of companies based in the city made adjustments to their work routines. AARP employees are working remotely for the next two weeks, with the plan of returning to offices by March 30.

City officials announced a total of 10 positive results, including two cases of unknown origin, indicating community spread. The D.C. numbers are current as of Friday but have not changed since earlier this week.

Metro, other public transportation changes

Metro is cutting service until further notice after shifting to the highest level of its pandemic response plans.

The changes will reduce weekday service to weekend levels in the rail system, and cut weekday bus service back to a Saturday supplemental schedule. The rail system will continue to run regular hours each day, just with less frequent service on weekdays.

Metro plans to use the changes to put more effort into cleaning.

MetroAccess paratransit service will continue, but Metro is pleading with riders not to use the shared-ride service if they are showing any signs of illness.

Metro is also banning visitors to its offices, suspending all public meetings and encouraging office workers to telework.

Metro ridership has fallen precipitously in the second half of this week as concerns over the new coronavirus have grown.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, the county’s Ride On buses will be free starting Monday as part of an effort to avoid close contact between drivers and passengers. Riders will board through rear doors of the buses, except for riders who need to use the wheelchair lift at the front door.

Ride On is keeping regular schedules for now, with the exception of the two microtransit pilot routes.

Because Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains are operating on a weekend schedule starting March 16, the Amtrak trains that honor MARC tickets won’t operate, MARC said.

Alexandria’s Transit Company (DASH) also made a change, announcing Friday evening that it’s switching to an “Enchanced Saturday” schedule during the weekdays to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The operational changes to take effect March 19 will have all routes running on a Saturday schedule. That means buses will make stops at the roughly 30-60 minute intervals found on the weekends, as opposed to the 15-20 minute intervals that are standard during the weekdays.

However, some routes will provide additional trips to increase service during peak weekday periods, the announcement said.

DASH said its full route and schedule information for the “Enhanced Saturday” operating plan will be posted on its website no later than March 17.

For those still heading to airports, the Transportation Security Administration said travelers can now bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer in carry-on bags until further notice. You’ll have to take them out of your bag for screening like a laptop. Other liquid limits will remain.

Virginia

Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all schools in Virginia to close for a minimum of two weeks in response to the continued spread of coronavirus.

Schools will close from Monday, March 16, through Friday, March 27.

“We are taking this action to keep Virginians as safe and healthy as possible, and to minimize exposure to COVID-19,” said Northam. “I recognize this will pose a hardship on many families, but closing our schools for two weeks will not only give our staff time to clean and disinfect school facilities, it will help slow the spread of this virus.”

Virginia health officials said the number of presumptive positive cases nearly doubled from Thursday, with 30 positive results now reported. Of those, 17 are in Northern Virginia.

The test results will be sent to the CDC for confirmation.

On Friday afternoon, Loudoun County health officials announced the county’s third likely positive case. The patient is a man in his 30s, and he is being treated at a Loudoun County hospital. They’re still looking into how he got infected.

In light of the growing number of cases, school systems throughout the state made schedule changes.

All Prince William County Public Schools will close to students effective Saturday, until April 14. Packaged breakfasts and lunches will be provided to-go at select locations throughout the county, to anyone under the age of 18.

Falls Church City, Arlington County and Alexandria public schools closed on Friday and will remain closed through spring break. The Fairfax County school closure upset parents in the area.

Fairfax County Public Schools will be providing emergency grab-and-go lunches at no cost for students at five sites on Friday and Monday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The sites are Bailey’s Elementary School, Hutchinson Elementary School, Hybla Valley Elementary School, London Towne Elementary School and the Burke Center.

“We continue to hear genuine concern from parents about keeping our schools open while the coronavirus response escalates around the country,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in a late-night statement Thursday.

So far, Brabrand said earlier this week that since there were no cases related to the school system, he was advocating a “tiered response” that could change quickly, if there were a confirmed case.

Noting that schools are closing in Maryland for two weeks, Brabrand updated his position: “In an abundance of caution, I believe it is prudent for FCPS to cancel school [Friday] to help ease parent, staff and student anxiety.”

“This remains a very fast moving narrative and the situation Monday is likely to be very different than today. We will determine Monday how we will proceed long term with FCPS operations,” Brabrand said in his letter to families.

Earlier Thursday, Loudoun County became the first local school district to close for more than a week to deal with the coronavirus situation.

Find a complete list of school closings here.

Also in Virginia, Dominion Energy suspended all service disconnections for nonpayment, it said.

Maryland

In Maryland, there are now 17 total cases — an increase of five cases since Thursday when the first case of community transmission was announced and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced a state of emergency.

On Friday evening, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks confirmed that the county had its fifth, sixth and seventh positive coronavirus cases. One is a man in his 40s who was exposed to the county’s first patient, the next is a woman in her 30s and the last is a man in his 50s who is connected to the woman.

Officials are looking into the woman’s case, and the man in his 50s is hospitalized out-of-state, where he tested positive.

Alsobrooks said county agencies are implementing teleworking measures and suspending nonessential, work-related travel out of state until April 30. Access to county buildings will also be limited to county employees starting March 16.

Another case is a military retiree who sought treatment at a clinic on Joint Base Andrews.

In a statement, a spokesman for Joint Base Andrews said the person had cold-like symptoms and had recently traveled to South Korea and the Philippines. The patient is now self-quarantined at their residence in Waldorf, Maryland.

“We are focused on the health of our base personnel and their families,” said Col. Andrew Purath, commander of the 11th Wing and Joint Base Andrews, in a news release. “We will continue to mitigate the effects and potential spread of COVID-19 in coordination with our community and interagency partners.”

At this time, there is no impact to Joint Base Andrews mission or operations.

Maryland closed schools from March 16 to March 27, and banned public gatherings of 250 people or more as the state’s Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips called coronavirus a “public health emergency.”

Howard County Public Schools are providing “Grab-N-Go” lunch and breakfast items for the following days on weekdays while the schools are closed. It is offered at nine locations countywide.

Charles County Public Schools are providing free breakfast and lunch for all ages 18 and under while the school system is closed. The distribution will be curbside at eight sites.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, the first three patients to be diagnosed with the coronavirus have recovered, county health officials said.

Last week, health officials identified the three as a couple in their 70s and woman in her 50s who  took a cruise in Egypt. They were not known to have traveled together.

Other impacts 

A number of law enforcement agencies around the D.C. area have enacted measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

To increase social distancing, the Anne Arundel County Police Department is implementing a policy to take police reports for minor and nonviolent crimes by phone and online. This includes incidents such as minor thefts, tampering with a vehicle, destruction to a vehicle, identity theft, telephone misuse and trespassing not in progress.

The Leesburg Police Department has also announced that they will take police reports over the phone rather than in person, whenever possible.

Pepco is suspending service disconnections and waiving new late payment fees through at least May 1, according to a news release. They said that they will be working with customers experiencing extensive hardship during concerns over the coronavirus.

“We are committed to helping every customer through difficult times, and we know there will be many challenges associated with this pandemic,” said Dave Velazquez, president and CEO of Pepco Holdings, in a news release.

WTOP’s Ian Crawford, Max Smith, Zeke Hartner and Neal Augenstein contributed to this report. 

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Editor and reporter for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

Valerie Bonk

Valerie Bonk started working at WTOP in 2016 and has lived in Howard County, Maryland, her entire life. She's thrilled to be a reporter for WTOP telling stories on air. She works as both a television and radio reporter in the Maryland and D.C. areas. 

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