Bowser’s decision to lift indoor mask mandate has DC parents feeling left behind

To celebrate her 6-year-old son becoming fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, D.C. parent Leilah Mooney Joseph has planned what she called a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” type of day.

He wants to go to the grocery store, a shoe store, a toy store and then eat outside at a restaurant. Mooney Joseph plans to fulfill those requests, but all of the businesses they stop at will be in Montgomery County, Maryland, she said.

Although the pair will both be fully vaccinated, Mooney Joseph, who is pregnant and has an unvaccinated 3-year-old, feels more comfortable knowing masks are required indoors in Montgomery County.

Seven straight days of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers “substantial” community transmission prompted the county to reinstitute its indoor mask mandate.

In D.C., meanwhile, masks are no longer required indoors.

“Particularly with the holiday season coming up, our ability to do shopping or take our kids to do any of the holiday activities that are happening at different places throughout the city, [removing the indoor mask mandate] threw a wrench in all of that,” said Mooney Joseph, a Ward 4 resident.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decision to no longer require masks in most indoor spaces, with exceptions for some places like schools, public transportation and health care settings, has left some D.C. parents apprehensive as the holidays approach.

In email and phone conversations, eight D.C. parents told WTOP the move to pivot away from masks indoor is premature and fails to consider families whose kids younger than age 5 aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Kids under 5 years old make up about 6.4% of D.C.’s population, according to U.S. Census data.

Bowser’s office didn’t respond to WTOP’s request for comment on some of the community’s criticism by the time this story was published.

Earlier this month, Bowser said the change to the mask guidance “does not mean that … everyone needs to stop wearing their mask, but it does mean that we’re shifting the government’s response to providing you this risk-based information and recommending layering strategies as the best way to protect yourself and the community.”

Health officials maintain the best way to protect young children is to surround them with fully vaccinated people, and that few kids get severely ill from the coronavirus. However, parents are still concerned.

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D.C. is experiencing “substantial” community transmission, according to the CDC, which advises people to wear masks indoors in areas of “substantial” or “high” community transmission, regardless of vaccination status.

Bowser’s decision has been criticized by several members of the D.C. Council, who sent her a letter last week asking that she reconsider, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said last week on NPR’s “Morning Edition” that removing mask requirements adds an element of risk.

Most recently, the D.C. State Board of Education issued a statement criticizing the decision, noting “the end to the mandate in much of the public sphere, but maintaining it in schools and child care settings, does not provide enough protection for children.”

Zachary Parker, the president of the board, who is also running for the Ward 5 D.C. Council seat, told WTOP that parents across the city’s eight wards have expressed frustration with the decision and would rather the indoor mask mandate be removed either after the winter or when vaccines are available for all children.

“Parents with young children under 5 have shared how they’re horrified about what this means, how this is likely to limit their ability to engage as a family and take advantage of resources throughout the city, knowing that this is likely going to provide free rein for folk and likely increase the spread of the virus,” Parker said.

That’s the fear of Ward 4 parent Alexandra Simbana, who caught the coronavirus in May 2020, was hospitalized for nine days and is still experiencing some residual symptoms.

Originally optimistic that she and her kids would be able have more social gatherings this winter, Simbana is now having second thoughts because of the change in the city’s mask requirements.

“When Dr. Fauci doesn’t even think it’s a good idea, you have to know what you’re doing is irresponsible,” Simbana said.

“And instead, this administration’s tactic is to just dig in and try to alter reality. The fact of the matter is every family is looking at this information religiously. We’re all making our own judgment calls.”

Ward 1 parent Becky Reina, whose 8- and 10-year-old kids have received their first vaccine doses, said Bowser’s decision doesn’t provide ample time for kids to be fully vaccinated. The CDC says people are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose in a two-dose series.

With many kids newly eligible, she said, there hasn’t been enough time allotted.

“Any exposures you have outside of school, COVID can make its way into schools,” Reina said. “Parents have given up so much in this pandemic, kids have given up so much. It kind of feels like a gut punch for the mask mandate to be dropped right now.”

Some D.C. businesses said they plan to continue asking customers to wear masks, and Bowser advised last week that it’s not the time to do away with masks altogether. But for some parents like Mooney Joseph, there’s too much uncertainty.

“Kids are home at night and on the weekend with their parents, and not everybody’s in a position where they can choose not to bring their children with them when they need to go to the grocery store,” Mooney Joseph said.

“When you’re removing these public health measures, and really leaving it up to the individuals, you’re just putting the onus on parents, who have already been through the hardest 18 months.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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