D.C.’s indoor mask mandate is scheduled to be lifted Monday, but members of the city council are concerned about the decision and are urging Mayor Muriel Bowser to reverse course and keep the mandate in effect as the holidays approach.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and several of his colleagues said in a letter to Bowser on Wednesday that lifting the mask mandate would place the District ahead of the of science, including the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The letter comes as public health officials in the D.C. region grapple with how to best handle indoor mask guidance while also promoting vaccination and protecting those not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
In its latest coronavirus data, D.C. reported a 2% positivity rate.
“Even though we are just slightly below the level of substantial community spread, we’re seeing that numbers are going up across the country, numbers are going up here in D.C. And prudence suggests we continue the mandate and avoid lifting it now and then maybe having to reinstate it in a few weeks,” Mendelson told WTOP, adding that the mayor’s action has been premature.
Council members pointed out that children over 5 years old only recently became eligible to be vaccinated, and that they will not be eligible for their second dose until three weeks after the first. They won’t be considered fully vaccinated until another two weeks after that.
In addition, children under 5, “one of the hardest to protect,” according to the letter, are still not able to get a vaccine.
“We are concerned that changing course entering the Winter months, not to mention the week before a major travel holiday, is not a prudent course of action,” the letter said.
When asked whether Bowser would consider the council’s request, a spokeswoman pointed to the guidance shared during a news briefing Tuesday, saying: “The Mayor and [DC Health Director] Dr. Nesbitt had an hour-long press conference yesterday explaining the mask mandate, data and new metrics.”
With the end of the mandate, Bowser said Tuesday, D.C. will shift to risk-based guidance from D.C. Health based on current health metrics and a person’s vaccination status.
“Now, I want to be very clear,” Bowser said Tuesday. “This 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.”
Masks will still be required in certain settings, regardless of vaccination status, including in private businesses that require them, public transportation, and public and congregate facilities.
Gyms and places of worship can require masks if they want to, but they aren’t mandated to.
In their letter, the council members cited what happened in neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, as a cautionary tale. Recently, the indoor mask mandate was imposed, retracted and reimposed, “causing whiplash-like confusion for residents.”
Mendelson said it would be great if all the jurisdictions in the D.C. area were doing the same thing.
Mendelson also said his understanding of the community’s reaction is that people are generally more comfortable with maintaining a mask mandate than with lifting it, and there’s a lot of “head-scratching going on” with Bowser trying to lift it.
He called ending the mask mandate a “proxy for whether we’re getting back to normal.”
Instead, the members of the council said the focus should be on getting every eligible person vaccinated.
“We all want to be back to normal. But, you know, wearing a mask is not that difficult. And you know, it’s not like people are going to be put in jail for not wearing a mask,” Mendelson said.
He instead suggests a uniform policy and continuing the practice and seeing where the numbers go during the holiday season.
“I think it’s reasonable to expect it, just the next couple of months are going to be like last year’s December and January, and we may very well see an increase in spread,” he said.
At-Large D.C. Council member Christina Henderson, who was one of three of the council’s 13 members who didn’t sign the letter, posted a statement on Twitter.
“I was surprised by the timing of the Mayor’s announcement to lift the mask mandate, as well as how broad it was,” Henderson said. “The lack of transparency and suddenness in the decision-making is frustrating.”
That said, Henderson said she did not support the call for reinstating the mask mandate.
Here’s my full statement on the Mayor’s recent announcement to rollback the DC mask mandate & why I didn’t join my colleagues on a letter yesterday: pic.twitter.com/HLRqMnSF8g
— Christina Henderson (@chenderson) November 18, 2021
WTOP’s Scott Gelman contributed to this report.
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