DC officials defend decision to drop mask mandate: ‘Not changing course’

D.C. officials on Friday defended Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decision to end the District’s mask mandate, after a majority of the city’s council members asked for it to stay in place.

Starting Monday, Nov. 22, masks will no longer be required in many indoor spaces in D.C. But masks must still be worn in multiple settings, including schools, libraries, public transportation, ride-share vehicles and group-living facilities like nursing homes, dorms and jails. Private businesses will still be able to require customers to wear masks.

“I understand the concerns and anxieties,” City Administrator Kevin Donahue said during a call with council members, adding that D.C. is “not changing course for several reasons.”

“First, almost all COVID-related hospitalizations in the District are unvaccinated patients and COVID-related deaths in fully vaccinated people, at this point, are incredibly rare,” he said.

The city administrator said they’ve seen increasing numbers in vaccination rates: 87% of all eligible D.C. residents have had at least one shot and 68% are fully vaccinated, according to Donahue.

He added that D.C. Health’s website indicates that 99.3% of District residents 65 and older have received at least one shot. Among District residents 18 and older, almost 94% have received at least one shot and 74% are fully vaccinated.

D.C.’s decision to drop the mask mandate comes as neighboring Montgomery County in Maryland is reinstating theirs on Saturday.

Donahue said nearby Virginia counties don’t have mask mandates, nor do other Maryland counties.

“From what I understand, there are five states that do have a universal indoor mask mandate; there are 45 that don’t,” he said, adding that some have a mandate for unvaccinated people. “So there are differences … both nationally, as well as regionally.”

Patrick Ashley, with D.C. Health, said “public health is a science, but it also has some art to it.”

“And that art is really about balancing policy priorities and understanding what is the risk in the community. What (are) the behaviors that we are seeing in the community? Things that can’t necessarily be quantified by a metric.”

Ashley said D.C. is looking at the community with regards to behaviors and policies, as well as the overall approach to the mandate, not only metrics. He cited “whiplash” over Montgomery County’s loosening and then tightening of its mask mandate, saying, “It has caused some confusion.”

Ashley said the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance is a recommendation to wear masks indoors in areas of substantial transmission — not a mandate.

“It’s a ‘should,’ not a ‘shall.’ … And so what we’re saying now is not that we don’t support masks; we’re actually coming more into alignment with the CDC guidance, where we’re saying individuals should look at their risk and also should be wearing masks in the community,” Ashley said.

He added that he still wears a mask in public, as does D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt.

Ashley said it was about balancing “all of the different components of the public health response. And some of that public health response also has to do with consumer fatigue. We also know that while some feel very strongly about wearing mask, a large portion of the population feels very strongly about not wearing a mask. And so trying to balance all of that together is how we came to the decision that we did come to.”

At-Large Council member Elissa Silverman said she disagrees with the Bowser’s decision to end the mandate, given its broad scope.

“I think we should be protecting the most vulnerable and I do disagree with mayor’s approach here. I’m not disagreeing that there should be flexibility. I want to make that clear. But I do disagree that I think this way really puts some people at risk,” Silverman said.

At-Large Council member Robert White also questioned the decision, asking why the mandate is being lifted if the pandemic is still going on.

Ashley said the pandemic is in a “deceleration phase” and likened the presence of COVID-19 as being closer to the flu.

“At a certain point, masks have to come off, and interventions have to come down, because society has to continue … in its normal sense,” Ashley said.

Mary Cheh, who represents Ward 3 on the council, hit back against the decision:

“I just think that the timing for this was all wrong,” Cheh said. “I mean, we’re about to enter into this period of the holidays; people will be traveling. And the numbers are still not within … CDC guidelines about community spread. Then, at the same time, there is expectation of there being a surge as winter comes on.”

She cited the “roller coaster ride” in Montgomery County and said D.C. should have waited to drop the mandate until after the holidays.

“There was no reason that I can see, and every reason that I can see to the contrary, why we should have waited,” she said. “And the timing was bad.”

DC takes ‘conservative’ approach to child vaccinations

Ashley, with D.C. Health, said the District is taking “a very conservative approach” when it comes to getting children vaccinated against COVID-19 after students in Montgomery County, Maryland, as well as Loudoun County, Virginia, got the wrong doses.

He cited both incidents as examples “where mistakes have been made.”

“And so as such, we don’t commingle products in the same location right now,” Ashley said. “So that is to say that there is no adult Pfizer on site when we do 5- to 11-year-old clinics, just to make sure that we’re making sure that everything is safe.”

Ashley added that there is flexibility about where parents can get their child’s second dose of the vaccine, but “we’re asking people to return back to the first site at the same time, if possible, but we understand that that’s not always possible.”

More information about where to get vaccinated is online.

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. 

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor 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.

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