DC businesses won’t need to check for proof of vaccine; mask requirements getting dialed back

D.C. is lifting its requirement that city businesses check patrons for proof of vaccination against COVID-19 starting Tuesday, Mayor Muriel Bowser said.

Businesses can choose to keep vaccination requirements in place.

“We are in a much better place now,” Bowser said during a Monday briefing.

In addition, with the indoor mask mandate expiring Feb. 28, the District is relaxing indoor mask requirements starting March 1.

Citing dramatic drops in COVID cases — Bowser said cases have dropped more than 90% and there has been a 95% reduction in hospitalizations since the omicron wave — masks won’t be required in restaurants and bars, sports and entertainment venues, gyms or businesses, the mayor said.

Masks will still be needed in buildings like schools, child care facilities and libraries, however.

Testing protocols in D.C. schools will also remain in place. And the vaccine requirement for District employees and health care workers also remains.

Asked if the moves could be premature considering how unpredictable the virus is, Bowser said they’re not.

“What we know is that we have to be nimble, if something should change, like it changed in December, with a new, very contagious variant,” the mayor said.

“I don’t think any of us can say here that there won’t be other variants that would require us to do something different. So just like when omicron presented itself, we adjusted our approach.”

Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau said the city’s handling of the pandemic has felt “like a roller coaster,” noting that late last year Bowser ended the indoor mask requirement before having reimpose it during the omicron surge.

D.C.’s vaccine mandate, Nadeau said, has enabled residents and visitors to feel safer “to go out to dinner, to go out for drinks, to go to the movies, to go shopping, because they haven’t had to worry about whether other people in that space are vaccinated.”

Monday’s announcement is particularly concerning, Nadeau said, because vaccines haven’t been rolled out for children younger than 5.

“Let’s get the kids vaccinated and talk about [lifting the vaccine requirement],” Nadeau said. “Let’s eradicate omicron and talk about it. But then, we need to prepare for the next variant. … We just don’t know what’s coming down the road.”

At-Large Council member Robert White, who’s running for mayor, also slammed the move.

“The vaccine mandate is working. Cases are just starting to go down and ending it now is premature,” White wrote on Twitter. “The vaccine mandate made it possible for many families, including mine, to feel a little comfort and calmed the anxiety of frontline workers and immunocompromised folks.”

In a statement, Kathy Hollinger, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, praised the move.

“We are pleased with the Mayor’s decision to lift the mandate recognizing that in doing so it will allow more flexibility for local businesses to determine what makes the most sense for the health and safety of employees, guests and operations, which they have always been dedicated to, and especially over the past two years,” Hollinger said.

David Dowdy, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that while vaccine mandates have historically been effective, “the epidemiological value of these mandates probably is declining over time.”

“There’s an important message to be sent … that getting these vaccines is one way that we protect our society against future waves and against serious illness moving forward,” Dowdy said.

Hospitalization and mortality rates are “still much higher” among unvaccinated people, he said.

Angela Franco, president of DC Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the ease in restrictions.

“We have seen that having the vaccine requirement really affected some of our businesses, so I think this is going to help them increase sales and really get people out,” said Franco.

Most businesses, Franco said, are welcoming the freedom to decide whether to enforce their own safety measures. The DC Chamber of Commerce will still require proof of vaccination when holding in person events.

James Warner, owner of City-State Brewing, said he disagrees with Bowser’s decision.

His staff has decided to keep restrictions requiring masks and proof of vaccination in place for this week and will reevaluate their next move.

“It was very sudden,” he said, referring to the easing in restrictions. “Our lead brewer is out right now, and we want to protect our staff and we want to protect the public.”

He said with no vaccine for kids, including his 1-year-old daughter, he continues to have concerns.

Separately, testing at D.C. firehouses will cease Feb. 26, Bowser announced Monday. Instead, residents can get tested at the city’s COVID Centers.

Bowser and D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt continued to push residents to get vaccinated.

WTOP’s Melissa Howell and Scott Gelman contributed to this report.

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.

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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