WASHINGTON (AP) — Mayor Muriel Bowser's decision to ease mask requirements in the nation's capital has sparked a public debate about timing, with the majority of the D.C. Council pleading with her to reconsider.
It's a localized debate that reflects a broader national dynamic in the country's virus-mitigation stance — with some leaders and businesses pushing for more normalcy after the successful reopening of schools and the others preaching caution against reckless pre-winter moves.
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.
Bowser has cautiously hailed the step as a “shift in where we are with the pandemic,” saying the return of the mask mandate earlier this year helped blunt the late-summer surge of the Delta variant.
The nation’s capital originally lifted its indoor mask requirement for fully vaccinated individuals in May, but reinstated it in late July as cases began to rise again. According to D.C. Health Department statistics, the current seven-day average of new cases — the department’s preferred metric — is higher than it was in May when the first mask requirement was lifted, but still well below the late-summer delta-variant peak in August and September.
Bowser's announcement brought a swift reaction. Within hours, D.C. Council member Robert White had tweeted, “Cold weather states showing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, CDC metrics show the district in the substantial spread zone, neighboring jurisdictions are moving to reinstate mask mandates as they see a surge in coronavirus cases, and our youngest residents still aren’t vaccinated. This is premature.”
White's objection can be taken with a grain of political salt, since he has already announced plans to run against Bowser in next year's mayoral race. But nine other members of the 13-member D.C. Council then publicly joined him in an open letter asking Bowser to rescind the change.
The council's letter states that D.C.'s virus mitigation policy so far has been “appropriately thoughtful, careful and protective of our residents.”
But it claims a number of factors render the planned relaxation worrisome: the upcoming winter weather, with multiple travel-heavy holidays; the fact that vaccinations for children under the age 12 has only been available for two weeks and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers which still classify the greater Washington area as a zone of substantial virus transmission.
Dropping the indoor mask policy now would “place the district ahead of the science,” the letter said. “We are concerned that changing course entering the winter months, not to mention a week before a major travel holiday, is not a prudent course of action. It sends a signal that public health concerns are back to normal when they are not.”
The White House also noted the CDC numbers and said it wouldn't be dropping its masking policy.
Efforts to contact multiple council members for comment were unsuccessful. But Bowser on Friday seemed unaffected by the criticism. Speaking on a popular local public affairs radio show, she never mentioned the council objections, and said the change won't have much impact on the daily lives of residents.
“We know that a lot of businesses will maintain their mask mandate and a lot of Washingtonians will continue to wear their mask,” she said. “Quite frankly, I don't expect many D.C. residents to change their current behavior. They are going to wear a mask going to a restaurant or a grocery store and they're likely to continue."
The council's letter to Bowser warned her against risking the sort of confusing back and forth experienced by neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, which lifted its indoor mask requirement three weeks ago and is now set to reinstate it starting Saturday in the face of rising infection numbers.
Ashraf Khalil , The Associated Press