D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s recent announcement about the end of the District’s indoor mask mandate sparked concern among other elected officials and city residents who believe D.C.’s still not out of the throes of a pandemic that has infected and killed thousands of people.
On a recent edition of “The Politics Hour with Kojo Nnamdi,” Bowser addressed their apprehension while expressing her willingness to remain covered, even without a mandate that binds people to this specific layer of protection.
“I will likely continue to wear a mask inside because it has kept me safe [during] the last 20 months. I responded to COVID-19 and came home to my child who’s not eligible for vaccination,” Bowser told Nnamdi and Tom Sherwood on November 19.
“The responses to the pandemic have been stressful but our businesses are looking for flexibility. People want to come into offices but they don’t want to wear masks all day. We’re at a phase with high levels of vaccination and growing. We’re shifting the guidance,” she said.
On Nov. 16, Bowser, with DC Department of Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt by her side, announced the District’s indoor mask mandate would expire on November 22. Masks would still be required in private businesses that require them, on public transportation and in ride-share vehicles, dorms, schools, childcare facilities, libraries, nursing homes, correctional facilities and D.C. government buildings where employees interact with the public.
Bowser cited high vaccination rates among District residents as a key impetus. As of November 20, 63.5 percent of District residents have been fully vaccinated while nearly 82 percent have received at least one dose. Children under the age of five, for whom no approved vaccine exists, count among a significant portion of residents not yet vaccinated.
On November 17, 10-of-13 D.C. council members, including mayoral hopefuls Robert White (D-At large) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8), signed a letter appealing for a reversal of Bowser’s order.
Hours after Bowser announced the change, At-large Councilmember White took to Twitter to question whether her decision would minimize the risk of spread. At-large Councilmember Christina Henderson (I), who didn’t sign the letter, made similar comments online. The actual correspondence included various points for consideration that appeared on social media just moments after Bowser’s announcement.
“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. “It sends a signal that public health concerns are back to normal when they are not. Our focus should be on getting every eligible person vaccinated, not gambling with the safety of the most vulnerable.”
On November 18, the District reported 139 new positive COVID-19 cases. Several days later, neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, re-imposed its indoor mask mandate amid a rise in COVID-19 cases. County Executive Marc Elrich (D) reportedly criticized Bowser’s move as premature and said more of a focus should be on vaccinating young people.
Local business owner Shirikiana Gerima said they will continue to impose the indoor mask mandate at Sankofa Video Books & Café in Northwest despite the conflict that will soon ensue from the lack of citywide protection.
“When the city slacks on its mandate, leaving it up to the business to decide if masks must be worn, we may find it harder to enforce,” Gerima said. “So far most people have been willing to comply. We give out masks for free to make it easier. But we have had a few adamant customers. The city mandate helped to take some of the enforcement weight from our shoulders.”