Just days after District officials reported its first case of the novel coronovirus, the city declared a public health state of emergency Wednesday.
The heightened level of scrutiny has, for the time being, brought large public social and cultural gatherings — indoor and outdoor alike — to a halt.
As Dr. LaQuandra S. Nesbitt of the D.C. Department of Health has stressed, such measures have been intended to quell the spread of the life-threatening virus at a time when much of the world is reeling from what the World Health Organization has designated a global pandemic.
“We made a recommendation of nonessential mass gatherings for a group of a thousand or more at a specific location to be postponed or canceled through March 31,” Nesbitt told reporters Wednesday.
“As we collect guidance, we want [people hosting] nonessential activities [of less than a thousand people] to have a consideration of how to postpone,” she said. “This is a recommendation that we want organizations to take seriously. The current advisory gives us a chance to flatten the curve. It’s a rapidly evolving situation.”
As of Wednesday, 10 local coronavirus cases have been reported, including two men, ages 38 and 59, who traveled to a level-three country on separate occasions.
A 58-year-old woman who contracted the virus had also traveled to a high-risk country while a 39-year-old made contact at a large public gathering with someone who tested positive. A 24-year-old man — the youngest among the group mentioned by Nesbitt — had no known exposure before health officials determined that he, too, had contracted the coronavirus.
Some of those diagnosed with the coronavirus had traveled from Ohio, New York, Los Angeles and Toronto to attend the AIPAC conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest earlier this month.
Symptoms of the coronavirus include severe difficulty breathing, fever, runny nose and coughing. Cases worldwide have surpassed 115,000, including more than 1,000 in the United States. Experts recommend that people avoid contact with the sick, wash their hands and abstain from touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
Since Saturday, when a rector at Christ Church of Georgetown tested positive for the coronavirus, Mayor Muriel Bowser had alluded to the possibility of a public health emergency earlier this week. As members of the Northwest-based church started their period of self containment, various D.C.-based offices took similar precautions.
On Monday, School Without Walls High School closed for the day and custodians deeply cleaned the building upon the realization that an employee had been exposed to the coronavirus. D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Lewis Ferebee later announced the cancellation of DCPS-sponsored international study tours that had been scheduled for up until May 1.
Early next week, teachers across the D.C. public school system will meet during a professional staff development day to further discuss prevention efforts.
The D.C. Council has also followed suit, with Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) announcing that he and his colleagues will spend next week’s Committee of the Whole meeting planning how to further enable Bowser to carry out her plans. The mayor said taking the proper precautions helps prevent future catastrophe.
In a public statement, Events DC announced the suspension of large gatherings and activities up until the date recommended by the D.C. Department of Health. In the interim, officials will facilitate deep cleanings of the Washington Convention Center, Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast, and the D.C. Armory and R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center, both of which are also in Southeast.
“We are making it clear that science tells us that mass gatherings over a thousand doesn’t help our goal of flattening the curve,” Bowser told reporters. “We’re pulling permits for public events. The organizers are fine with that and we should further discussions with our [social and cultural] institutions to give them information they need to keep D.C. safe.
“We’re constantly evaluating and it’s a fluid situation,” the mayor said. “We’ll come back to you if we have more information.”