D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, speaking during a recent press conference, asked business owners to call police to enforce the coronavirus mask order. (Courtesy of WUSA)
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, speaking during a recent press conference, asked business owners to call police to enforce the coronavirus mask order. (Courtesy of WUSA)

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Since D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) mandated the wearing of masks and continuation of social distancing protocols, members of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) have engaged the public and encouraged adherence to the orders, albeit not to the degree that some concerned residents have found effective.

In the aftermath of a mass shooting that claimed one life and injured more than 20 people, including an off-duty police officer, demands have intensified for the mayor and local authorities to penalize organizers of large outdoor functions taking place during the public health emergency.

Just hours after gunfire near 33rd Street and Dubois Place in Southeast brought the annual EAT (Elevate All the Time) Block Party to a tragic end, MPD Chief Peter Newsham stressed that the party, which was heavily promoted on social media, shouldn’t have happened.

“There were certainly [was] too many people out there, you know with the COVID-19. We can’t tolerate these types of gatherings in our city during COVID-19,” Newsham told reporters during a press conference on Sunday morning.

“It’s just too dangerous,” he said. “[An off-duty police officer] is struggling for her life at a local hospital.”

Bowser’s new COVID-19 mandate, which carries a fine of $1,000, materialized amid a resurgence of the positive cases across the nation, and incidents of gun violence ravaging pockets of the District. The mandate, in effect until early October, compels the wearing of a mask upon leaving one’s residence and when likely to come in contact with another person. It also authorizes the revocation of licenses and permits for public establishments that don’t enforce the mayor’s orders.

Even with these penalties in place, residents said the mayor’s orders don’t guarantee strong street-level enforcement.

In the weeks since Bowser’s announcement, MPD officers reportedly have been seen observing large outdoor gatherings, where clusters of congregants sometimes numbering in the hundreds go without masks, much to the chagrin of neighbors pushing for the dispersal of crowds.

Last month, when asked about strengthening enforcement, Bowser alluded to anti-police fervor as a key factor in MPD’s seemingly soft approach. She later suggested that ANC commissioners and other local leaders leverage their relationships with constituents to encourage social distancing and the wearing of masks.

This press conference exchange transpired after the release of an email in which an MPD official told an ANC commissioner that MPD has little power in enforcing the mayor’s orders. MPD didn’t answer The Informer’s inquiry about how officers are required to uphold the new orders issued by Bowser, or how many people have been found in violation since her July 22 announcement.

ANCs Try Their Hand

Some local elected officials, including ANC Commissioner Christopher Hawthorne, have expressed a desire to collaborate with local public health organizations to drive home the dangers of not taking the pandemic seriously, particularly to young people.

Without strong enforcement from MPD, however, Hawthorne argues that much of what he or anyone else says remains null and void. He also recalled often seeing officers on patrol standing by while large groups coalesce in public places. Such was the case during the latter part of last month in Southeast’s Oxon Run Parkway during a gathering that the ANC commissioner said drew swathes of people and incited fury among his elderly constituents.

“We have a younger generation that doesn’t believe the COVID pandemic exists. They travel in and out of the community spreading the coronavirus, among the old and the young,” said Hawthorne, who represents single-member district 8E05, which includes parts of Oxon Run Parkway and portions of the Washington Highlands community.

“There’s no written protocol to help D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser enforce her orders,” Hawthorne said. “I don’t think she or the D.C. Council is taking this seriously. If they were, they would stop some of the gatherings in our neighborhood and in upper Northwest. People are allowed to corral around Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues. This is why we’re not getting out of the phased openings.”

On Saturday, the night of the annual EAT Block Party, the DC Department of Health reported an additional 100 positive coronavirus cases, bringing the city’s total number of cases to more than 12,750. Nearly 600 people have died from the virus, including an elderly man who died this weekend. Since March, more than 20 percent of COVID-19 cases were documented in communities east of the Anacostia River.

Hawthorne and ANC Commissioner Robbie Woodland, both of whom have since met with MPD Seventh District Commander Andre Wright, U.S. Park Police, and other relevant parties, said the July 26 gathering at Oxon Run Parkway attracted several hundreds, featured New Impressionz Band as the headline act and lasted hours after the public area was scheduled to close.

That event followed similar functions last month during which participants honored the late Karon Brown and hosted fireworks displays. Hawthorne and Woodland said that few people wore masks or practiced social-distancing protocols during those gatherings, one of which D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) attended. They described such actions as a recipe for disaster during a time when Ward 8 residents are reeling from the underlying conditions exacerbating their susceptibility to COVID-19.

Questions to be Answered

As recounted by Woodland, a teleconference involving her, Hawthorne, MPD, and the U.S. Park Police ended with the agreement that a special team of MPD officers would dole out tickets to people found in the park violating certain rules, like possessing an open container of alcohol.

Much to Woodland’s disappointment however, the meeting ended without clarity around who would enforce the mask and social distancing orders, or at least ask large crowds of people to disperse from public places.

“There’s been some back and forth about who’s supposed to enforce the mayor’s orders. It seems like we need to have this conversation, and answer this question in two weeks,” Woodland, whose single-member district includes Mississippi Avenue and the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, told The Informer.

“Let’s have a protocol,” Woodland added. “The only thing we came up with is that we would have a task force to check out the parks and they would be able to ticket people for trespassing. When it comes to breaking up these large events, we don’t have a clue. We hope that MPD, DPR, and others would.”

Sam P.K. Collins photo

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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