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Thursday, June 13, 2024

COVID-19 Restrictions Relaxed as DC Enters Phase 2

The District entered Phase 2 of reopening Monday, June 22, lifting many restrictions imposed on businesses and activities during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. At a press conference that day, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said residents should prepare for a potential spike in cases as restrictions are lifted. While more social activity is permitted — including the reopening of playgrounds, indoor dining, and many businesses previously deemed non-essential — residents should continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, and get tested if exposed to COVID-19, she said.

As of July 4, 10,482 District residents had tested positive for COVID-19, with 559 residents losing their lives to the disease.

The District set out six benchmarks required to move to Phase 2. These include a decrease in community cases; a positivity rate below 15 percent; use of fewer than 80 percent of hospital beds over a 14-day period; a transmission rate of less than one for every known infection for five days and contact tracing benchmarks for patients testing positive and their known contacts.

The District entered Phase 2 despite not meeting its goals for contact tracing, which are to contact 90 percent of new cases within a day and 90 percent of their close contacts within two days. As of June 20, DC Health agents had contacted 78 percent of new cases and just under 69 percent of their close contacts.

As of June 22, District officials have not commented on the decision to reopen despite not meeting this metric. At a press conference June 17, Mayor Muriel Bowser said that the city had only been able to monitor contact tracing for a short period.

“If the last two days is an indicator, we will be able to meet it [the contact tracing goal],” she said. “We have the number of people we need, and with the number of cases we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, we know we can hit those numbers.”

In explaining why the District moved towards Phase 2 despite appearing not to have met contact tracing benchmarks, DC Health Director Laquandra Nesbitt said that that there was a switch in the data-entry system used by the agency. That, in addition to the fact that data is reported on a two-day data lag, means that the public does not have access to all available data used by DC Health to determine trends.

In Phase 2, the maximum crowd size has been raised from 10 to 50, and gyms, spas and stores will be permitted to allow customers inside for the first time since March. Houses of worship may allow worship by as many as 100 people, or 50 percent of building capacity, whichever is less. Restaurants can open for indoor dining at 50 percent capacity, with tables placed at least six feet apart, and museums and gyms with five people permitted for every 1,000 square feet of space.

Phase 2 also expands available options for children. Child-care facilities can reopen with enhanced social distancing and hygiene. Camps and aftercare can reopen but with no more than ten students in indoor spaces. Playgrounds will also reopen in the District, with social distancing and hand washing highly recommended.

While children are likely to be excited by the opportunity to go to playgrounds and playdates again, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) urged parents use caution in a newsletter outlining Phase 2 changes. “If you have kids and they’re anything like mine, all the efforts to remind them about distancing seems to go out of mind when they’re having a blast playing and suddenly see a friend they’ve been missing for weeks and months,” he wrote.

District fields are open for casual play, but league play and high-contact sports, such as football and basketball, are still prohibited. Pools remain closed until after July 15, when they will open for structured activities like lap swimming and lessons. Spray parks remain closed, as do hookah and cigar lounges, night clubs and bars, hot tubs and steam rooms.

Both public and private museums and facilities such as the National Zoo have permission to reopen. Both the International Spy Museum and the Museum of the Bible opened with precautionary measures June 22. However, the Smithsonian museums remain closed, with in-person programs canceled through July 1.

As the District moves to Phase 2, many are already considering what is necessary to move to Phase 3. The Reopen DC Advisory Committee, convened to make recommendations to District government, defines Phase 3 as a state where there is only sporadic transmission of COVID-19. In that phase, gatherings could be permitted for up to 250 people with reduced capacities for indoor spaces. Remote work will still be encouraged, and most activities permitted with safeguards.

Recommendations from the DC ReOpen Committee are only advice, however. The District has not released any official information about what Phase 3 might look like. Asked at the June 22 press conference when the District government would issue metrics and when a move to the next phase could be contemplated, Bowser said she could not give a timeline. She said her personal opinion was that, as restrictions are lifted and people move around and encounter more people in Phase 2, the District needs to be prepared for a spike in cases.

“We’re adding a lot of activity right now,” she said, asking residents to continue to practice social distancing and other preventative measures and “not go crazy” as restrictions on activities are lifted. “As you go out, in starting to slowly turn your life on, you can encounter the virus anyplace –so you have to be very, very careful,” she said.

The Mayor has been clear in previous discussions that a spike in cases could force the District to move back to Phase 1 restrictions.

“We always have the ability to turn up or turn down our reopening,” Bowser said June 17.

You can see the Phase 2 Guidelines, including the full text of the Mayor’s order, by visiting https://coronavirus.dc.gov/phasetwo.

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