Riding down Valley Avenue, which runs perpendicular to Oxon Run Park, ANC 8C03 Commissioner Robbie Woodland saw a “massive crowd.” Woodland, who represents the Saint Elizabeths area, had previously contacted DC officials about large gatherings taking place without permits and in violation of the Mayor’s gathering limits.
Concert attendees had begun gathering in Oxon Run around late afternoon on July 25 and ANC 8E05 Commissioner Christopher Hawthorne, whose district covers a large portion of the park, had been fielding calls from his residents about it. Woodland and Hawthorne met up at the park which by then had a crowd of over 400 people, they estimated.
“Metropolitan Police Department] officers were there and they would not break it up. They would not enforce it,” Woodland said. “They told us they were only there to monitor it.”
Together, Hawthorne and Woodland walked through the park—Hawthorne filmed the crowd, for evidence of what was going on. Woodland said she had three masks on and was so afraid she “started shaking.” Hawthorne posted the video to social media.
This large gathering made local news, as some others have. In weeks following, when 22 people were shot at a gathering in Southeast, Hawthorne said that officials had been warned. But beyond events that make headlines, local officials and residents in Wards 7 and 8 said they’re seeing large gatherings and lack of mask-wearing in violation of the Mayor’s public health emergency orders—but no one is enforcing them.
The Mayor gave the MPD the authority to issue the potential penalties listed in her public health emergency orders in July. But the MPD has avoided punitive enforcement measures. An MPD spokesperson wrote in a statement that the MPD “has not made any arrests or issued fines for violations” of the Mayor’s July mask order.
Residents and local officials shared mixed reviews of the MPD’s enforcement strategy with East of the River. Most weren’t looking for officers to ‘lock people up’, suggesting other means of enforcing and encouraging social distancing, spanning from dispersal of crowds to preventative strategies.
The City’s Approach to Enforcement
In late June, when the city entered Phase 2 of its response to the COVID-19 public health emergency, gatherings of more than 50 people were prohibited. On July 22, Bowser extended the public health emergency and issued a mask order. Violations could bring penalties: charges could lead to prosecution, and fines could reach up to $1,000. The MPD was authorized to enforce the order for those over 18.
At a press conference on July 29, when a reporter asked the Mayor about large retailers declining to enforce the order, fearing for employees’ safety, Bowser resolutely said they should “call the police.”
But a new question emerged: what would they do?
The MPD’s strategy for enforcement has been oriented around “voluntary compliance.”At the start of DC’s pandemic response, the MPD spokesperson called it the department’s “desired goal” in a statement. “MPD continues to do our part to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our city by encouraging and educating the public on wearing masks and adhering to the Mayor’s orders,” the MPD spokesperson wrote. While they haven’t made arrests or issued fines under the current orders, the MPD did issue citations in response to six incidents, back when the Mayor’s order banned gatherings of 10 or more people.
On July 22, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) answered the question of who had the power to enforce her public health emergency orders: the MPD. When a reporter asked Bowser if she’d seen the video of the Oxon Run concert, the Mayor said a block party with more than 50 attendees is in violation of the city’s orders. “If you’re asking me is MPD going to be able to stop every intentional group of people and lock them all up, probably not,” she said, instead suggesting a “community response.”
“Let’s not act like we haven’t spent the past six weeks saying that the police shouldn’t lock up young Black people,” Bowser said.
When asked whether he was aware of how the MPD was instructed to enforce the mask mandate—whether there is a consistent protocol in enforcement—Ward 6 Councilman and Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety Charles Allen (D) told East of the River it was “pretty unclear” to him. Allen also said he didn’t see calling 911 for mask order violations as the “direction that we need to be going in.”
“From a public health perspective, we certainly need to have people comply with the order on masks and the physical distancing” Allen said. “How you enforce that, of course, is a very different story. I think that we always need to be looking for ways to enforce things, but do so in a way that doesn’t exacerbate underlying tensions,” Allen added. He later stressed the importance of finding out about events and contacting organizers beforehand “to stop the gathering from ever getting to 400 people in the first place.”
Ward 7 Councilman Vincent Gray (D) and Ward 8 Councilman Trayon White (D) were not available for comment.
“I think everyone should wear masks and I think its morally reprehensible to not wear masks, but I don’t agree that the government should force anyone to wear masks under threat of any form of sanction or punishment” said Patrice Sulton, the director of DC Justice Lab, an organization that researches and advocates for change in the District’s criminal justice system. Sulton said using punishment and incarceration in response to all social problems is affecting all areas of policy and regulation in DC
Social distancing isn’t being enforced where she lives, an Anacostia resident told East of the River. In a parking lot across from her home, gatherings she says exceed the 50-person limit occur regularly. “They party all day long, all night long,” she claimed. “We call the police. Nobody does anything.” She said MPD officers “just come and look. They might sit there for a while. And then they leave.”
Residents and local officials in Wards 7 and 8 who spoke with East of the River diverged in their views of how effectively the police are enforcing social distancing, whether they should be, and what other strategies the city could take. But most agreed that arrests weren’t the best approach, or at least shouldn’t be the first one taken.
Commissioner Hawthorne disagreed with the Mayor’s response to the reporter who asked her about the Oxon Run concert, explaining he understood what she was saying but thought it was a “weak excuse.” He wasn’t looking for the Mayor to lock people up—and nobody was asking for that, he said. But he did want the police to disperse the crowd. Hawthorne had told other news outlets he sought a “written protocol” for how officials would deal with large gatherings.
“As far as enforcement, as far as getting resources and literature out to the community, the message has [fallen] by the wayside,” Hawthorne claimed. “The positive tests are showing up here. But we’re getting less and less attention.”
ANC 8C07 Commissioner Salim Adofo, who represents Congress Heights, including parts of Oxon Run, said that there is not a consistent community view about MPD enforcement of social distancing. Some feel that amid months of being cooped up people should be allowed to have a bit of fun. Others expect compliance with the Mayor’s order. Of them, some seek police enforcement while others don’t want to see arrests.
Adofo supports enforcing the rules in the orders. His suggestion is a warnings system: a series of warnings that could lead to a citation. “We have to do what we think is in the best interest of everybody health-wise,” he said. “It’s not about the officer and the individual. It’s about the larger community.” Still, Adofo noted the importance of not tying up the courts or pushing people who can’t afford fines into debt.
ANC 8D04 Commissioner Monique Diop, whose district covers Bellevue, stressed personal responsibility and accountability over MPD enforcement. Diop said when she hosts events, she has a “COVID plan,” including a counting clicker and masks, and she emphasized the responsibility of organizers. “We can’t enforce everything so sometimes we have to enforce ourselves and just make good decisions about what to do, especially in this pandemic,” Diop said.
According to Diop, the MPD was responsive when 8D’s commissioners emailed 7th District captains in mid-August after they received calls from community members about word of a large upcoming community event in Oxon Run. The MPD reached out to people involved, she said, and before the event, they were there to tape it off. “They didn’t stop the event, but they did some preventive measures to keep it from getting out of hand,” she said.
ANC 7E03 Commissioner Ebbon Allen, who represents the Benning Park area, echoed Diop’s sentiment. He said “the community has to buy in as well,” and hold people violating the Mayor’s orders accountable.
The MPD has been “great” at communicating with him about large events, Allen said. But he highlighted the importance of a preventative strategy, disseminating literature conveying the significance of social distancing. “Everybody is not on social media and everybody doesn’t have access to electronic devices,” he said.
And from what he’s hearing from some of his residents, sometimes the MPD’s “actions don’t speak louder than words—as far as officers wearing masks themselves.”