Majority of D.C. Council opposes Bowser's decision to drop mask mandate D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced this week that she would be dropping the city's indoor mask mandate, effective Monday. Masks will still be required in certain public settings.
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Majority of D.C. Council opposes Bowser's decision to drop mask mandate

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has received pushback from members of the D.C. Council over her decision to drop the city's mask mandate. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Ten members of the D.C. Council sent a letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Wednesday, urging her to reverse her recent decision to drop the city's mask mandate.

"We are concerned that this decision would place the District ahead of the science, including continuing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that still recommends that masking indoors is the safest way to protect everyone from COVID-19 exposure," the letter said, adding that "even the White House will maintain its mandate."

The letter questioned the timing of the decision, right as D.C. heads into the winter months and the week before Thanksgiving when many residents will be traveling.

"It sends a signal that public health concerns are back to normal when they are not," the councilmembers wrote.

The letter also pointed out that children between the ages of 5 and 11 became eligible for vaccines on Nov. 2, which means that no one in that age group will be fully vaccinated by the time the new mask rules take effect. Children under 5 years old are not yet eligible for vaccines.

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Under the city's new mask policy, which goes into effect on Monday, Nov. 22, people will still be required to wear masks in certain settings, regardless of vaccination status — like schools and childcare facilities, libraries, public transportation, and congregate facilities. Private businesses will also maintain the authority to enforce their own mask mandates. Bowser has not ruled out the possibility of reimposing an indoor mask mandate, but said during her announcement of the policy Tuesday that "hopefully that won't happen."

Bowser and D.C. Health director LaQuandra Nesbitt said dropping the mask mandate was part of a new approach the city is taking to the pandemic, where residents must individually calibrate their vulnerability to the virus based on their vaccination status and other risk factors.

"We are learning to live with COVID...and the other part of that is, the world is not necessarily set up for the unvaccinated anymore," Nesbitt said during Tuesday's announcement.

As of Wednesday, an estimated 63% of D.C.'s population was fully vaccinated, according to D.C. Health data.

In response to the letter, Bowser said Thursday that she would be "happy to talk to any members of the Council at any time," and also said she had been asked several times by councilmembers when she would be dropping the mask mandate.

"Sometimes you have to make tough decisions," Bowser told reporters Thursday. "What we've done is exactly what happened in the Virginia counties surrounding us back in June — is to say that we don't have a mask mandate, but we will have health recommendations. So you should think of this as going from a mandate to a recommendation ... and those recommendations will be based on levels of risk."

The councilmembers who signed the letter raised concerns that D.C. could be like Montgomery County, which recently dropped its mask mandate only to reimpose it a couple weeks later, causing what they called "whiplash-like confusion for residents." The letter suggested that if city leadership is looking for more flexibility for certain businesses like gyms, then it should look at "surgical approaches" where the mask mandate would be loosened in certain circumstances. (Local fitness studios have been asking the city to let them require proof of vaccination for entry in lieu of a mask mandate.)

The letter said the city's focus should be on boosting vaccination rates — "not gambling with the safety of the most vulnerable."

Bowser has also named boosting vaccination rates as a priority. "We continue to make progress on increasing our vaccination rates, and [we] emphasize again that vaccines remain our most effective tool in our toolkit for ending the pandemic," Bowser said during her announcement of the new mask policy on Tuesday.

Ten of the D.C. Council's 13 members signed the letter opposing the decision to drop the mandate. The three who didn't sign were at-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen.

Allen wrote in a statement to DCist/WAMU that while he does not support lifting the mandate, he declined to sign the letter to avoid politicizing "what should be a public health decision first." The councilmember also said that if the mayor holds firm in lifting the mandate, he hopes her office "takes steps to ensure that the District will help businesses enforce vaccination or mask mandates that they choose to impose."

Pinto said she was supportive of vaccine and mask mandates in general.

"I have supported vaccine and mask mandates in our city and continue to believe masks should be required in certain settings like schools, child care centers, and public transportation," wrote Pinto in an emailed statement. "As workers return to the office and we encourage visitors to come to DC, businesses should be allowed to implement vaccine and mask requirement[s] for their customers and workers. I encourage residents to continue to follow CDC guidelines and mask up in large congregate settings."

And Henderson said in a statement that she wanted decisions from the Mayor's office to be less sudden and more data-driven.

"For months I have been calling on the Mayor to provide the metrics underpinning the mask mandate, so we could anticipate the eventual wind down. I was surprised by the timing of the Mayor's announcement to lift the mask mandate, as well as how broad it was," Henderson wrote in an emailed statement. She said the decision-making's "lack of transparency" and "suddenness" was "frustrating," but said she didn't sign the letter because "I did not support the call for a full reversal without any exceptions."

Henderson said she was glad to see the mask mandate continuing in settings like schools, childcare centers, and congregate living settings, and said she supported a mask requirement for unvaccinated individuals entering private businesses.

"As I have been saying for the past year, we need clear communication and transparency in data and decision-making if we want to save lives during this pandemic," wrote Henderson. "This was a missed opportunity to do just that."

Two of Bowser's challengers in next year's mayoral race —Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White and at-Large Councilmember Robert White — signed on to the letter opposing her decision.

"Cold weather states showing an uptick in Covid cases, CDC metrics show DC in the substantial spread zone, neighboring jurisdictions are moving to reinstate mask mandates as they see a surge in Covid cases, and our youngest residents still aren't vaccinated," said Robert White on Twitter. "This is premature."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the District's COVID-19 test positivity rate is low — at just over 1% — but the city is in a phase of "substantial" COVID-19 transmission, reporting 86 cases per 100,000 residents over the last 7 days. The CDC has advised that fully vaccinated people mask up in public indoor settings if they live in a region with "substantial" or "high" COVID-19 transmission. Unvaccinated people, who are at substantially higher risk for serious cases of COVID-19, are advised to mask up in public indoor settings regardless of the level of community transmission.

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