American, Howard Hold Virtual Graduations
COVID-19 Cases Reach 60,832 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of yesterday morning, 6,102 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 311 deaths; there have been 31,534 cases in Maryland with 1,510 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 23,196 cases with 827 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
Both American and Howard universities held virtual graduation ceremonies on Saturday. The coronavirus has stopped in-person commencement ceremonies, at least for now, but local universities and high schools have found creative ways to continue marking the occasion. “While I’m disappointed that we cannot be together in Bender Arena, today is still a celebration of you,” said American University President Sylvia Burwell, kicking off the university’s 139th commencement digitally. Renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. received an honorary degree from American and gave the commencement address. While students didn’t get to walk across the stage, American will host an in-person ceremony in December, Burwell said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the usual in-person festivities this year, but it cannot extinguish the Howard family’s pride in our graduating seniors,” reads the invitation to Howard’s online ceremony, which streamed on YouTube and was shown on WHUT. Howard plans to invite students back the same weekend next year to walk across the stage.
Arlington County will open its first walk-up coronavirus testing site on Tuesday at the Arlington Mill Community Center, 909 S. Dinwiddie St. The county is working with Virginia Hospital Center and Arlington Free Clinic to administer the tests. The site will be open 1-5 p.m. weekdays. “Arlington is committed to assuring everyone in our community has access to the testing they need during this pandemic,” said dr. Reuben Varghese, the county’s public health director, in a statement. “This is an important partnership that will help our more vulnerable or low-income groups who do not have access to cars to walk up and get tested.” Patients wanting to bet tested must get a clinical referral and make an appointment by calling 703-558-5786 to go to the site. Health insurance is not required.
Beginning May 15, Virginia is expected to allow places of worship to reopen at half their normal capacity, as long as local jurisdictions agree. The Catholic Diocese of Arlington is planning additional measures to keep people safe from the coronavirus. “The use of face coverings and hand sterilization are recommended as a critical part of our gradual reintegration,” Bishop Michael Burbidge said in a video Friday. A reintegration working group made up of pastors, medical experts, public health professionals and others is helping him decide what other changes or restrictions will be needed. More details will be released next week. “Diocesan guidelines will include limiting the number of persons allowed per mass, maintaining social distance and providing for an active cleaning schedule,” Burbidge said. He cautioned that the ability to partly reopen churches and celebrate mass may vary from parish to parish. Parishioners who are 60 years old and older and those with underlying health conditions are being asked to consider staying home because they are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Since churches will not yet be able to fully reopen, parishes will be asked to continue to livestream mass.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Friday warned about prematurely reopening the city after the city recorded the most COVID-19 fatalities in one day and one of the biggest spikes in infections. “These numbers are indeed sobering,” said Bowser, referring to the 19 new deaths and 245 new coronavirus cases. “I want to be very clear: We know that when our economy reopens in our jurisdiction, this region and around the country without a vaccine or a cure, we will see increased infections and we will see increases in loss of life. So these are very important decisions we have to make and decisions that need to be based in science and not political expediency.” Her comments come as the governors of Virginia and Maryland have announced plans to start reopening parts of their states. Bowser said she will not announce whether she will extend D.C.’s restrictions until closer to their May 15 expiration. She has signaled that the restrictions are likely to continue, with perhaps some exceptions for limited services. She said at a news conference Friday that reopening restaurants while COVID-19 deaths are rising “makes no sense.” D.C. has more protective equipment, testing kits, contact tracers and hospital capacity since the pandemic reached the city two months ago, Bowser said. She emphasized that the city also needs to adapt parts of everyday life, such as schooling and dining out, to keep the virus at bay. “We recognize that opening up is going to allow for more spread of infection, and without a cure or a vaccine, we have to do everything that we can with how we operate to mitigate the spread of the virus.” She added that the city felt vindicated in planning for the worst by using a model that shows hospitalizations peaking in summer because not everyone would comply with social distancing measures. “You are seeing updates to a lot of models now that account for social distancing that is, how can I say, less strictly adhered to,” Bowser said.
Virginia businesses will still face extreme restrictions under the Phase I reopening that Gov. Ralph Northam expects to authorize on May 15. Movie theaters and indoor gyms will remain closed and restaurants will be allowed to offer limited sit-down outdoor dining to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Northam released details Friday of his “Forward Virginia” plan to slowly roll back restrictions that could be in place by the end of next week if health data continue to show a declining rate of new coronavirus infections. “Forward Virginia will slowly and deliberately ease some of the restrictions, but not all,” Northam said. The state’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people will remain in place until June 10, but it will be waived to allow nonessential retailers to reopen at half capacity. Customers will have to keep at least six feet apart, and meeting rooms, fitting rooms or other enclosed spaces will remain closed. Employees who deal with customers will be required to wear face coverings, and the general public will be strongly encouraged to wear masks as well. Restaurants will be able to offer outdoor dining if they are already licensed for it. And that will be restricted to half capacity, with guests at least six feet apart and any game areas or playgrounds closed. No indoor dining will be allowed, and restaurants will have to use single-use, disposable menus. All indoor gyms and sports or recreation centers will stay closed, but may offer limited outdoor classes. There will also be requirements for disinfecting equipment. Outdoor basketball and racquetball courts will still be closed, as will seating areas around swimming pools. Outdoor pools can reopen for lap swimming, with one person per lane. Beaches will stay closed for everything except exercise and fishing. Hair and nail salons can reopen, but must operate by appointment only, with one customer per service provider, at least six feet between stations and at half capacity. Providers and customers must wear masks, so no beard trimming or lip waxing. The phase is expected to last about three weeks before moving to a slightly more permissive Phase 2. “This is not like we’re flipping a switch and saying, ‘It’s time for everybody to go back to their lives as they knew them before covid-19,’ ” Northam said. “We’re taking a dimmer switch and just turning up the intensity as we can and as the numbers will allow.”
Prince George’s County hospitals are still experiencing an influx of critically ill patients, and the county is not yet ready to consider reopening, even if the rest of the state does. County health officer Earnest L. Carter said Friday that there are 256 COVID-19 patients in the county’s five hospitals, compared with 125 a month ago. He said the intensive care units at four of the five hospitals are more than 70% full and there has been a 52% increase in COVID-19 patients using acute care beds in the past two weeks. An average of nine county residents die of COVID-19 each week, Carter said. “Our hospital systems are still experiencing a surge of COVID patients. It has been that way for a month now,” Carter said at a news conference. “Our curve has not flattened. I want to make that clear.” County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks said about 5,000 tests are done weekly in the county, a figure she called “simply inadequate.” She said the number should be closer to 15,000. Alsobrooks, who has requested 90,000 tests from the state, said she spoke with Gov. Larry Hogan Thursday, and he assured her that the county would receive some of the 500,000 tests he bought from South Korea, but she said that that has not yet happened. Asked whether Prince George’s County would be ready to ease some restrictions next week, Alsobrooks said: “We are not quite there yet.” Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said Friday the governor supports local leaders making decisions that are best for their residents, particularly in areas where there are large numbers of infections. Alsobrooks said Prince George’s will open a county-run quarantine site at a local hotel where residents who cannot safely quarantine at home can stay. She said officials are still working out capacity for the site, and that residents will have to be referred by a nurse and meet certain criteria, including having a family member who is over 65 or has underlying health conditions.
Of the top 20 ZIP codes with the highest infections in Virginia, the majority are in Northern Virginia, including Woodbridge, Arlington, Manassas and Alexandria. The Virginia Department of Health released COVID-19 data by ZIP code Friday. Northern Virginia is more densely populated, which accounts for some of the high numbers. But state Sen. Scott Surovell, who represents parts of Fairfax and Prince William Counties, said the ZIP codes revealed the virus has affected different populations in Northern Virginia unevenly. He said five of the top 20 ZIP codes for COVID fell in his district, and they were concentrated in low-income neighborhoods around Route 1. In the two ZIP codes with the highest numbers — both in Woodbridge — Latinos make up about 30% of the population; black or African American residents comprise between a quarter to a third of the population. “What is says to me is that people who have had to keep working over the last eight weeks have much higher infection rates than everyone else,” he said. “Most of the low income, minority workers who live in the Route 1 corridor can’t telecommute.”
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to contain it pushed the country’s unemployment rate soaring to a record 14.7% in April. Unemployment levels that high have not seen since the Great Depression in 1948, according to numbers released Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The impact is affecting all groups, but women, teenagers and Hispanics have been hit the hardest. Unemployment reached 13% for adult men, 15.5% for adult women and 31.9% for teenagers. The unemployment rate among hispanics was 18.9% in April, compared to 16.7% of blacks workers and 14.2% of whites. Hospitality and leisure bore the brunt of the pandemic’s economic impact, with unemployment in those sectors plummeting 47% last month.
Beginning this weekend, part of Arlington Road in Bethesda will be closed to motor vehicles to increase outdoor recreation space. The closure, from the intersection of Little Falls Parkway to Kenwood Forest Lane, began at 9:00 a.m. Friday and continues until 6:00 p.m. Sunday. It will be closed every weekend in coordination with the Little Falls parkway closure. “Making this area available for outdoor recreation will increase the opportunity for the public to get outside while adhering to the COVID-19 distancing guidelines and should not have negative impacts on surrounding residents and businesses,” said Montgomery County Department of Transportation Director Chris Conklin in a press release. “We will continue to work with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to complement parkways made available for walking and biking and to explore whether this is a viable strategy to address needs in other locations.” The road closure will be clearly marked with detour signs and is not expected to cause major disruption to local residents and businesses.
Antibody testing for COVID-19 could start through D.C.’s public health lab next week. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of D.C. Health, said Friday that the city is taking the final steps to roll out the tests, which would be used to detect the presence of antibodies that could indicate that a person was infected with COVID-19 at some point. Given the slow ramp-up of traditional coronavirus testing, antibody testing could help better understand how extensive the spread of the virus has been. A study published this week said antibodies have been found in people who had COVID-19, although there are questions about what type of immunity those antibodies could include and how long it lasts. Nesbitt said late last month that city health officials were waiting for a more accurate test before using it in the city. D.C. has acquired tests from Italian manufacturer DiaSorin and could also eventually start using a test made by Abbott, manufacturer of a rapid-result COVID-19 test in widespread use across the country. Nesbitt said that while antibody testing will be available to the general public, city officials want to prioritize health care workers, first responders and people in congregate settings who are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19.
Oscar nominated actress Taraji P. Henson, a 1988 graduate of Oxon Hill High School, will anchor a county-wide “eGraduation Celebration” for Prince George’s County graduates at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 30. Prince George’s County Public Schools announced the virtual graduation, which will be shown on WJLA 24/7 (formerly News Channel 8), on Friday. Henson starred in the recently concluded drama Empire on Fox. Her work also includes 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, Hidden Figures, Hustle & Flow and Baby Boy. The televised celebration will honor about 8,000 seniors at 31 traditional, public charter and alternative high schools. “I know this doesn’t make up for not being walk across the stage,” said schools CEO Monica Goldson in a news release. “The Board of Education and I promise to do everything in our power to give you that moment once these restrictions are lifted.” Also appearing in the eGraduation will be singer-songwriter Kenny Lattimore, a graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Joe Haden, a graduate of Friendly High School in Fort Washington; WPGC morning host and Seat Pleasant, Md., native Joe Clair; and WHUR-FM news anchor Taylor Thomas, a graduate of the University of Maryland. WJLA 24/7 can be found on channels Comcast 808, Fios 508, DirecTV and Dish Network 8 or over the air on channel 7.2. It will also air at noon on Sunday, May 31, on WJLA ABC7.
Amtrak will restore some passenger rail service between D.C. and New York in June, restoring three weekday Acela roundtrips in what would be the company’s first step toward returning to normal operations. Northeast Regional service will increase from eight to 10 roundtrips a day. The Acela will return to operation June 1, Amtrak said. Acela trains have been suspended since the company began to operate on limited schedules due to low demand during the coronavirus health crisis. Railroad officials said they are starting to see “renewed interest in travel,” and specifically demand for Acela service, a popular option for business travelers between the nation’s capital, New York and Boston. “We are dedicated to doing everything possible to return service safely. We want everyone to feel comfortable as they navigate this new normal,” Amtrak President and CEO Bill Flynn said in a statement.
Maryland is looking to reopen courthouses to the public beginning June 8. However, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Maryland Court of Appeals on Thursday cautioned the General Assembly during a Zoom meeting that “even if that dates holds, I assure you” the judicial system will not be conducting “business as usual.” She said administrators have been devising a “multi-phased” process by which courts would return to a semblance of normalcy if the coronavirus pandemic sufficiently abates. Without offering details, she told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that reopening buildings to the public would involve “leveraging technology, incorporating social distancing, restructuring dockets and rethinking current business practices.” Lawyer Margaret Teahan, representing a subgroup of the Maryland Bar Association, said at the hearing that lawyers are concerned about the logistics of conducting trials and other proceedings under health-related strictures such as social distancing. She urged lawmakers to consider how defense attorneys would be able to confer privately with clients in courtrooms at distances of six feet. She also wondered about accommodations for lawyers who have health problems that make them especially vulnerable to the virus and how jury pools could be safety assembled.
The coronavirus pandemic has cost D.C. at least $1.7 billion in lost tourist spending and an additional $163 million from cancelled conferences and conventions. Tourism officials released the data on Wednesday. “To date, we’ve lost over $1.7 billion in travel spending because of this crisis, which is a 71% decline from where we should be. $78 million in taxes that normally would be generated have been lost because of this,” said Elliott L. Ferguson II, president and CEO of Destination D.C., the city’s marketing arm.. In 2019, before the pandemic, more than 22.8 million domestic visitors came to D.C., an increase of 4.1% over 2018. Those visitors spent more than $8.2 billion at area hotels, bars, restaurants and other businesses, generating $896 million in taxes. The travel industry also supported 78,266 jobs. With travel at a standstill and local businesses shuttered, those numbers are expected to plummet this year. And while tourism officials say they expect a recovery, it will be slow. Still, they said they expect to start marketing D.C. as a travel destination soon, focusing on the large number of free options the city has to offer, including museums, monuments and parks.
The economic devastation from the coronavirus pandemic continued into May, with an additional 3.17 million new unemployment claims for the week ending May 2, down 677,000 for the week before. The Department of Labor release the new numbers on Thursday. Over the seven weeks since the pandemic all but shut down the U.S. economy, more than 33 million people across the country have lost jobs and are looking to unemployment benefits to provide them with some income. In the DMV, 8,133 D.C. residents filed new claims, down 575 from a week earlier, while 61,138 Virginians filed, down 11,350 from the previous week. In Maryland, however, the number of new filers last week hit 65,262, an increase of 27,337 from a week earlier. The significant jump is likely linked to the state unveiling a new unemployment benefits portal at the end of April. While the website was initially overwhelmed, leaving many unable to file applications, state officials said Thursday it is now working smoothly and taking almost 6,000 applications an hour.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser stressed during local television appearances on Thursday that the city’s reopening would not happen until there is a sustained decline in new infections, even as governors in Maryland and Virginia announced plans to start easing restrictions. “We also know there’s no cure right now, there’s no vaccine right now, and as governments and communities open up, more people will get infected,” Bowser said in an interview with Fox 5. “We have to make sure our hospitals are prepared.” Bowser also said reopening prematurely could damage the local economy even more. “A measured and safe approach is what’s best for the District in terms of our health but also for our economy,” Bowser said. “We don’t want to be back to square one in fall.” On Thursday, the DMV saw a continued rise in positive cases, bringing its daily total to 2,718 new cases and 130 deaths.
With the coronavirus public health emergency in place, there has been a “heavy influx” of requests for absentee ballots in D.C. The primary election is June 2, and a special election for the Ward 2 councilmember to replace Jack Evans is June 16. D.C. has been urging voters to cast their vote by mail using an absentee ballot. A board of elections spokesperson said the board has received 34,000 requests so far. Absentee ballots can be obtained by calling 202-741-5283, faxing 202-347-2648 or downloading a form and emailing it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
After five weeks stuck at home, DMV residents are slipping out of their homes more often, despite a gradual uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to smartphone data. After earning an “A” in mobility reduction on Unacast’s Social Distancing Scoreboard as of April 25, D.C. fell to a “C” as of May 7. Virginians and Marylanders are doing slightly worse, earning mostly “B” grades in April and falling to a “D” in May so far. Similar trends are seen in data from the University of Maryland, which shows slight downturns in social distancing in all three jurisdictions since the middle of April. The numbers vary from county to county, however. In Maryland, for example, Montgomery County is better at staying home than Prince George’s County, which may reflect a higher number of frontline workers in the latter. In Virginia, Arlington County has hit “A” levels all month, where Prince William has earned mostly C’s. Both the University of Maryland and Unacast draw their numbers from smartphone data that tracks users’ locations. But overall, data suggest that Washingtonians are staying at home in greater numbers than the rest of the country. In April, 53% of D.C. residents stayed home, according to the University of Maryland’s tracker, making it the most socially distant jurisdiction in the country, followed by New York and New Jersey. Maryland and Virginia fared worse, with 39% and 34% of residents staying home in April, respectively. That percentage could begin to slide downward as governors Larry Hogan and Ralph Northam announce plans to gradually reopen businesses, golf courses and parks. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has not announced a reopening date for the city.
Beginning May 11, Amtrak passengers will have to wear masks on trains and in rail stations. The change was announced Thursday. Facial coverings won’t be required while passengers are seated alone, traveling with a companion in their own pair of seats or dining in designated areas. Amtrak is operating on a reduced “essential service plan,” with schedules cut across the board to adjust to reduced demand. Acela service between Boston and Washington has been suspended, but trains are still running along the Northeast Corridor route, which serves Boston, New York, D.C. and Richmond. Amtrak projected losses of about $700 million this year as ridership is down 95% amid the coronavirus pandemic. Riders are continuing to take Amtrak out of personal preference or because they have no other option. The company said it is taking steps to protect customers’ health, limiting some bookings to 50% capacity, adopting cashless policies and posting signs reminding people to socially distance. “Amtrak continues to operate as an essential service for those who must travel during this public health crisis,” said CEO Bill Flynn in a statement. “Our services will be even more critical as our nation recovers.”
Four A-10c Thunderbolt II aircraft from the Maryland National Guard will fly over parts of the state this afternoon as part of a salute to healthcare workers, first responders, the military, essential workers and all those staying at home to flatten the coronavirus curve. “Our soldiers and airmen are proud to serve alongside those on the frontlines keeping everyone safe during these challenging times,” said Maj. Gen. Timothy Gowen, adjutant general of Maryland, in a statement. “This day is a small way to show our appreciation to everyone that is doing their part to combat the coronavirus. And to everyone who has been impacted by this pandemic, please know we are in this together and we stand with you.” According to flight path plansflight path plans, the aircraft will start near Bel Air around 1:48 p.m. and the flyover will circle through the state until 3:30 p.m. The aircraft are expected to pass over parts of Montgomery County and Prince George’s County between 2 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. There will be a few seconds of noise as they fly over. In its press release, the Maryland National Guard urged residents to watch the flyover “from the safety of their home-quarantine” and not to travel to see it.
Beginning Thursday at 7 a.m., Maryland residents may play tennis, camp, golf, boat and fish while social distancing. Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that while he hopes to begin the first stage of reopening the state next week, he wants to give residents opportunities to get outside. State parks will reopen including beaches and campgrounds. “Mother’s Day weekend is coming up and I know how anxious people are to get outside both for their physical and mental well-being,” Hogan said during a press conference. “We also know that outside activity is safer than inside activity.” He also loosened restrictions on elective surgeries and medical and dental procedures at the discretion of healthcare providers. The state has seen downward trends in hospitalizations that would allow it to start Stage One of his “Maryland Strong: road to Recovery” plan as soon as next week, the governor said. The number of patients in intensive care units has been flat for the past eight days, according to state health department data. To help reduce hospitalizations, Gilead Science, a biopharmaceutical company, donated 1,600 doses of Remdesivir, one of the only drugs to be clinically-proven to help reduce the severity of COVID-19, Hogan announced. Hospitals in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the hardest hit in the state, will receive the medication.
Public schools in Maryland will remain closed through the end of the school year, State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon announced Wednesday. The state was just one of three that had not already canceled classes for the remainder of the school year to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. D.C. and Virginia officials already took similar steps to keep schools closed. Salmon said the State Board of Education will release guidance to school systems on how to move forward. The state educates nearly 900,000 public schoolchildren. “I am convinced this is the appropriate decision in order to continue to protect the health and safety of our students, educators, staff and all members of school communities,” she said.
While Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam expects some businesses to be allowed to reopen next week, he said on Wednesday that Northern Virginia would be able to keep restrictions tighter to match its higher load of COVID-19 cases. “We realize that the greater Washington area is an area that we need to pay particular attention to,” he said. Northam said he will speak with leaders of Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William Counties today. “As we get closer, if they have concerns and want to raise that floor for another week to whatever they think is necessary, we’ll work with them on that.” On Monday, Virginia became the first in in the DMV to set a specific date for a partial reopening. The governor cited data showing hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are holding steady and that hospitals have enough protective equipment. But Jeff McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said infections have not yet shown a sustained decrease that would point to the coronavirus being under control.
The downtown D.C. economy is operating at 10% of its pre-coronavirus levels. The Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District gave the estimates as of April 24. While many restaurants are open for takeout and delivery only, the BID reported of the 365 restaurants downtown, 41% are completely closed. Those that are open with takeout and delivery are earning just 10%-20% of prior sales, the BID estimated. About 62% of the 32 hotels downtown are open, with 38% completely closed Open hotels have occupancy rates of just 10%-20%. As for retail stores, the BID reports only 26% are open, with almost all in Gallery Place, CityCenterDC and the F Street corridor closed. The majority of downtown D.C. is office space, about 76%, and office buildings are largely closed except for essential workers. Downtown museums, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Capital One Arena and other theater and music venues are all closed.
D.C. funeral homes must advertise their general price list, as well as prices for caskets and outer burial containers, online as part of a new “Consumer bill of Rights for Funeral Home Establishments.” Funeral homes must also notify customers of their rights to choose individual goods and services rather than purchase a package of goods and services, as well as buy less expensive caskets from other sources beside funeral homes. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced the new rules on Wednesday. D.C. Council passed the protections as part of its April 10 emergency legislation. Racine’s office will enforce the measures during the city’s state of emergency, as the death toll from COVID-19 continues to mount. More than 277 people have died from the disease as of May 6, according to D.C. Health. “Consumers will now have the benefit of greater transparency and a Bill of Rights to assist them when they interact with funeral homes and like businesses,” Racine said in a statement. “District residents who believe they are being treated unfairly by a funeral home should contact the Office of the Attorney General for help.” A 2017 investigation by the attorney general’s office found that some D.C. funeral homes “were allegedly refusing to provide pricing information, padding prices for services provided by third-party vendors and telling consumers that they could not cancel funeral arrangements made in advance, in violation of consumer protection law,” according to the release. As part of a separate 2017 survey, the office found large differences in the prices funeral homes charged including “basic service fees ranging from $965 to $9,200.”
The new protections also require funeral homes to provide customers with receipts from third-party vendors, including florists and clergy.
It looks like the Virginia Gold Cup — the annual horse race in The Plains, Va., that blends steeplechase racing, tailgating, sun dresses and socializing — will be run on June 27, but without spectators. This year’s event would also not include pari-mutuel betting. Organizers sent a proposal to Gov. Ralph Northam’s office and Secretary of Agriculture Bettina Ring outlining how the National Steeplechase Association would stage the event, given current coronavirus social distancing requirements. The plan calls for racing to be livestreamed, with no spectators and strict precautions and monitoring for competitors and support staff. “Attendees will be limited to race officials, trainers, grooms, jockeys, staff and owners,” Alfred Griffin, president of the steeplechase association and co-chair of the Virginia Gold Cup Association, explained in a letter. Everyone on-site would need to maintain at least six feet of social distancing from other participants, according to the letter. “Every attendee will be required to have their temperature checked and answer questions concerning current health status before entering the racecourse grounds,” Griffin wrote. “All attendees will be required to wear face masks at all times while on the racecourse grounds with the exception of jockeys from departing the paddock to completion of the race.” Owners will be restricted to the area near the parking space for their horse trailer.
The beach, boardwalk and inlet parking lot in Ocean City will reopen Saturday. Mayor Rick Meehan announced Monday evening that he will lift the closures to give people more opportunities to get outside, exercise and enjoy fresh air, while still adhering to physical distancing guidelines and gathering limits. The governor’s stay-at-home order remains in effect. That means the reopened beach is intended for local use, but police will not be checking license plates or restricting visitors. Restaurants are still closed, except for takeout, and hotels and short-term rental units are still restricted to only housing “essential lodgers,” such as health workers, first responders and law enforcement. Masks will not be required on the beach, but social distancing will be. Meehan ordered the beach closed on March 22. Beaches in neighboring Virginia and Delaware remain closed.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge goes cashless beginning next Tuesday. The next time you drive over it, you won’t be able to stop at a booth and pay your toll with cash. Drivers will pay $2.50 with E-ZPass or $4 with video pay-by-license-plate billing to cross the Bay Bridge. The video toll increases to $6 a month after the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted. While the new process won’t completely eliminate the notorious backups, the state estimates drivers will save a collective 42,000 hours each year by not waiting at a tollbooth. In early 2020, Gov. Larry Hogan asked for all-electronic and cashless tolling to make traffic smoother on the bridge. But since the coronavirus pandemic began, Hogan asked for the final project to be accelerated. The electronic and video tolling eliminates interaction at toll booths, which could spread the coronavirus.
D.C. landlords are now be required to offer payment plans to tenants who cannot pay rent because of the coronavirus pandemic. Also, foreclosures and new evictions are on hold during the state of emergency and for 60 days after it ends. The actions were part of two separate measures D.C. Council took during its virtual legislative session on Tuesday. One was a stand-alone bill addressing foreclosures, the other was an emergency bill addressing the fallout of the pandemic and the shutdown of the city’s economy. Under a provision included by Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) in the emergency bill, residential landlords who rent five or more units are required to establish alternative rent payment plans for tenants who can prove they are experiencing financial hardship directly or indirectly related to COVID-19. Similar arrangements must be made available to commercial tenants. Renters will negotiate repayment plans with their landlords for rent due during the city’s public health emergency and for one year after the emergency ends. The bill doesn’t spell out specific terms, leaving that for renters to work out with landlords. The foreclosure bill, sponsored by Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), closed gaps that could result in either immediate foreclosure filings after the state of emergency ends or out-of-court foreclosures during the emergency. It was amended at the last minute to allow non-resident condo owners to be foreclosed on for not paying required homeowner dues or fees. Council has already prohibited landlords from increasing rent during the state of emergency, and it has banned late fees for unpaid rent. Tuesday’s emergency bill also included other provisions, including one capping commissions third-party delivery services can charge restaurants at 15%, one easing signature-collection requirements for candidates running in November’s general election and another requiring Mayor Muriel Bowser to regularly brief the Council on steps being taken at the D.C. jail to stop the spread of COVID-19.
American University student Maaz Qureshi of New Jersey filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court for D.C. on Friday on behalf of himself and his classmates Also on Friday, Mark Schaffer, whose daughter attends George Washington University, filed a class-action lawsuit against that university seeking tuition, room and board and other expenses he paid claiming the campus’ closure (see below). In his suit, Qureshi, a student in the School of International Service, argues that while closing campus was the right thing to do, it deprived him and his classmates of 42% of the “benefits of in-person instruction, access to campus facilities, student activities and other benefits and services in exchange for which they had already paid fees and tuition.” The suit cites American University’s online marketing of “university life,” which includes Greek life, athletics and student organizations, as well as the benefits of being situated in D.C., which “serves as a laboratory of learning for students.” The suit also references communication from AU administrators acknowledging the disappointment of not finishing the semester in person. Undergraduate tuition for a semester at AU costs $24,535-$26,170. Housing costs range from $3,730-$7,398 and meal plans cost $800-$3,050 per semester, according to the university’s website. Personal injury attorney Roy Willey of the Anastopoulo Law Firm in South Carolina, which represents Qureshi and at least 18 other plaintiffs in similar cases, said it is unfair for the financial burden of the health emergency to fall on students and their families, and that universities owe money for not delivering promised services. “Colleges and universities are not unlike any other business in America, and they too have to tighten their belts during this unprecedented time,” Willey said. “They are not any more entitled to keep money for services they are not delivering than the mom and pop bakery on Main Street.” American University officials are reviewing the lawsuit. “Throughout the COVID-19 situation, we have taken unprecedented steps to support our campus community and deliver our robust, high-quality education to students,” the university said in a statement. “During this time, students continued to have access to our expert faculty and the wide range of academic and support services that are the foundation of our educational mission.” AU was given $6.31 million through the CARES Act, half of which must be put toward emergency financial aid and grants to students. The university lowered the cost of its summer sessions by 10% after announcing classes would be online.
The Gardens Ice House in Laurel is being used as a temporary morgue for COVID-19 victims and others. The Ice House, which is operated by Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and Top Shelf Development Co. at Prince George’s County’s Fairland Regional Park, 13800 Old Gunpowder Road, has been closed to the public since March 13. But now the Maryland Department of Health is using it to store bodies until they can be identified or await out-of-state burial. Mortuary vans drive in and out as Maryland Park Police officers stand guard. A health department spokesperson confirmed the department has a “temporary mortuary affairs center. The facility is operational and provides a high-level of dignity and respect for the deceased as they await transport to a funeral home or mortuary facility.” The spokesperson said the health department had been asked “by the facility and governing county leaders to not disclose the name or location of the facility.” Maryland Del. Mary Lehman, who represents the county, confirmed the reports on NBC4. Sources said the bodies are elevated from the ice, protected and draped in Maryland flags.
Virginia could begin reopening on May 15, Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday, extending his ban on nonessential businesses for a week. “We can start to move into a new phase of our response, but at the same time, I want to make it very clear, this virus is still here,” he said during a press briefing Monday. “We are not entering Phase 1 today, nor this week. But based on the data, I expect we may be able to enter it as soon as next week. Phase I would relax restrictions on hair salons, gyms, places of worship and restaurants. “It means you can go out to eat again, but restaurants will use less of their seating to spread people out more.” Workers will need to wear face coverings and practice social distancing. “You’ll be able to get your hair cut, but you’ll need an appointment, and you’ll see new safety measures in the salon,” Northam explained. The first phase of opening for businesses would permit gatherings of fewer than 10 people, while still encouraging businesses to use telework. He said his office would publish additional guidelines for businesses like restaurants, retail stores, salons and gyms. The idea for this first phase, Northam said, is to emphasize “safer at home rather than stay at home.” The governor estimated the first phase of reopening would last about three weeks, followed by additional easing of restrictions in Phases 2 and 3, as long as the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths continued to trend downward. Northam said this gradual reopening would occur as testing ramped up and the state expanded its ability to trace the spread of the pandemic by hiring some 1,000 contact tracers. Over the weekend more than 6,000 people were tested per day, although that is below Northam’s target of about 10,000 tests per day. Asked whether he would consider easing restrictions for rural areas first, Northam said no, because that could encourage people from more hard-hit areas to visit more open rural areas, potentially spreading disease. Further, he added, “what I worry about if we do have one region open rather than another, it just is a tremendous potential for more division.”
D.C., which has already banned evictions and frozen rent increases during the coronavirus pandemic, is considering making landlords work out rent repayment plans with tenants who are struggling. The legislation proposed by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh would require both residential and commercial landlords to work out payment terms with tenants who can prove they are facing financial hardship due to COVID-19. The proposal is part of omnibus emergency legislation up for a vote today. If the legislation passes, residential landlords who rent five or more units would be required to let eligible tenants repay any missed rent under an installment plan. It would only apply to rent due during the state of emergency and one year after the emergency is lifted. The bill doesn’t define the terms of such a plan, leaving that to landlords and tenants to figure out. It allows landlords to apply security deposits and last month’s rent to missed rent as long as tenants agree to it in writing.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced on Monday his office’s first lawsuit against Helen Mart for price gouging during the coronavirus pandemic. An investigation by his office found that Helen Mart, also know as Pan Am Fresh Market, 4907 Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave. NE, was charging $12.99 for 121-ounce bottles of Clorox bleach —200% higher than prices at other local stores. Racine filed suit after the store refused to comply with an April 23 cease and desist letter ordering it to reduce the price. “Price gouging in a time of a public health emergency is illegal, and the Office of the Attorney General will enforce the law against stores like Helen Mart that flatly refuse to adhere to a cease and desist letter that it received from my office,” Racine said in a statement. “Residents who believe they are being overcharged should contact OAG. My office will file lawsuits to stop retailers from taking advantage of consumers’ urgent health needs during this crisis.” Racine’s office has received more than 120 complaints about price gouging since March 11, when Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency, triggering the Natural Disaster Consumer Protection Act. In that time, the office has issued 23 cease and desist notices. Under the law, retailers are barred from increasing prices by more than 10% when compared with their rates in the 90 days prior to the emergency order. The fine for price gouging in the District is $5,000 per offense.
The Kennedy Center on Monday canceled or postponed all performances scheduled through August 9, including a return engagement of Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit show was set to run June 16-Sept. 20, two years after a successful engagement that kicked off its first national tour. The musical will be rescheduled to a yet-to-be-announced date, according to a press release from the Kennedy Center. Tickets went on sale in March. Other performances that are canceled include One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State by The Second City; a semi-staged production of the musical On the Town; The Hollies: The Road Is Long Tour; A Monster Calls, Sheer Madness and concerts from Lang Lang, Amos Lee, Trey Anastasio and cellist Hauser. The National Symphony Orchestra also postponed its performances, including a three-week program Beethoven at 250, honoring the composer. Ticketholders of canceled or postponed performances may donate the price of their ticket, get a full refund, exchange tickets for a future date or exchange their tickets for a Kennedy Center gift certificate.
The National Building Museum postponed several large public programs and events that were scheduled to occur over the summer. The Summer Block Party, the museum’s annual installation in the Great Hall for the months of July and August, has been postponed until 2021. For this summer, the museum had partnered with the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is currently closed for renovations, on the Folger Shakespeare Playhouse, an Elizabethan-inspired stage that would host family-friendly programming during the day and show performances of the library’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the evening. “We talked with [the] Folger and agreed that the prudent course of action is to postpone Shakespeare’s Playhouse until summer 2021,” said Executive Director Chase Rynd, who will retire this September. “By then, we all hope, things will have returned to something closer to normal, and the wonderful installation and programming can be fully experienced by a robust audience of locals and tourists alike.” In addition to the Summer Block Party, the museum has canceled its annual summer camp for school-age children that includes hands on activities, field trips and more; and its annual gala fundraiser. The museum, which was closed for three months prior to the coronavirus pandemic for remodeling, also reduced hours for employees between 20%-80% as of last Friday. In early April, the Museum furloughed all hourly staff, work is primarily centered around visitor services.
New boarding procedures took effect on Amtrak trains at Union Station on Monday to promote social distancing. To discourage lines, Amtrak is suspending priority boarding and adjusting boarding times. Travelers with checked luggage should arrive at the station no more than 60 minutes prior to departure, while those without checked baggage should arrive no more than 30 minutes early. Amtrak is also limiting reservations to 50% of available seats and requiring staff in stations and on board to wear masks. Passengers are encouraged to wear facial coverings.
Facing massive air traffic declines, almost 400 contracted baggage workers, skycaps and cleaners have been laid off at Dulles International Airport. According to the union representing the workers, 32BJ SEIU, the layoffs are because of the downturn in airport traffic due to the coronavirus. The laid off employees work for ABM, a contractor at Dulles. The Transportation Security Administration said screening of travelers is down 95% from than the same time last year. The layoffs are on top of others announced in March that included about 800 workers at Dulles, Reagan National and Baltimore-Washington International airports. The union said Congress allocated $3 billion dollars for aviation contractors as part of the coronavirus aid package, but many say they haven’t received any money yet. The union estimates 65,000 airline contractor employees have been laid off nationwide.
On Sunday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest supporting a Chincoteague church’s claims that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is violating the First Amendment’s freedom of religion over coronavirus-related restrictions. “This case raises issues of national public importance regarding the interplay between the government’s compelling interest in protecting public health and safety from COVID-19 and citizens’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion,” the statement said. According to the filing, the Lighthouse Fellowship Church held a worship service on April 5 with 16 people in a 225-seat sanctuary “while maintaining rigorous social-distancing and personal-hygiene protocols.” At the conclusion of the service, the Chincoteague police department issued a citation and summons to the church pastor for violating Northam’s executive order banning gatherings of more than 10 people. The church filed a lawsuit April 24 with the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Virginia in Norfolk, which denied its request for an injunction. The church then filed for an appeal on Saturday. In a court filing issued Sunday, Northam’s legal team notified the court of the governor’s intent to respond May 7 to both the church’s motion for an injunction pending appeal and the DOJ statement of interest. “[The] Plaintiff and the Federal Government misconstrue the nature of Virginia’s gathering ban in ways that materially impact their arguments that it is neither ‘generally applicable’ nor ‘religion-neutral,’” the notice reads. The DOJ action comes a week after U.S. Attorney General William Barr directed federal prosecutors to evaluate whether state and local policies enacted during the pandemic are protecting civil liberties, and may be an indicator of future federal involvement as local jurisdictions establish and try to maintain restrictions promoting social distancing.
A George Washington University parent sued the school for tuition, room and board and other expenses he paid claiming the campus’s closure has disrupted his daughter’s education, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed Friday. Pennsylvania resident Mark Shaffer alleges his daughter’s classes have not been as rigorous since the university closed and transitioned to online classes, steps meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Despite urging students to leave campus, the university “continues to charge for tuition and fees as if nothing has changed” and is reaping “the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students,” the complaint claims. A semester’s tuition at the university costs anywhere between $25,875 and $29,275, depending on what year the student started. Meal plans range from $1,525 to $2,375, the lawsuit states, and on-campus housing can cost up to $8,420. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in D.C., claims the closures have stripped the students of valuable experiences. Hallmarks of campus life — time spent with professors during office hours and participation in student clubs, for example — are virtually nonexistent. In many cases, students don’t have access to labs or equipment they say is needed for specific courses. University officials defend their decision to close the campus. “GW, like many colleges and universities all over the country, has heeded the recommendations of public health experts by providing online classes in lieu of in-person classes,” Crystal Nosal, a spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Our faculty have worked hard to provide our students with a quality academic experience by distance, and our staff too have worked hard to provide mechanisms for students to meaningfully engage with each other.” She said the university has offered some financial relief. Students have been credited a portion of their housing costs, which families can request in the form of a refund or apply toward future on-campus housing. Students can also request to be reimbursed for the prorated cost of their meal plans. “Millions of parents of college students are facing major setbacks, including unemployment, and now they’re stuck having paid tens of thousands of dollars for a semester that has essentially been canceled due to mandated shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders,” said Steve Berman, the lawyer representing students in the class action.
A walk-through COVID-19 testing site will open in Arlington County by May 11, assistant county manager James Schwartz announced during a Facebook Live town hall on Friday. It will be in addition to two drive-thru sites in the county – one in partnership with Virginia Hospital Center near Washington-Liberty High School and a second on Lee Highway with Inova Health System. The hope is that the new site will help those who might be the most vulnerable, like low-income essential workers, but don’t have access to a personal vehicle and rely on public transportation. “The people who might have the greatest vulnerability are sometimes those who are least likely to have a vehicle,” County Board Member Katie Cristol said during the town hall. To get tested, patients will need a written doctor’s order, an appointment and coronavirus symptoms. The county is working with the Arlington Free Clinic to help those who may be under or uninsured or don’t have a primary care physician. They also recommend using the count’s urgent care for needed orders. Schwartz said there is a need for more testing, particularly for those who are asymptomatic, but the county doesn’t have the capacity. He said that should improve in the weeks to come.
Maryland religious leaders, business owners and three Republican state lawmakers filed a lawsuit in federal court on Saturday against Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan over the constitutionality of his stay-at-home orders and banning of gatherings of more than 10 people. In a Facebook post, Del. Dan Cox, who is one of the plaintiffs and represents parts of Frederick and Carroll counties, called the governor’s March 30 stay-at-home order “overreaching” and that Marylanders should not stand for “continued house arrest and lockdown and the destruction of businesses and our way of life.” The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore and claims that the stay-at-home order is being unfairly enforced. The lawsuit argues that First Amendment rights, including religious gatherings, are being strictly monitored and prohibited while the governor’s press conferences are allowed to proceed. In the lawsuit, Cox claims he was threatened with arrest and a potential fine by an unnamed “senior law enforcement official” if he spoke at Saturday’s Reopen Maryland Rally, which drove from Frederick to Salisbury. He said the unnamed official told him the “Governor has his sights on you.” The suit then claims that governor’s senior advisor Andrew Cassilly and chief counsel Mike Pedone confirmed to Cox that if he did speak at the rally, he could be arrested. “We fully respect Del. Cox’s right to protest, but that doesn’t entitle him to make false and baseless claims,” Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said in radio interviews. In addition to Cox, the lawsuit lists 18 plaintiffs including Antietam Battlefields KOA Campgrounds, Adventure Park USA in Monrovia outside Frederick, eight preachers and delegates from Howard and Washington counties. Cox and John R. Garza of Rockville are the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.
Maryland officials are asking the state’s attorney general to investigate a $12.5 million shipment of personal protective equipment that never arrived. On April 1, Maryland signed a deal with Blue Flame Medical LLC for 1.5 million N95 masks and 110 ventilators. Officials canceled the deal Friday, saying they never got the supplies. Maryland paid Blue Flame a $6.27 million deposit, according to the Wall Street Journal. Mike Gula, a former GOP fundraiser, founded Blue Flame in late March. The company has told multiple media outlets that the due date for delivering the supplies is June 30. The Washington Post, however, reported that an unnamed Maryland official said June 30 was listed as the delivery deadline on a purchase order because it is the end of the fiscal year. The Post said it obtained a Blue Flame invoice showing April 14 as the intended ship date.
If your event is canceled or postponed, or you know of one that is, let us know at dcoheditor(at)gmail(dot)com.
Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.