Metro Riders Up 1st Week of Normal Service
COVID-19 Cases Reach 229,129 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of yesterday morning, 13,534 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 604 deaths; there have been 103,523 cases in Maryland with 3,546 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 112,072 cases with 2,443 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
Daily ridership was up several thousand during Metro’s first week of nearly normal service in five months, according to preliminary numbers. Ridership remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels, but the consistent daily increases show that more residents of the DMVare venturing out and resuming normal activities. The gains come as the DMV is once again seeing a steady decline in reported coronavirus cases. Metro carried 68,000 passengers on Monday, about 5,000 more than the previous week. Tuesday had 8,000 more trips than the week before for a total of 73,000. On Wednesday, trips were up 7,000. By the end of the week, ridership jumped by 13,000 on Thursday and 10,000 on Friday, for a total of 74,000 trips each day. Metro officials cautioned not to make too much of the increase, saying ridership typically increases this time of year as summer winds down and people return to school and work. But some riders and transit advocates say the increase appears to be driven by more casual riders — those looking to get back to the rhythms of normal life after months essentially in lockdown. Metro has more than doubled the number of trains since service was curtailed in mid-March when the pandemic hit the DMV. Transit officials said they wanted to protect their employees by limiting contact with the public, and they discouraged use for all but essential travel. Initial recovery plans called for a gradual return to normal, and full service was not expected to resume until spring or until a vaccine was discovered. But federal government plans to return more workers to their offices and the possibility of D.C. Public Schools reopening this fall pushed the agency to accelerate its plans. D.C. school officials have since said that the academic year will start with all-virtual classes. Federal workers have been slowly returning since July, under pressure, unions that represent them say, from the White House, which also wants schools reopened and workplaces functioning so the economy can rebound, even as the nation’s death toll from the virus mounts. The influx of federal workers was one reason Metro chose last weekend to restore regular service hours. Agencies requiring workers to return to their offices include FEMA, other Homeland Security agencies, the Office of Personnel Management and federal courts. So stations that had been shuttered to discourage use were reopened, and scheduled weekday trips were upped to 1,200. Four Orange Line stations west of Ballston that are undergoing platform reconstruction remain closed, but are expected to open by Labor Day. Metro officials said about 90% of rail service cuts have been restored and wait times are nearly equivalent to what they were before the pandemic. Metrobus riders will see a similar increase beginning today when service resumes or expands on 174 routes. Based on a preliminary analysis of the data, Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel said the two extra hours of service may have resulted in an additional 2,000 trips a day, while the reopening of the Silver Line, which had been closed since Memorial Day for testing, also was likely to have resulted in an increase in riders. He said there generally is a surge in ridership this time of year. “Ridership starts to rise in the middle of the month, and the pace quickens as schools reopen and vacations end,” he said. “That trend is likely happening this year, too, albeit with only 1 in 10 customers.” Still, the anecdotal evidence is encouraging, he said, showing that riders will return to transit as the region continues to push toward recovery. Metro said it has stepped up cleaning and sanitization, both to account for additional riders and instill confidence in customers. Making cleaning more visible and frequent was one of the goals outlined in the agency’s recovery plan, and high-touch areas in stations are being wiped down more while a UV cleaning method is being piloted on escalator handrails to keep them clean longer.
Anyone who entered the Kidane Mehret Church or was on the church grounds Aug. 14-17 may have been exposed to the coronavirus. The Alexandria Health Department issued a health advisory over concerns of possible exposure to the coronavirus at the Ethiopian Orthodox church located at 75 S. Bragg St. Anyone who was potentially exposed to the coronavirus should “immediately stay home and away from others for 14 days from their last visit to the church and monitor for symptoms,” the health department said. “Potential symptoms may include fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, headache, chills, muscle pain or new loss of taste or smell. Anyone with chest pain or shortness of breath should call or text 911 immediately,” according to the department. The church is working with health officials “to take the necessary steps to protect their church community,” according to the health department.
Health officials are urging anyone who visited the church during that time frame to contact them at 703-309-8276.
The number of Maryland’s COVID-19 patients in intensive care has dropped to its lowest count since March. On Saturday, the state reported 98 occupied ICU beds, the first time that number has fallen below 100 since March 29. Maryland has reported a decrease in total hospitalizations the past three weeks, after those numbers spiked slightly in late July into early August. The state has had fewer than 500 hospitalized patients since Aug. 12. Maryland also reached a milestone last week when the rolling seven-day positivity average dropped to its lowest point during the pandemic at 3.08% on Thursday. That measures the percentage of people who have tested positive among results that have been processed. And each of the state’s jurisdiction recorded an average positivity rate below 5% for the first time. For weeks, Prince George’s County stubbornly remained the only county above 5%. The county reported an average positivity rate of 4.93% on Thursday, and that metric continued to trend downward. The county recorded an average positivity rate of 4.57% on Saturday. Montgomery County’s positivity rate on Thursday was 2.76% and 2.41% on Saturday, while Somerset County jumped back up to 5.38%. Maryland has now tested 1,751,515 people for COVID-19. Montgomery County, which recently shut down its publicly run testing centers for nearly a week after a federal inspection revealed lab deficiencies, has administered the most tests, at 210,309. Prince George’s County has administered 175,721 tests.
Organizers of the Washington, D.C. Auto Show appear to be pressing forward with plans. Organizers said in a press release last week that the auto show will still happen at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in 2021, though its dates have now been pushed back. The 10-day event, which was originally scheduled to be held Jan. 29-Feb. 7, is now set for March 26-April 4. “Our top priority is to ensure the safety of all involved in this show, and we believe strongly that a two-month delay will better allow us to produce the type of well-rounded and immersive show that our attendees are accustomed to,” show CEO John O’Donnell said in the press release. Organizers said the show will incorporate “best-in-class” social distancing practices. “The Washington, D.C. Auto Show’s organizers are also working on a robust health and safety plan that will prioritize consumer and staff safety and cleanliness, while reflecting the best practices and guidelines that remain in effect in late March of 2021,” the release said. The plan relies on a steady rollback of restrictions in D.C. Currently, large gatherings are banned under Phase Two of D.C.’s reopening plan. The show normally involves large crowds of people, touching and sitting in many of the roughly 600 new cars on display from nearly three dozen manufacturers.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade will take place this November, but it won’t look like it did in years past, according to a statement from the fashion retailer. “We are currently working with our partners in the City of New York to re-imagine the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in a similar fashion to how we successfully and safely produced this year’s Macy’s Fireworks,” Orlando Veras, Macy’s Inc. director of national media relations told CNN. This year, the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks show featured a week of displays, including five-minute displays in each borough and a live grand finale on July 4 atop the Empire State Building. When asked what can be expected regarding upcoming celebrations in New York City in his press conference on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “Everything is going to be different. Some is going to be virtual, there might be some small in-person pieces, spread out pieces, it’s not going to look at all of course like how we are used to. But the important thing is, the traditions will be kept in some way,” de Blasio said. More details on the Thanksgiving parade will be available in early fall, said Veras. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a holiday tradition for nearly 100 years. Balloons first appeared in 1927, replacing live animals from the Central Park Zoo. Last year, balloons were nearly grounded due to windy weather conditions.
Giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth to a healthy cub at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo at 6:35 p.m. Friday. Labor lasted about three hours, which is how long it too Mei Xiang to give birth to Bao Bao in 2010. “Mei Xiang picked the cub up immediately and began cradling and caring for it,” zoo officials, who heard the cub and saw it briefly after birth on the zoo’s panda cam, said in a press release. “We’ve already heard the cub vocalizing and those vocalizations are a very good sign of health,” said zoo spokesperson Pamela Baker-Masson. Female giant panadas are only about to become pregnant for 24-72 hours each year. Mei Xiang, who turns 23 on Aug. 27, is the oldest giant panda in the U.S. and second oldest documented in the world to have given birth. This will probably be her final baby, since giant panadas can breed into their early-20s according to Chinese scientists. “Because Mei Xiang is of advanced maternal age, we knew the chances of her having a cub were slim. However, we wanted to give her one more opportunity to contribute to her species’ survival,” said Steve Monfort, the zoo’s director, in a press release. In the coming days, keepers will look for other mothering behaviors, like how she cradles the cub, keeps it warm by breathing on it and nursing. For the most part, keepers won’t interfere with Mei Xiang’s mothering. At some point, they will give the cub an exam when mom steps out to eat. “If she just does what her natural instincts tells her to do and what she’s done to her previous cubs, she’s going to be in good shape and so will the cub,” says Baker-Masson. Zoo veterinarians will do a DNA test to determine the cub’s sex and will work with Chinese colleagues to name the baby panda in about 100 days. Mei Xiang began exhibiting behaviors that indicated she was going into labor, including body licking, restlessness and spending more time in her den, Friday afternoon. “She brought more material back into the den, bamboo and hay, to build her nest. She’s also very, very sleepy,” said Baker-Masson. Panda cubs at birth weigh about 1/900th the amount of the mother, making it one of the smallest newborn mammals compared to the mother. They are about the size of a stick of butter when born and can reach up to 300 pounds as an adult. Veterinarians detected fetal tissue and a developing skeletal structure consistent with fetal development during an ultrasound on Aug. 14. Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated with frozen semen from Tian Tian, the zoo’s male giant panda, on March 22. This is Mei Xiang’s fourth successful pregnancy. She gave birth to Tai Shan on July 9, 2005, Bao Bao on Aug. 23, 2013 and Bei Bei on Aug. 22, 2015. All three have moved to China. Cubs born at the zoo move to China when they are four years old, as part of the zoo’s cooperative breeding agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The panda house is currently closed, but visitors eager to get a look at the new cub can watch Mei Xiang and her baby on the zoo’s live panda cam, if it isn’t overloaded.
Today’s Chuck Brown Day, like most events this summer, will be virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. Since 2015, D.C. has honored Brown, who died in 2012, on his birthday, Aug. 22. Instead of the traditional outdoor music festival in the Chuck Brown Memoria Park, the city will stream a tribute concert from 8-10 p.m. The virtual festival will feature performances by the go-go bands Suttle Thoughts, Experience Unlimited featuring Sugar Bear, and the Chuck Brown Band. DJ Kool will host. In February, Mayor Muriel Bowser signed legislation making go-go the official music of D.C. The law also requires the mayor’s office to implement programs to support and archive the homegrown music genre and its history. Saturday’s Chuck Brown Day concert will air on Channel 16 on D.C.’s livestream network, DCN, and on the Department of Public Recreation’s social media channels.
A Metro employee died after being diagnosed with COVID-19, marking the first coronavirus-related death at the agency. The employee worked in the Rail Operations Control Center, which oversees operations of the entire rail system, prior to becoming ill, Metro said in a press release Friday. “Overnight, we learned that we lost a friend and colleague,” the transportation agency said in the press release. “This is the first known Covid-related death in the Metro family.” Metro said it would not release the employee’s name. The agency said that grief counselors would be available to employees. As a safety precaution to protect workers, Metro previously split ROCC employees into two teams working in different locations, in case one group needed to quarantine. The agency also previously allowed station managers to stay in their kiosks and told train operators to stay in their operating cabs except for emergencies, among other measures. So far, 285 Metro employees have confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 245 of them have returned to work, according Metro. One of those employees was hospitalized. Metro has avoided furloughs or layoffs, but ridership has been down about 90% on trains and 65% on buses recently. Metro loses about $2 million a day in revenue from fares, and lost roughly $61 million between March and May.
Despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on voting by mail, Maryland’s State Board of Elections has been flooded with ballot requests, months before the November election. According to a Maryland State Board of Elections report released Friday, 294,048 applications have been received for vote-by-mail ballots. Two and a half months before the presidential general election, that number surpasses the total number of Marylanders who voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election by more than 50,000. In Montgomery County, 74,187 voters have requested mail-in ballots, while 26,379 Prince George’s County residents and 37,631 Anne Arundel County voters have requested one. The demand for early applications began even before election authorities begun a mass mailing to send out vote-by-mail applications to every Maryland voter. The mailing, set to begin on Aug. 24, is expected to produce a crush of applications, according to local elections officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. “I’m asking our voters not to procrastinate,” Gilberto Zelaya, of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said. “Then our staff can jump ahead of the curve and start processing it.” Even before receiving the application by mail, Marylander can request one online or by texting the letters VBM to 77788. Authorities in both counties say the U.S. mail is a secure voting method. However, the counties are expected to deploy as many as 75 secure drop boxes combined, where voters concerned about mail can drop off ballots. In Virginia, Fairfax County reports more than 100,000 requests have been received, according to Brian Worthy, a county spokesperson. Worthy said the county expects at least 300,000 Fairfax voters will use the state’s absentee voting system. By mid-October, at least 15 voting centers will be set up in Fairfax county where voters can apply for an absentee ballot in person, receive the ballot, vote on-site and hand the ballot into authorities for counting.
Five George Mason University students have tested positive for coronavirus in pre-screening before they arrived, but university administrators say the school is still on track to start face-to-face instruction on Monday. GMU is testing students before they arrive. “We assumed we’d have some positives,” Rose Pascarell, vice president of university life said. “The goal was to manage that before they moved in. They’ll come back once they’re cleared.” GMU plans to have about 40% of its classes in person. But there will be fewer people in classrooms, half as many students in the dorms and weekly random testing of both commuters and students living on campus. Also, all students, faculty, staff and visitors must participate daily in the university’s Mason COVOD Health Check and show proof that the screening app has cleared them before going to campus or leaving their room. “If we find we have an outbreak, or if we find it’s unsafe, we will pivot to online learning,” Pascarell said. “We’re all very clear about that.” Pascarell said this generation shows has a strong sense of community and social justice. She said that makes her cautiously optimistic that the university will pull this off. The school said it has set aside 150 isolation and quarantine beds for students if they do test positive or come into contact with people who test positive.
The 146th Kentucky Derby, which was postponed to Sept. 5, will be run without fans in attendance. Churchill Downs made the announcement Friday after studying case numbers in the surrounding county and the region. Earlier this month, organizers released a detailed plan, in which there could have been 14% capacity viewing a race run since 1875, traditionally in front of 150,000 fans or more. “Churchill Downs has worked diligently over the last several months to plan a safe Derby with a limited number of spectators in attendance,” the statement read. “We were confident in that plan, but dedicated to remaining flexible using the best and most reliable information available. With the current significant increases in COVID-19 cases in Louisville as well as across the region, we needed to again revisit our planning. We have made the difficult decision to hold this year’s Kentucky Derby on September 5 without fans.” Included in the announcement was a statement of support from Gov. Andy Beshear, who said: “The virus is still aggressively spreading in Kentucky, and the White House has announced that Jefferson County and the city of Louisville are a ‘red zone’ based on increases in cases. This week alone the county had more than 2,300 new cases. I applaud Churchill Downs for continuing to monitor the virus and for making the right and responsible decision.” Not only the race go second instead of its usual first in the Triple Crown procession after the Belmont Stakes ran without spectators June 20, but it also will go after the annual big summer race at Saratoga, the Travers Stakes, which was held Aug. 8. Tiz the Law won the Belmont and the Travers to cement himself as the foremost story for the first week of September. If he were to win the Kentucky Derby 11 weeks after the Belmont, he would try for the strangest Triple Crown to date at the Preakness Stakes, which was rescheduled for Oct. 3 at Pimlico.
A new survey found that half of D.C. children who live rental housing aren’t getting enough to eat, their families are behind on rent or both. That compares to 21% of children in Maryand and 33% in Virginia. The report comes from a five-week analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, of data the Census Bureau collected between June 18-July 21. The report paints a bleak picture about the financial toll the coronavirus pandemic is taking on city residents, especially those with children. The polling information comes from the Census Bureau’s weekly Household Pulse Survey, which has included results from millions of American adults each week since April. In D.C., one in four adults with children say they can’t afford enough food for their kids, and 11% of adults in rental housing are behind on rent, according to the survey. Another 12% of adults in the city — about 63,000 — reported that their household “sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days.” The study also pointed out how the national economic fallout from the pandemic has been widespread, but that it has been particularly detrimental to Black, Latino, Indigenous and immigrant households. Policy Director Tazra Mitchell of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute said this reflects problems that affected families during the Great Recession in the late 2000s. “What we have to do if we don’t want to have another lost decade for Black and Brown workers and families is we have to be very intentional about building a just recovery,” Mitchell said, adding that will take political will on the federal level as well as with the D.C. mayor and council. Job insecurity has been just as prevalent as hunger in the region. Citing Department of Labor data, DCFPI said unemployment claims are up 50% in D.C. compared to early April, with more than 90,000 people currently receiving unemployment insurance benefits or waiting for approval as of Aug. 1. In the last week, jobless claims in the region remained fairly steady, with increases in D.C. and Virginia and a modest decrease in Maryland. Mitchell said the next federal coronavirus relief package should provide more aid to D.C. and temporarily increase SNAP benefits, housing assistance, tax credits for working families and unemployment benefits. D.C. also has a ban on evictions in place during the health emergency; Mitchell said boosting emergency rental assistance will be especially crucial when the eviction moratorium eventually ends altogether. “Literally, housing is healthcare right now,” she said. “Things are bad, but they’re going to get worse if Congress doesn’t come up with a deal that not only gets states money that actually helps families as well,” Mitchell says. “Things will get worse, and they’ll be the worst for Black and Brown families, which hurts us all.”
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine on Thursday filed a second lawsuit against Washington Sports Club’s parent company Town Sports International, LLC, alleging that the gym has not processed membership cancellations or credited fees paid back to members as promised. The lawsuit follows an April 3 letter sent by Racine and attorneys general from New York and Pennsylvania ordering the company to stop charging customers for memberships they were unable to use due to the coronavirus shutdown. By the end of April, WSC froze all memberships and agreed to credit fees paid while the gym was closed and would allow members to cancel without penalty. However, since being able to reopen in June, the Racine alleges that it hasn’t happened as promised. According to the lawsuit, the company has neither issued credits for fees paid during the shutdown nor processed all membership cancellations. OAG is seeking a court order that would force Town Sports International to credit members and process cancellations, along with civil penalties. “Unfortunately, we’ve gotten a raft of complaints that Washington Sports Club once again has broken its promise. The job is to do what we’ve done the last time, which is bring suit and have a court make Washington Sports Club honor their promises to their consumers,” Racine said. He added that his office has received more than 50 complaints. Prior to the pandemic, WSC had six D.C. locations but one in Georgetown and another in Gallery Place have since closed permanently. This isn’t the first time that the OAG has filed a lawsuit against WSC or warned the gym about perceived deceptive cancellation and billing practices. In January 2019, the office filed a lawsuit alleging that WSC employees told prospective members that they could cancel at any time by simply telling a gym employee. But that wasn’t true, with the contract requiring cancellations to be done in writing with 30 days’ notice. This ended up with members being charged fees while thinking they had canceled. That happened two years after other cancellation and membership issues that the office became involved in in late 2016.
The number of people filing unemployment claims for the first time increased nationally, and jumped 35,475 in the DMV, according to data released Thursday by the Department of Labor. After two weeks of declining numbers, national unemployment claims rose by 135,000 for the week ending Aug. 15 and passed 1 million total for the first time since mid-March. It indicates employers are still cutting jobs. D.C. and Virginia saw a rise in claims, with 1,995 new claims in the city, up 198 from a week ago, and 16,672 in the commonwealth, up 3,506 from last week. Maryland reported 8,301 new claims, a slight decrease of 304 from the previous week. The total number of new applications for unemployment benefits filed by residents of D.C., Maryland and Virginia was 27,067. There are 14.84 million people in the U.S. currently receiving unemployment benefits, down 636,000 from the previous week. In early July, the DMV saw an jump in self-employed people filing for unemployment benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA), which is part of the federal CARES Act. PUA benefits are available to self-employed workers and others who don’t normally qualify for regular unemployment insurance. The continuation of layoffs comes amid modest recoveries in areas like home construction, home sales and auto purchases. But travel and entertainment spending has stayed low, and the overall unemployment rate is still at 10.2%. On Thursday, Maryland was approved to receive a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits to residents who lost wages because of the pandemic, on top of a regular $100 payment from the state, now that a previous federal $600-per-week benefit expired. The funds were made available by the Trump administration through an executive order. Payments are expected to begin going out late next month and will be retroactive to the week ended Aug. 1. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam also said the commonwealth will apply for the extra benefit.
The Maryland State Board of Elections will set up at least 270 ballot drop boxes throughout the state ahead of the November election. The decision comes after several local elections boards asked the state to supply more than what had been provided in the past amid concerns about changes at the U.S. Postal Service and the impact those changes could have on delivering ballots in time to be counted on Nov. 3. It also comes as the nation deals with the coronavirus pandemic. By contrast, there were 75 such boxes statewide for the primary election earlier this year. Local boards will determine where the additional boxes will be stationed and exactly when they will be set up. The state board plans to deliver the boxes to the local boards in late September. The local boards can begin canvassing the ballots starting Oct. 1. Results won’t be announced until all precincts are closed on Nov. 3, but it makes it easier to tally the potentially tens of thousands of votes ahead of time and potentially determine winners hours of the polls closing. The board plans to mail applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters beginning Aug. 24 through the end of August. Ballots are expected to be available in early October.
As Loudoun County Public Schools gears up for a virtual start to the school year on Sept. 8, some groups of students in the school district will have a hybrid option. On Wednesday night, the Loudoun County School Board directed LCPS to add two days of in-person learning for students with disabilities who receive instruction through the Aligned Standards of Learning as well as in Early Childhood Special Education. Classes for students in that plan start Oct. 13. Students in English Learners of Proficiency Level 1.0-1.9 and for preschool and pre-kindergarten students who choose to participate in hybrid learning will be able to receive in-person instruction. Recommendations for that plan will be presented Sept. 8, with a start date no later than Oct. 27. LCPS has already expanded in-person learning for the roughly 900 students enrolled in Monroe Advanced Technical Academy courses, because most of its courses “require hands-on learning,” according to a statement. Students in the program will get one day of instruction each week. MATA classes start Sept. 8.
D.C. Public Schools have failed to properly educate students with disabilities in the D.C. jail during the coronavirus pandemic, according to lawyers for the students. Since public schools in D.C. shut down in March, the students have completed worksheets instead of attending class, going weeks without new assignments. As learning went virtual, they were not given laptops. They could not reach teachers, virtually or in-person, according to a letter sent Thursday to DCPS and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which are responsible for educating the students. The lawyers accused the city of violating federal law by not providing specialized services to the students. They said they will take legal action if the quality of education does not improve for the 2020-21 school year. “We’re not asking for anything extra but just the basic requirements under the law and for these students to be treated with respect,” said Maggie Hart, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang said she is conducting a review of the allegations. “Providing a quality education for all D.C. students, particularly our students with disabilities, is a core priority for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education,” Kang said in a statement. “We take the issues raised in this letter very seriously.” DCPS, which educates more than 51,000 students, closed schools on March 16 to combat the spread of COVID-19. Students will start the new school year with distance learning. In the letter, the lawyers alleged city schools stopped providing special education services “to perhaps the most vulnerable student population” during the pandemic. Seventeen students are enrolled in special education services at the Inspiring Youth Program, an alternative school that operates in the jail. A total of 48 students are housed at the Youth Services Center, a residential facility for incarcerated youth run by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, but it isn’t clear how many of them have a disability. The letter was sent by several legal organizations, including the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative, School Justice Project and Advocates for Justice and Education, Inc. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities are entitled to specialized instruction and services. Those services are spelled out in students’ Individual Education Plan, or IEP. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in April that school districts must continue to comply with federal special education law during the pandemic. Since March, the legal groups said D.C. schools have failed to provide the specialized instruction and services in students’ IEPs, such as speech-language therapy and behavioral therapy. They demanded DCPS provide those services and daily in-person or virtual instruction for students in the upcoming school year. Last school year, students at the Youth Services Center received laptops for virtual instruction that did not work properly, according to the letter. Students in the Inspiring Youth Program did not receive any devices. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a broken education program that fails to provide for the individual needs of detained students,” the letter said. “As of today, these youth are simply being warehoused.”
Montgomery County is restarting coronavirus testing at some county-run testing sites beginning today, nearly a week after testing was temporarily suspended when the county’s provider of COVID-19 tests was ordered to stop processing tests by the state. Walk-in no-appointment testing resumes at the Plum Gar Recreation Center in Germantown today from 1-4 p.m., and at the White Oak Recreation Center on Friday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., County Executive Marc Elrich said during an online press conference Wednesday. The test sites will use tests provided by the state. The announcement comes a day after the county terminated its contract with Rockville-based genetic lab AdvaGenix. An inspection by federal and state health officials last week turned up “deficient practices” that called into question thousands of tests, according to the Maryland Department of Health, which had issued a cease-and-desist order barring the lab from processing COVID-19 tests. The state has not explained the issue flagged by inspectors. The lab maintains its tests are safe and reliable, and the issue is a matter of “red tape” between the Food and Drug Administration, which authorized the lab to perform coronavirus testing, and another federal entity that regulates labs. There is an apparent dispute about whether the lab was required to perform a separate in-house “temperature-stability” study of the saliva-swab test kits it processes, or whether it could rely on temperature studies carried out by the manufacturers of the test kits themselves — in this case, Rutgers’ Clinical Genomics Laboratory and Utah-based Spectrum Solutions. In a letter Wednesday to the Montgomery County Council, AdvaGentix CEO and chief scientific officer Dr. William Kearns wrote that federal inspectors made an unannounced visit to the lab on Aug. 10 and “talked with us about additional specimen validation studies that they felt were necessary.” In the letter, Kearns said the company is now conducting its own temperature study, which should be completed by the end of the week and “should resolve stated concerns by the state.” In addition, the lab said the initial cease-and-desist order sent by the state inaccurately stated AdvaGenix’s laboratory license had been suspended. “That is not correct,” Kearns said in the letter. “Our license has not been suspended and there is no basis to do so.” A revised order by Maryland Health Secretary Robert Neall issued Tuesday removes the line about the suspension and said instead that the lab is barred from performing COVID-19 tests until the state “authorizes” it to resume testing. More than a week after the county first learned of the lab inspection, Elrich and County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said they still aren’t sure why the state ordered AdvaGenix to cease its testing operations. “We have no idea right now what the reasons were,” Elrich said. “We have yet to see a report, at least that’s the last I heard, because we had not received anything on the case and why the state took the action that it did other than that it took the action.” Gayles added, “We’re merely going off of what has been shared with us, in terms of knowing that there was an investigation and the order that was put into place by the secretary of health.” The inspection was carried out by inspectors with the state and the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “We were not involved in that process,” Gayles said. Elrich said it’s “totally possible” the county could renew its contract with AdvaGenix “assuming everything gets cured.”
Maryland and Virginia are seeking federal funds to give unemployed residents an additional $300 per week in benefits. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday that the state applied for the money, which the Trump administration made available through an executive order. A spokesperson for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said the commonwealth will do the same. But questions about the legality and sustainability of the $44 billion program, as well as its cost to states, remain. D.C. hasn’t announced plans to seek the funding in part for these reasons. With tens of millions of Americans unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump earlier this month signed a memo authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide unemployment funding to states. This was after a $600 weekly boost in individual jobless benefits that Congress approved last spring expired at the end of July. The $600 supplement was a lifeline for many, but it hasn’t been reauthorized and Congress hasn’t agreed on another coronavirus relief package. While Trump’s order caused confusion over how the benefits would be implemented and who would be eligible, some states have begun seeking the funds. FEMA has approved 10 states to receive money so far, though only Arizona has started issuing the additional $300. Under the program’s rules, the supplement is available only to people who are otherwise eligible to receive at least $100 in weekly unemployment benefits and certify they are unemployed or partially unemployed due to disruptions caused by the pandemic. Called “Lost Wages Assistance,” the program provides $300 in federal aid but asks states to kick in $100, for a $400 total. To match the federal funds, states may use money they received under the CARES Act or from regular unemployment insurance programs. Maryland is pursuing the latter strategy. But Hogan’s office said this could change if the FEMA funding runs out or Congress approves another unemployment supplement. It is unclear how long the enhanced benefits will last. FEMA has initially allocated three weeks’ worth of jobless payments for the program. After three weeks, the agency will distribute money to states on a week-by-week basis. Still, some states see the option as better than nothing. “With this critical funding, we can help those struggling Marylanders weather this storm, get back on their feet and recover,” Hogan said in a press release. If approved for the funding, Maryland expects the additional benefits to begin in late September, with the payments retroactive to Aug. 1. Northam’s spokesperson said the governor’s office is “exploring ways to provide the additional $100 in funding to Virginians, but as noted previously, we face many unanswered questions, administrative hurdles and severely limited resources.” Virginia officials estimate that providing the $100 match would cost the commonwealth $45 million a week. The governor is also urging Congress to put together “a robust package with more funding — and not make states, yet again, implement a whole new unemployment program that could take weeks to start,” the spokesperson said. D.C. hasn’t sought the aid yet. At a press conference Monday, Mayor Muriel Bowser expressed doubt about the program’s legal footing. Some experts have questioned Trump’s authority to offer enhanced jobless benefits under a federal law known as the Stafford Act. “We don’t fully appreciate the legality of the president’s actions at this point, and we think that the House and Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi presented a plan that works, not just for D.C. but the entire country,” Bowser said, referring to congressional Democrats’ proposals for a new coronavirus stimulus package. The mayor suggested that the FEMA program could soon be moot because “we’ll have a better plan that is approved” in the ongoing negotiation between Congress and the White House. “We continue to call on the House and the Senate to move a bill that will provide unemployment relief for people who can’t go back to work. Their jobs don’t exist and they need that support,” Bowser said. While those talks proceed among party leaders, Congress is currently on recess, although the House is set to return early for a vote on a bill related to the U.S. Postal Service as tensions escalate over a reported widespread mail slowdown ahead of the November election. Many voters are expected to cast ballots via mail due to the pandemic.
While Montgomery County Public Schools won’t offer in-person learning this fall, there will be children in school buildings this fall. The kids will be among those attending childcare “learning hubs” organized by a coalition of child careproviders that will work inside of the county’s school buildings. More than a dozen childcare providers will be in county school buildings with a projected start date of Sept. 14. Among those is BAR-T, which has been operating in Montgomery County since 1988. The BAR-T website says it has been “enriching before and after school care for children across our 35 programs that serve both Montgomery and Frederick County.” BAR-T CEO Joe Richardson said as children are dropped off in the morning, there will be temperature checks, and students and staff will wear masks. He said parents eager to get their children back into some kind of a routine with in-person learning are hoping to have their kids enrolled in one of the more than 12 child care programs like his that are allowed to operate in the schools. How is it that childcare programs can operate when COVID-19 concerns led MCPS to continue with distance learning? Richardson said the model is different. “Our cohorts are going to be 13 students with two BAR-T staff people. They’re going to be in their own class. They’re not going to cross over with any other groups or any other students,” Richardson said. That is unlike MCPS, which would have to provide transportation and manage social distancing with a much larger school population. Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles agreed during an online press conference Wednesday that the issue is one of scale. “There is not a direct comparison — apples to apples — between a childcare and school setting,” he said. However, should there be a COVID-19 outbreak, “We will take whatever necessary action we need to take from a public health perspective,” Gayles said. Enrollment opened in early August, and Richardson said, “the response has been overwhelmingly positive.” Children will be in the program from 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. “We’ll take care of all their distance learning, make sure they complete all their assignments,” and when the school day ends, Richardson said children will have a chance to take part in sports and clubs “and allow the kids to interact with each other, which is what I think a lot of kids are missing these days,” he said. Safety has also been an issue parents have raised. Richardson said he has been working on accumulating personal protective equipment beside just masks. “We’re looking into face shields, cleaning equipment, gloves, just things that everybody needs,” he said. And, he repeated, participants will be kept within their groups of no more than 13 kids. Everyone will have to wear masks, but Richardson said lunch and snacks present an issue. He anticipates being able to have kids eat outside as long as the weather is good, but long term, “We’re looking at getting plexiglass dividers” and taking other precautions, he said.
The Bullis School campus in Potomac closed this week after two staff members tested positive for COVID-19, furthering the county’s frustrations with what they say is a lack of guidance from the state on how to handle these situations. The private co-ed k-12 school confirmed with state health officials on Wednesday that two of its staff members had tested positive for the virus on Monday. The school is set to resume in-person classes for about 80% of its students on Sept. 1. But reports of the positive test results circulated on social media, which is where county health officials first learned of it. “We were made aware of a social media conversation around it. And so we are looking into it to provide more information,” Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said in a press conference Wednesday. The Bullis School said it immediately reached out to everyone who had been in contact with the faculty members at the school and instructed them to quarantine based on the school’s own, internally-developed health guidelines, and then reported the cases to county health officials. “On Monday, two non-academic staff members tested positive for COVID-19. In response to the positive tests, we followed our procedures and the staff members self-quarantined,” the school said in a statement. “Our track and tracing team immediately informed those in the Bullis community who may have had contact with the staff members; those individuals are now self-quarantined.” The issue of how to handle potential outbreaks in nonpublic schools amid the pandemic put the county at odds with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan earlier this month, after Gayles ordered all nonpublic schools in the county to remain closed until Oct. 1. Hogan then issued an order stripping local health officers’ power to make blanket closures to any schools. Health officials can still close schools on a case-by-case basis under the order. The Maryland health secretary then said in a memo that the state’s position was to allow individual schools to come up with plans to reopen and operate safely. Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said they are still waiting for the state to provide more guidance over how to react to outbreaks in nonpublic schools. “We’ve still not received any guidance from the state regarding nonpublic schools,” Elrich said during the press conference. “And I want to emphasize when the governor said that they didn’t want the county acting, or regulating this on our own, they said that schools needed to follow CDC guidance and the state guidance.” But Elrich said the state has not provided clear answers since then. “There is no state guidance, which as you can imagine, will make it very difficult for us to evaluate plans in light of state guidance if the state doesn’t provide the guidance,” he said. Still, Gayles said if a nonpublic school or childcare facility has a serious outbreak of the virus, the county will act on its authority to close it down if need be. “We will take whatever necessary action we need to take from a public health perspective to mitigate further transmission and public health risk as allowed through the state regulations and state laws that are in place,” Gayles said. He urged community members to come forward immediately if they have information about a potential outbreak in their area. “Folks who have information or concerns or hearing these things in the community — we would implore you to call our disease control line at 240-777-1755 so that we can get that information as quickly as we can and put the necessary precautionary measures in place,” Gayles said. Montgomery County Public Schools made the decision to go entirely online the fall semester.
Members of the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Chinatown can celebrate the upcoming High Holidays alongside Jewish celebrities like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The synagogue launched its “You in a Pew” fundraiser Wednesday, offering members a chance to have a cardboard cutout of themselves placed in a pew next to a cutout of a famous Jewish figure who has visited the synagogue over the past 15 years. For $36, the cutout will be seated in the pews and debuted during the live-streams of upcoming High Holiday services. Some of the notable faces slated to appear in the sanctuary include Ginsburg, actress Amy Schumer, Grammy and Tony award winner Daveed Diggs of Hamilton and Broadway star Idina Menzel. Michelle Eider, the synagogue’s communications manager, said the idea for the cutouts came up during a fundraising meeting and the staff was “immediately excited.” The proceeds will be put towards the synagogue’s production of virtual Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services next month. “This is a time of year when people really crave that feeling of being in community with each other, and we’ve just really been missing those face-to-face interactions with our community,” Eider said. “We knew that although we can’t gather physically for the High Holidays, we wanted to create something special to help people find meaning and connection, and I think also a little bit of levity, too.”
Montgomery County terminated its contract with Rockville-based AdvaGenix on Tuesday after state officials raised red flags about the company’s COVID-19 testing procedures and ordered the company to stop processing tests. The county temporarily suspended its free COVID-19 testing program last week after a joint federal and state investigation found “improper laboratory and COVID-19 testing procedures that endanger patient health, safety and welfare.” An inspection revealed the irregularities may have jeopardized the results of more than 17,000 tests, according to a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Health. AdvaGenix administered 8% of the tests conducted in the county, totaling about 19,000 tests over the last two months, according to the county. Last week, county Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles advised anyone who received a saliva-based test at a county government site in the last two weeks to seek another test elsewhere. In a statement, AdvaGenix CEO and Chief Scientific Officer William Kearns defended the reliability of his company’s tests, attributing the investigation’s findings to regulatory red tape. “It’s unfortunate that the county has taken this action when we expect a swift resolution to the regulatory issues in question,” he said. In an interview with WJLA, Kearns called the cease-and-desist order from the state a “hit job.” All county-operated testing sites are closed until further notice. The county is working to fill the gap with tests supplied by the state. The state health department plans to replace the county’s weekly supply of tests for the next four weeks, and officials are “working to identify additional test sources to support the county government’s effort to offer broadly available free tests,” the count said in a press release. Montgomery County is still testing symptomatic residents. Those tests are being processed by other labs, officials said. Individuals with symptoms can schedule a COVID-19 test by calling the county’s testing helpline at 240-777-1755.
Forty-nine percent of the Archdiocese of Washington’s 91 schools will reopen this fall with a combination of in-person and virtual classes. The archdiocese includes D.C., Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, and Southern Maryland. About 28% of schools will offer all virtual instruction and 23% will hold all in-person classes. Students and teachers returning to school buildings will get daily health screenings before they can enter, face coverings will be required and classrooms will be set up for proper social distancing. Parents who are not comfortable with in-person classes can temporarily transfer their child to a different school that offers all online learning. The archdiocese allowed individual schools to choose one of the three operating options. Each school then gathered input from the community and came up with its own customized reopening plan. “Because the pandemic is a health matter, a great deal of consideration was given to thoroughly research safe practices for return,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory said in a video to teachers and staff. “As we move to reopen schools for the new school year in a variety of models, we will take a careful step toward normalcy in our daily lives. This will be a long journey — one that will rely on our perseverance and our commitment to the new health and safety guidelines that will govern how schools operate.” The archdiocese on Tuesday released a summary of its school reopening plans, along with links to individual schools. In contrast, about two-thirds of K-8 schools in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington will open with all in-person classes modified for safety. In an Aug. 3 video to parents, Supt. Joseph Vorbach said that he and Bishop Michael Burbidge, along with school leaders, heard from “an overwhelming number of parents” who wanted in-person classes five days a week. “From the beginning, Bishop Burbidge and I have emphasized an important point, and it’s worth repeating,” Vorbach said. “The health and safety of the students, parents and Catholic educators is our first priority. After consulting with school principals, we believe we can reopen while maintaining our high standards of health and safety.” In a back-to-school video message to parents Tuesday, Burbidge said it was “only natural” for parents to feel “somewhat uneasy” amid all the precautions being taken. “It reflects the care and love you have for your children at a delicate time in our nation’s history,” he said. “I want to reassure you, the teachers, faculty and staff at our diocesan schools love your children, too. They have worked tirelessly throughout the summer to ensure that in whatever way they reopen, it would be with your children’s best interests at heart.” He added that the diocese will keep monitoring the situation and make adjustments if necessary.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, taxi trips in D.C. are down 90% and Uber and Lyft rides are down about 80%. David Do, director of the D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles, formerly the Taxicab Commission, said he hopes that an increase in Metro hours means that people will be moving around more and hop into a taxi or rideshare. “It’s one of the good signs that our economy is coming back,” Do said. He added that officials and companies have worked hard to make shared rides safe with social distancing in mind. “Many of our taxis that are active right now will have protective barriers that the government bought to put into these vehicles.” He said all riders and drivers need to wear masks and that rides are expected to be taken only for essential activities. While ride numbers have been down, Do said, officials have worked on using the taxis in other ways, such as delivering food to those in need and transporting essential workers to three area hospitals.
Amid widespread protests and unrest over police killings of Black Americans, a national commemoration of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington is being reconfigured to comply with coronavirus protocols in D.C. Although many marchers will arrive on charter buses from surrounding communities on Aug. 28, the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the organizers, will ask some to join satellite marches planned in states that are considered hot spots for COVID-19. “We’re following protocol,” Sharpton told the Associated Press. “The objective is not how many thousands of people will be (in Washington). It’ll still be a good crowd.” The commemoration will take place on the 57th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, will begin with a rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Martin Luther King III, a son of the late civil rights icon, attorney Benjamin Crump and the families of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, are expected to participate in D.C. Following the commemorative rally, D.C. participants in will march to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in West Potomac Park, next to the National Mall, and then disperse. All participants will be required to wear masks, Sharpton said. Organizers also will provide hand sanitizing stations and conduct temperature checks throughout the event. The revised plan appears to avoid a potential faceoff with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration over COVID-19 restrictions in the city. In late July, Bowser ordered that anyone traveling or returning to Washington from a virus hot spot must self-quarantine for 14 days. The list is revised every two weeks and the newest list, released on Aug. 10, classifies 29 states as hot spots. Bowser said on July 30 that government officials had been in contact with march organizers and would not be relaxing rules for participants. “They are aware of all the local guidance that would affect their planning,” she said. “If there are people who are coming from jurisdictions that are on that list, they would need to be quarantined.” The application for the Aug. 28 event has already been approved by the National Park Service. Operating under a permit application submitted by activist and radio host Rev. Mark Thompson, the original application estimates 100,000 participants. NPS spokesman Mike Litterst said the permit has not been issued yet, but it is normal for such permits to be issued closer to the actual event. Litterst said the NPS was discussing COVID-19 mitigation plans with the organizers, but that compliance with local virus restrictions was “not a requirement or condition of the permit.” Sharpton’s civil rights group, the National Action Network, is working with its local chapters to hold commemorations in Kentucky, South Carolina and Texas, where outdoor jumbo screens will display a live simulcast of the rally in D.C. All those states are currently on D.C.’s hot spot list. The NAACP, one of several partners in the commemoration, last week launched a website for a virtual March on Washington. The site will livestream the Washington march, in addition to other programming leading up to and after the event.
State lawmakers in Virginia returned to Richmond Tuesday for a special legislative session that began as a budget meeting, but swelled amid the pandemic and ongoing racial justice protests to include health, the economy and police reform. Gov. Ralph Northam opened the session with a virtual address, urging lawmakers to move quickly to fix a projected $2.7 billion shortfall in the two-year state budget caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “No one could have seen that a pandemic could have pushed the world to a recession. So there is no roadmap to get out of it,” he said. Despite the economic losses caused by the pandemic, Northam urged legislators to allocate money toward voter access, including postage for absentee ballots. He also pressed lawmakers to move quickly to reform policing and criminal justice. Democrats who control both the House of Delegates and state Senate brought a similar agenda to the legislature. The 100 members of the House of Delegates sat at tables spread out at the Siegel Center, the Virginia Commonwealth University basketball arena. House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) stood behind a VCU podium, the ceremonial House Mace on a table in front of her. “Virginians are hurting,” she said. “We are all here today to support our economy, to support our schools, to support Virginians in every corner of the Commonwealth during these unprecedented times.” She also pledged to take “long-overdue action” on criminal justice and police reform. A sharp party divide arose almost immediately, as House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) proposed a resolution to limit each lawmaker to three bills and to limit the scope of bills to only the pandemic, the budget and police and criminal justice reform. The divide reflected Democrats’ recent takeover of the House, after Republicans were in power for years. Next, Filler-Corn moved to hold the remainder of the special session remotely. Republicans blocked her attempt to start a virtual session immediately, and House lawmakers will likely only begin considering bills next week. Filler-Corn said she wanted to meet remotely for health reasons, as members were each returning to their homes and communities. “We’re talking about a pandemic. And we see what happens when you’re not careful,” she told reporters. But some Republicans worried Democrats could more easily ignore their motions in a virtual session and noted that rural residents could struggle to access the session online. A few blocks away, 40 state senators met at the Science Museum of Virginia. Two sat in plexiglass boxes: Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax), who had open heart surgery last year, and Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who refuses to wear a mask and is running for the Republican nomination for governor. The Senate did not vote to limit the scope of its bills nor to meet remotely. That means senators will likely begin considering bills days ahead of their counterparts in the House.
Ocean City postponed Sunfest until 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It had been scheduled Oct. 1-4 in the Inlet Lot at the end of the city’s boardwalk. The dates for next year’s celebration will be set later. “Ocean City has actively promoted the many ways visitors can enjoy the town while maintaining physical distancing this summer, but for an event like Sunfest, we recognized it would not be possible to host the event in a way that was in the best interest of public health,” said Mayor Rick Meehan in a statement. “Late summer and early fall offers the best weather of the year in Ocean City, and we look forward to welcoming guests in a way that can balance fun with their safety and health.” All residents and visitors should continue practicing physical distancing, follow limits on gatherings, wear masks or face coverings in stores and on public transportation, and adhere to all other health and safety guidelines in Ocean City, the statement said.
Baltimore-based ClearMask, a privately held medical supply company owned by Johns Hopkins University graduate students and alumni, has received initial approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for what the company calls the first fully transparent, surgical-grade face mask. The FDA clearance, officially known as 510(k) clearance, is a premarket approval that the mask is safe and effective. ClearMask says the mask can be used in hospitals and clinics, as well as schools, retail, hospitality and other settings. In addition to blocking particles or droplets, the fully transparent, anti-fog plastic mask helps improve visual communication, the mask-maker said. “After three years of research, development and testing, we are thrilled to bring a human-centered mask to everyone who needs it, especially those who can benefit from improved visual communication, such as children, older adults, deaf and hard of hearing people, and those who do not speak the same language,” said Allysa Dittmar, president of ClearMask. The company already produces a nonmedical, consumer version of the transparent mask, which can be purchased starting at $67 for a box of 24 masks. The company has partnered with several distributors, including Cardinal Health Canada, McKesson, Oaktree Products and Grainger.
D.C. hit a 2 ½-month high for community spread, a key metric officials are using to help determine the city’s reopening plans. According to data reported by D.C. Health on Monday, community spread reached a peak of 83 on Aug. 3, the highest it has been since May 28. Community spread measures the number of COVID-19 cases according to the date of symptom onset and has been helpful in determining how the virus is progressing through the city. The metric, which does not include patients in congregate settings, like nursing homes, homeless shelters or the D.C. jail, has been a point of contention in recent months as the city has moved forward with reopening plans despite not meeting its goals. Of the metrics on D.C.’s dashboard, two other thresholds also haven’t been met to move into Phase Three — a sustained low transmission rate and percentage of new cases from quarantine contacts. The data shows that most cases in D.C. are not being transmitted among close contacts, indicating that a concerning number of people who are infected with the virus are still going out and spreading the virus. At a press briefing Monday, D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt addressed the concerns and released data from recent contact tracing efforts. In data from the past two weeks, 145 patients out of 971 positive cases said they attended a large event, characterized as having five or more people. Of those people, 90% went to gatherings with fewer than 50 people, which adheres to the city’s current guidelines. More than 60% reported that at least part of the events were indoor. The events included gatherings at places of worship, cookouts and parties. Sixty-two percent of the people reported that at some point during the gatherings, social distancing was not maintained. Another 102 people said they had traveled during the two-week period before they had symptoms or were tested. With D.C.’s Restaurant Week kicking off, many have raised concerns about how reopened restaurants might be causing outbreaks. Earlier this month, Nesbitt said an “increasing number” of individuals with COVID-19 have dined indoors at local restaurants. But during Monday’s press conference, Nesbitt expressed frustration when reporters asked about whether the city officials would add restrictions on indoor dining if the data proves it is necessary. “If the data would suggest that we were there, we would be making that recommendation,” Nesbitt said. “We know indoor dining is high risk. We have people indoor dining in the District. I’m still seeing a higher proportion of my cases related to the workplace or travel, and not attributed to indoor dining.” She said 5-8% of cases are connected to people eating out. “I’m having a very difficult time,” Nesbitt said. “I’m getting asked by [the] council and I’m getting asked in this room all the time, ‘When are you going to close indoor dining?’ That’s essentially the question. I can’t make the data tell me to tell you that 30-40% of my cases are related to it. That’s just not the case.” Nesbitt’s presentation also included case studies to provide examples of how some people in the city have contracted the coronavirus. “Mild symptoms are still symptoms of COVID-19. And when you have these mild symptoms and you have planned social engagements, you need to cancel those plans,” Nesbitt said.
All of Maryland’s 23 counties, except Prince George’s County, have a coronavirus positivity rate below 5%, a key metric that suggests enough testing is being done to keep up with the spread of the virus, according to Maryland Department of Health data released Monday. Prince George’s County, which has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the state and the second-highest number of deaths, has a positivity rate of 5.23%. Total hospitalizations in the state related to the virus are down by 26% since the beginning of August, and the state has seen the lowest number of new deaths in nearly five months. The two new deaths reported Monday is the lowest since March 28. The state’s overall seven-day average positivity rate has been trending downward for the past several weeks, and stands at 3.27% as of Monday, which is an all-time low since the start of the pandemic. In addition, 19 counties now have positivity rates below 3.5%. Montgomery County, which is the most populated county and has seen the highest number of coronavirus deaths, has a positivity rate of 2.84%. Baltimore City, which saw an uptick in cases late last month, now has a positivity rate of 4.02%. Even in Prince George’s County, the positivity rate has been declining recently and has its lowest positivity rate since March. Maryland’s statewide seven-day average has been under 5% since June 25. In Virginia, the positivity rate 7% as of Aug. 13, while D.C.’s is 3.5% as of Aug. 9, the most recent data available from both.
Montgomery County Public Schools Supt. Jack Smith on Monday announced six changes to the district’s plan for the fall semester, including an extended lunch break and “a greater emphasis on flexibility.” The six changes listed in a letter to the community posted on MCPS’ website were made after officials received “thousands” of messages from students, staff parents and community members. The changes include a schedule adjustment on Wednesdays from 20-minute classes to virtual check-ins with teachers to allow for more individual support. Also, elementary lessons will be recorded to provide “a greater emphasis on flexibility” for students who can’t participate in live lessons. Lunch periods will be increased by 15 minutes, to 75 minutes for secondary student and 90 minutes to elementary students to ensure those who need to get meals from a meal site have time to travel to and from the site. Middle and high school teachers will have more planning time “to increase preparation for virtual instruction,” the message said. It did not elaborate, aside from saying the school district will provide more flexibility and will be “prioritizing teacher planning and collaboration time on Wednesday afternoons” at all levels. Montgomery College classes for high school students will begin before 9 a.m. and after 2:30 p.m. to avoid conflict with high school classes. And finally, high school classes will shift from an odd/even schedule to a sequential schedule with first through fourth periods on one day and fifth through eighth periods on the next. Middle schools will have a choice between the odd/even or sequential schedules. Last month, MCPS said it won’t hold in-person classes through at least the first semester, which concludes at the end of January. During a school board meeting on Aug. 6, Smith said if local health conditions improve dramatically before then, and local health officials say it is OK, it is possible students could return to facilities sooner. In Monday’s letter, Smith said district officials are working with local health officials to determine if special education students and English language learners can receive some instruction in person. An update is expected by mid-September, according to the message. The school board is expected to vote to finalize the fall plan on Aug. 25. Monday’s letter says students will receive their final schedules for the fall on Aug. 26. Classes begin Aug. 31, with teachers reporting on Aug. 24.
The Fairfax Connector will return to its pre-pandemic schedule starting on Saturday, while adding new routes. The bus system operated at about 70% of normal to ensure transportation for essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey McKay said in a statement that the health and safety of its employees and its passengers remain its “top priority” as full service begins. “We appreciate the patience and flexibility of Fairfax Connector customers who quickly adapted to the many changes required for safe travel during the ongoing pandemic,” McKay said. Along with returning to its pre-pandemic schedule, it is adding Route 697, a new weekday express route between the Stringfellow Road Park and Ride and Southwest D.C., near L’Enfant Plaza. It includes 10 morning trips to D.C. and 10 afternoon trips back to Centreville. Route 699 returns with two additional morning and afternoon trips from the Fairfax County Government Center to downtown D.C., including adjustments to departure times and reverse commute trips. Route 334 will operate every 30 minutes during rush hour and every hour during non-rush hour to serve riders going to the Transportation Security Administration facility in Springfield. Finally, Route 340-341 includes minor route adjustments between the Franconia-Springfield Metro station and the Saratoga Park and Ride parking lot. More information on the bus system’s return to full service is available on its website. With return to full service, French-based public transit operator Transdev, which handles operations for the bus system, will continue following cleaning and disinfecting procedures provided by public health officials. They include enhanced vehicle cleaning and disinfecting all bus interiors and critical areas, such as door handles and handrails. Customers are required to enter and exit the bus using the rear doors. Per an executive order signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, passengers must wear a face covering on Fairfax Connector buses. Face coverings are available for those who enter without one while supplies last.
The housing market in the DMV had an incredibly strong July. Many potential sellers chose to wait during the beginning of the pandemic, and many potential buyers also chose to wait. But that began shifting in June, and last month, median prices hit 10-year highs, more sellers decided to list and as a result contracts to buy houses were significantly up. The pandemic may actually be helping, not hindering the local housing market. “A lot of folks have been inside for a while. They’ve been looking at the same four walls, and they’ve had the opportunity to really assess what they want out of their home,” Chris Finnegan, chief marketing officer for listing service Bright MLS, told WTOP. “For example, in this burgeoning area of telework, the idea of living close to your workplace and having a short commute is not as big of a value as it used to be.” Add to that, young families looking for more home-schooling space and urban dwellers looking for their own outdoor spaces, and the pandemic has been good for the D.C. suburbs. Pending sales in Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery Counties were all up by double digits compared to a year ago in July. The median price of what sold in Prince George’s County was up almost 7%. But home sales in D.C. are strong as well. Pending sales in the city in July reached a 10-year high, up 17% from last summer. The median price of what sold in D.C. reached $640,000 last month, the highest in a decade. “The Washington, D.C., market is unique in that it is evergreen and incredibly durable,” Finnegan said. “And it is consistently listed as one of the very top-tier destinations. So, the desirability as well as the presence of the federal government means those ZIP codes will always be at the top of some buyers’ wish lists.” Throughout the DMV, what sold in July, sold in an average of just eight days, three days faster than a year ago. Bright MLS forecasts strong sales continuing into the fall with low mortgage rates are more sellers coming to market and easing tight inventories.
Researchers at the University of Southern California say they have found that COVID-19 symptoms tend to appear in a specific order, a discovery that could help enable earlier detection and treatment for patients. According to the study, published in the medical journal Frontiers in Public Health, the most likely order of symptoms is fever, then cough and muscle pain, followed by nausea and/or vomiting, and then diarrhea. Not all patients experience the same set of symptoms. But the new findings help underscore how COVID-19 differs from other well-known illnesses. While fever and cough are also associated with a number of other diseases, like the flu, the study notes that it was the timing in which these symptoms appear, and the later gastrointestinal symptoms, that set this virus apart. USC scientist Peter Kuhn said in a press release that understanding the order of virus symptoms is useful during “overlapping cycles of illnesses” like the upcoming flu season. “Doctors can determine what steps to take to care for the patient, and they may prevent the patient’s condition from worsening.” To discover the sequence, the USC researchers, led by doctoral candidate Joseph Larsen, examined medical records and other data on more than 55,000 coronavirus cases in China collected over a nine-day span in February, along with a set of more than 1,000 cases from December through January. They also compared their findings to data on 2,470 influenza cases in North America, Europe and the Southern Hemisphere from 1994-1998.
Using thin, stretchy neck gaiters as a face covering might be ineffective at stopping the spread of the coronavirus, and could even spread the virus more than not wearing a covering at all, according to a new study by researchers at Duke University. Researchers found that the neck gaiter they tested was “worse than nothing.” Study co-author Isssac Henrion said, “The neck gaiter that we tested did essentially nothing, and worse than nothing, because it appeared to make large droplets into small droplets.” The study involvedonly a small number of speakers and face coverings, and the researchers stressed that more testing is needed — some gaiters might work better than others, depending on how they are made. The neck gaiter is a circular piece of fabric that sits around a person’s neck and can be pulled up to cover the mouth and nose. The issue with the convenient cover-up is likely not with its design, but with the fabric it is made from. According to Henrion, the study tested a neck gaiter made of a thin, stretchy polyester, which is a commonly sold style. Instead of stopping droplets that can contain the virus from escaping into the air, the fabric appeared to turn large droplets into smaller ones known as aerosols — microscopic droplets that are produced when people cough, sneeze or talk, but they do not fall to the ground in the same way larger, visible droplets do. Henrion described an aerosol’s path like that of a paper airplane flying through the air and getting caught on currents that are invisible to the naked eye. They are really tiny and invisible, and don’t fall to the ground. The danger of creating aerosol droplets is that it is harder to protect ourselves from them than from larger droplets. If you inhale tiny aerosols, those go deep into your lungs and can bypass your immune system. “Aerosols are increasingly considered to be a major source of transmission, especially in unventilated and crowded spaces where a strong concentration can build up over time,” according to Henrion. The extent to which aerosols may carry the coronavirus is still being researched, but evidence suggests they play a role. Duke’s study focused on droplet production while talking, as opposed to coughing or sneezing, because research has shown that more than half the people infected with COVID-19 do not have symptoms, and therefore are generally not coughing or sneezing, according to Henrion. “Talking really is the way that asymptomatic transmission happens,” he said. Henrion noted that countries where a large percentage of the population wears masks were able to stop community transmission. “The evidence now from many fields is overwhelmingly that masks work,” he said. While the study did not set out to create a definitive ranking of masks, Henrion said that N95 and standard surgical masks released the smallest amount of droplets. N95s yielded the best results, and surgical masks came in second, stopping 90-95% of droplets. Simple two-layer cotton masks were effective at stopping 80% of droplets. As for neck gaiters, Henrion stressed that the study was preliminary, and did not conclusively determine whether a gaiter’s fabric or construction was responsible for producing smaller droplets. A neck gaiter with two layers of cotton could be more effective. Without easy access to PPE, many people have turned to making their own masks. The study showed that homemade versions can be effective, but people should be mindful of their mask construction and fit. “Further research is needed to investigate the performance of bandanas and neck gaiters, since our study is only a proof of concept for the experimental method,” Henrion said.
As students in the DMV head back to school virtually, many of those classrooms that weren’t safe to return to for class will be used to provide childcare. Fairfax County children in kindergarten through sixth grade can attend a new initiative Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. to help parents as children return to school virtually. The county announced that the Supporting Return to School Program will be offered at 37 Fairfax County Public Schools, offering classrooms with groups of no more than 10 children who will stay together each day with staff on hand to support their online learning programs. There will be a sliding fee scale for income-eligible families. Howard County announced a similar program called RecZone, offering kindergarteners through fifth graders a full day program in 16 public schools with support for virtual learning assignments. The 7 a.m.-6 p.m. program is $325 per week and the 9 a.m.-3 p.m. program is $259 per week, with financial aid available. Both the Fairfax and Howard County programs start on Sept. 8. Loudoun County is considering a related program as well. The Loudoun County Public Schools Department of Support Services sent an online survey for parents and guardians of children in grades kindergarten through sixth grade to see if there is a need for additional child care options. Montgomery County Public Schools also indicated in its reopening plan that there would be childcare at some schools, but hasn’t released details.
The owner of hookah lounges in Bethesda and Rockville is suing Montgomery County, accusing the county of unfairly discriminating against his business through its COVID-19 restrictions. Ahmed Kamel, who owns Avenue Hookah Lounge in Bethesda and Vibes Hookah Lounge in Rockville, filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court late last month. He argues that a county order setting out COVID-19 restrictions is unconstitutional because it lets restaurants and bars serve customers indoors, but does not allow hookah lounges to do the same. He also alleges that even after he heard from the county what he was allowed to do, and he followed the guidance, each of his hookah lounges was fined for noncompliance. A spokesperson for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the case. On June 19, the county entered Phase Two of reopening, in which restaurants could start serving customers at 50% capacity indoors. The order initially allowed customers to smoke inside cigar bars, but an amended version that took effect Aug. 5 limits cigar bars, hookah bars and vape shops to retail sales only. Smoking onsite is not allowed. In the July 29 lawsuit, Kamel said he called the county’s 311 information hotline after it entered Phase One of reopening in early June. He says he was told he could operate outdoors if six-foot distancing was maintained and his businesses complied with all guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Court documents state that Kamel called 311 again later that month when the county entered Phase Two and was told that he could reopen his businesses if he operated at less than 50% capacity inside and followed CDC guidelines. Kamel reopened both lounges while observing the capacity limit, requiring customers to wear masks except while seated and keeping tables at least six feet apart, the lawsuit says. The complaint states that both lounges implemented strict cleaning protocols and all employees wore masks and gloves at all times. However, a county health inspector visited the Rockville lounge on July 3 and told Kamel he couldn’t serve customers inside, according to documents. Kamel was fined $500 for violating the county’s order. He was fined another $500 on July 18 for operating the Bethesda lounge in violation of the order, documents say. Keith Havens, the Rockville attorney representing Kamel, said on Friday that the county’s order applies a different standard for restaurants than for hookah bars in trying to ensuring public safety during the pandemic. “The fact that someone can walk into a bar and have a seat at the bar and have a beer or cocktail, but someone can’t walk into a hookah lounge and partake of a hookah seems to be somewhat disjointed,” he said. “Right now, there’s a regulation on the [hookah] bars. We’re challenging that regulation and we’re asking the Circuit Court of Montgomery County to issue an order finding that it’s unconstitutional.” The 311 operators “told him as long as he followed the guidelines of the CDC and the guidelines of the governor or the county executive, relative to restaurants, he would be fine,” Havens said. He added county code requires hookah bars to have ventilation systems that are “far better than anywhere in the county” due to the smoke. “So it’s far safer to be sitting in a hookah lounge smoking a hookah than it is to be sitting in a bar drinking a beer,” he said. The lawsuit says that Kamel’s businesses are losing “substantial” revenue. Havens declined to say the specific amount his client was losing, but that he would be making considerably more if he were allowed to fully reopen. “All he can do at this point is sell at the door supplies and hookahs, [but] not many hookahs are being purchased. Some supplies are being purchased, but it’s nowhere near the revenue he needs to generate,” Havens said. He said Kamel wants a judge to find the county’s order unconstitutional, so he can reopen his businesses. Havens has filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, and he said the next step is to schedule a hearing on the injunction.
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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.