MCPS to Offer Free Meals Starting Tuesday
COVID-19 Cases Reach 251,572 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of yesterday morning, 14,238 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 611 deaths; there have been 111,607 cases in Maryland with 3,652 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 125,727 cases with 2,677 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
Montgomery County Public Schools will resume distribution of free meals to all county children and students on Tuesday after the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorized the program to continue through the end of 2020. Since schools closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, school districts across the country, including MCPS, were allowed to provide meals to children at no cost. The program was allowed because the USDA authorized waivers allowing districts to expand their summer meal programs during the pandemic. Last month, MCPS suspended its distribution of free meals because the USDA waivers expired with the start of the new school year. The move had no effect on students who qualify under the traditional free and reduced priced meals program. MCPS had distributed more than 4 million meals to Montgomery County children at no cost since mid-March. Meals will be distributed at 74 sites across the county from 11 a.m.- 1p.m. on weekdays, except Thursdays – double meals will be distributed on Wednesdays. Beginning Tuesday, school buses will also park at the Amherst Apartments, Nob Hill Apartments and Forest Park Apartments in Silver Spring and the Woodmont Apartments in Rockville to distribute meals from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on weekdays, except Thursdays. A bus will also distributed meals at the Crossroads Farmer’s Market from noon-1 p.m. on Wednesdays. When picking up meals, a student identification number will not be required, however names will be taken for each child.
The Virginia Employment Commission will begin distributing $300 a week in additional unemployment benefits in “about two and a half weeks,” which would be the week of Sept. 20. Commission spokesperson Joyce Fogg said text messages will go out to eligible recipients within the next week. The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved Virginia’s application to participate in the relief program at the end of August. President Donald Trump announced the aid after Congress was unable to reach a deal to extend the $600-a-week emergency benefits that expired July 31. It isn’t clear how long the benefits will last, but officials have said they will be paid retroactively to Aug. 1. That means recipients should receive at least three weeks worth of the benefits when the payments begin, but subsequent weeks could be delayed because FEMA is capping initial grants at three weeks of benefits and requiring states to reapply each subsequent week. Trump capped spending on the program at $44 billion, which would be enough to cover five to six weeks of benefits depending on how many states participate. Not all unemployed Virginians who received the $600 supplement will qualify for the new program, which Trump limited to unemployed people receiving at least $100 a week in traditional benefits, which are calculated based on past wages, meaning the state’s lowest paid workers will not qualify. State officials have said the rule excludes about 30,000 of the 260,000 people currently receiving benefits in Virginia.
A McLean man who was asked to wear a mask at a Giant grocery store faces assault charges after he threatened a store employee at knife point and threw the knife at responding police officers. The Fairfax County Police Department said police were called to the store at 1454 Chain Bridge Road on Aug. 31 at 12:58 p.m. Fairfax County police said Thomas Devanney, 33, threatened an employee with a knife after being asked to wear a mask. He then stole an item from the store and ran away. Police found the man nearby and approached him to investigate. He threw the knife at the officers, but missed, police said. Devanney was then arrested and charged with two counts of assault. Devanney was treated for minor injuries at a hospital and one officer was treated for a minor injury at the scene.
Worcester County, Md., where Ocean City is located, has a positivity rate more than double the state average. Maryland released data this week that showed the state’s easternmost county had a positivity rate of 8.39% on Wednesday, which marks its highest peak since May 31. By Friday, it had dropped slightly to 8.1%, still a sharp jump from 2.6% on Aug. 14. The positivity rate is a measure of the number of people who test positive for COVID-19 out of the overall number of people tested. A high positivity rate indicates high levels of disease transmission in the community, and that there are likely more people with COVID-19 who haven’t been tested. The World Health Organization has recommended jurisdictions see a rate below 5% for 14 days before advancing reopening plans. While Worcester has had 872 cases as of Friday morning, it has the highest positivity rate of any county in Maryland. All other jurisdictions, with the exception of Caroline County at 6.34%, are below 5%. The statewide seven-day average positivity rate was at 3.48% on Friday. The Worcester County Health Department attributes the spike to several factors, according Travis Brown, the department’s spokesperson. The county has “dramatically” increased testing over the past few weeks, he said. Worcester has tested nearly a quarter of its residents, with more than 12,800 tests administered, putting it in the second percentile of testing among Maryland’s jurisdictions. “We also experience a massive population spike in the summer months and more people equals more chances for transmission of COVID-19,” Brown said. Earlier this summer, state and local officials warned of lax regulations in beach towns like Ocean City. The city has since mandated face coverings on the boardwalk during certain hours. The county moved into Phase 3 with most of the state a 5 p.m. Friday. Brown said that while large crowds are expected this time of the year, county officials are “cautiously optimistic” and didn’t have specific health concerns ahead of the Labor Day weekend. “While it’s true that more people increase chances for transmission, our county businesses and residents have done a tremendous job proactively following best public health practices.” Also, Brown said the data reflects test results for Worcester County residents, although sometimes people with multiple places of residence, including vacation homes, are initially counted with the county’s numbers. As a whole, Maryland’s positivity rate has plummeted significantly since April, when it was over 20%. In fell below 4% for the first time since the state started measuring it in early August. But state lawmakers have grilled Maryland health officials for counting positivity rate differently than the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which divides the positive cases by the number of people who get tested, a method they say rules out duplicates. The state calculation includes people who get tested more than once, as long as they were not performed the same day at the same location. Using Hopkins’ method, the state’s positivity rate is 4.8%.
Montgomery County isn’t making any substantial changes to its Phase Two guidelines as the rest of the state moved into Phase Three of reopening on Friday ahead of the Labor Day weekend. The county will allow live performances to take place in some venues under restrictions. They will be allowed in indoor and outdoor restaurants, but dancing and crowding in front the stage will be prohibited. The new guidance on live music went into effect immediately. “Allowing live music with restrictions at restaurants is an example of the cautious steps that we are taking toward reopening, and we will work on appropriate guidance for other live venues beyond what we’re doing for restaurants,” County Executive Marc Elrich said Friday in a press release. In August, Elrich wrote a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, asking for music venues to be able to hold live performances with audiences of 50 or fewer. As Maryland moved into Phase Three of reopening on Friday evening, live performances are now permissible, but will remain prohibited except in restaurants in Montgomery County for now. The press release said the county chose not to move into Phase Three because its current case count is higher than when the county moved to Phase Two several months ago. The seven-day average is currently 85 in the count compared to 67 in late-June. Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, and Baltimore City, also opted to remain in Phase Two.
The DMV has started to rebound from the economic collapse caused by COVID-19, but business conditions remain extremely weak and a number of issues are threatening to put the brakes on the recovery. According to a new report from the Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University released this week, the Washington Coincident Index, a composite of several data points GMU researchers use to measure the health of the area’s economy, fell 19% in June from a year earlier. That is an improvement from April, when the Coincident Index was down 34% from the year before. Nevertheless, the local economy remains in terrible shape. “For comparison,” researchers wrote, “the peak-to-trough decline during the 2008 recession was 16.2% and the current contraction in economic conditions remains larger.” Researchers identified factors that could derail the recovery. For example, according to research conducted in late July, nearly 30% of DMV households expect job losses to continue. The researchers wrote that the deteriorating economic outlook on the part of consumers is likely related to fears of a second wave of the coronavirus. These fears could undercut the modest economic recovery. Meanwhile, restrictions that have been implemented to slow spread of COVID-19 continue to hurt small businesses: “Nineteen percent of small businesses in the Washington region reported that physical distancing needs for customers limited their operations in August,” according to the report. Researchers concluded that the two factors will create significant obstacles for the region’s still-struggling economy. “In upcoming months, weakening consumer expectations and constraints affecting business operations, including changes to allow for physical distancing and the availability of protective equipment, are likely to further subdue the rate of recovery.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam approved a bill Friday that allocates $2 million toward prepaid postage for absentee ballots, as well as drop-off boxes throughout the state, and allowing voters to fix errors on their ballot before Nov. 3. Local jurisdiction will front the money for postage and the commonwealth will reimburse them. The bill passed along with 16 others as part of the state House of Delegates’ special session, which has legislative priorities including support for students, jobs and healthcare during the pandemic, as well as a focus on criminal justice and police reform measures. “Today, the House of Delegates moved one step closer to providing much needed COVID-19 relief and equity reform to our commonwealth. We also sent to the governor’s desk critical legislation to protect Virginians’ right to vote this November,” said Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn in a statement. Northam said in a tweet that the state is making mail-in voting easier for Virginians. “Today, I signed important new voter protection laws that will expand access to early voting, provide prepaid return postage on all absentee ballots and allow for secure drop boxes and drop off locations,” he tweeted. The move comes as states and local boards of elections face increased uncertainty about voting by mail this November. Concern began earlier this year, when new Postmaster Louis DeJoy instituted major changes at the U.S. Postal Service, including cutting overtime, limiting hours and removing nearly 700 mail sorters from facilities across the country. DeJoy attributed the changes to agency revenue losses and expressed skepticism that the USPS could handle an influx of vote-by-mail ballots. DeJoy has since said future service changes would not come until after Nov. 3, but a coalition of states and D.C. are suing the agency claiming that the USPS is violating the Constitution by “interfering with states’ ability to manage their own elections, disproportionately preventing seniors from voting, failing to efficiently deliver mail and failing to give required notice of nationwide service changes.”
Nineteen University of Maryland students were suspended pending further review for failing to follow the school’s rules on COVID-19. In an email to the student body, Director for the Office of Student Conduct Andrea Goodwin wrote that students who failed to observe the 4 Maryland Commitment, which includes no large group gatherings, wearing face masks, staying six feet from others and self-isolating after exposure to the coronavirus, put the entire campus community’s health at risk. “The expectations have been very clear and the majority of you are complying with the guidelines. However, ultimately, the number of positive COVID-19 cases has increased,” Goodwin wrote. She said refusal to follow public health directives could result in penalties and sanctions imposed by government authorities. On Friday morning, the university suspended all athletics training until at least next Wednesday following a spike in COVID-19 cases among student-athletes. The university health center screened 501 students from 10 different teams on Monday and Tuesday, with 46 of them testing positive. The athletes will be retested on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Team workouts on campus resumed in June, with regularly scheduled coronavirus testing. In all, 63 out of 2,191 tests have come back positive, with a positivity rate of 2.9%, the athletic department said. “As we experience an unprecedented year in college athletics and across the entire country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to keep the health, safety and welfare of our student-athletes and staff first and foremost,” Athletic Director Damon Evans said in a press release. “The most recent testing results have revealed an uptick in positive tests among Maryland student-athletes. Out of an abundance of caution, we are temporarily pausing all workouts for our programs. We continue to educate our student-athletes and staff about best practices and protocols to be safe this time. We look forward to when our student-athletes can safely return to workouts and then re-start their seasons.” It is the second time athletic training has been suspended due to the coronavirus. In July, nine student-athletes and staff tested positive and the football team’s summer workouts were put on hold. Last month, the Big Ten Conference, of which Maryland is a part, postponed fall sports, citing health risks related to the pandemic. The university began classes online this week. They are scheduled to remain virtual until Sept. 14.
Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties on Thursday joined Montgomery County and Baltimore City in delaying their move into Phase Three opening with the rest of the state at 5 p.m. today. On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said counties could move into Phase Three, which allows the opening of virtually all businesses with restrictions. “What I can tell you about Prince George’s County is, we are not there yet,” County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said at a press conference Thursday morning. She said that the county is “still working to recover” from the spike in COVID-19 infections over the July 4 holiday, and with the Labor Day holiday coming up, “It is critically important that we not to become complacent.” Alsobrooks said that while the county’s COVID-19 test positivity rate was at 4.1%, 13 ZIP codes in the county remain over the 5% positivity mark. She said the county’s daily rate Thursday was 11.4 cases per 100,000 people, above the state rate of 8.7 cases. “Our numbers show it’s not safe for us to move to Phase Three yet,” County Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter said. Another surge in infections related to Labor Day weekend gatherings would take months to recover. “We’ve done that twice already now, and each time it took us months to get to a flattening,” he said. “Our numbers shot back up” after July 4, Carter said, adding that 1 in 4 Maryland cases and 1 out of 5 deaths are Prince George’s residents. The infection rate – the average number of people each patient spreads the virus to – is 0.92%, which means the virus is still slowly spreading. That rate is still higher than it was before the July 4 holiday, Carter said. The positivity rate slowly declined through August and is now at 4.1%. Carter said the rate has only been below 5% for two weeks. “We should be very cautious in assuming that this will continue to go down,” Carter said. He said he understood the problems of small businesses under COVID-19 restrictions; he owned several clinics in four states during the 2008-09 recession. Of the difficulties of losing money and laying workers off, “I have lived through that,” Carter said. Asked about the concept of herd immunity eventually protecting residents, Carter said, “Herd immunity is not a public health solution,” adding that about 30,000 county residents would have died if no measures were taken. He said people who advocate for herd immunity are making the argument that “some people will die and that’s OK.” He compared the idea with Europe’s experience with the Black Plague: “They acquired herd immunity – but they lost millions of people.” Alsobrooks said that the county could be ready to move forward in a few weeks. “If we stay the course and continue to take the steps necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, we are convinced that we will be able to reevaluate in a couple of weeks the data that we have, and that we will be able to at some point move toward a modified Phase Three reopening here in Prince George’s County as well,” she said.
New unemployment claims nationwide dropped below 1 million for the week ending Aug. 29, a drop of 130,000 from the previous week to 881,000. However, Thursday’s report was the first to be affected by a change in the way the U.S. Department of Labor accounts for predictable seasonal patterns, like temporary holiday workers who are laid off in January, so a direct comparison to last week’s numbers are not completely accurate. It was the first time in 24 weeks that new jobless claims totaled less than 1 million. Before the coronavirus pandemic, new claims had never topped 700,000 in a week. Initial unadjusted unemployment claims in the DMV fell 1,209 to 19,516. D.C. reported 1,347 new claims, down 298 from the week before. Maryland saw 6,536 initial claims, down 1,108 from the previous week, and Virginia had 11,633 new claims, up 197 from a week earlier. The total number of Americans currently receiving unemployment benefits fell by 1.2 million to 13.3 million.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wants Dominion Energy to forgive unpaid residential electric bills by taking $320 million that regulators say the company previously overcharged. The governor is pushing for new budget language requiring the state’s largest electric monopoly to return most of the $503 million that state regulators recently said Dominion had earned above authorized levels in 2017 through 2019. That provision is part of a broader effort by Northam to ban customer disconnections over unpaid utility bills during the coronavirus pandemic. Dominion did not comment. Under the plan, customers with bills that are more than 60 days overdue as of Sept. 30 would have them forgiven.
About 3,500 people in Montgomery County never got their COVID-19 test results after Rockville-based AdvaGenix, the county’s main supplier of coronavirus tests, was ordered to halt test processing tests last month by the Maryland Department of Health. And some of the residents were never told they wouldn’t be getting their results. In May, Montgomery County signed a contract with the lab to provide up to 20,000 tests per month in the county. But state health officials said an inspection by federal investigators last month turned up deficient practices that meant all of the lab’s test results were “erroneous or questionable.” The exact findings have not been made public. AdvaGenix argues its test results are safe and accurate and that it has already resolved the issues flagged by the inspectors. Caught in the middle are thousands of people who went to one of several testing sites run by Montgomery County before the lab was barred from processing COVID-19 tests. They said they waited for test results that never came, and they are frustrated with both the county and the lab for not notifying patients directly about any problems or warning them they might not ever receive results. The number of unprocessed tests caught up in the cease-and-desist order was confirmed by a source with knowledge of the lab’s operations who was not authorized to speak publicly. Montgomery County officials weren’t aware of the exact number of people who were awaiting test results from AdvaGenix when the lab was ordered to cease its COVID-19 operations, according to health department spokesperson Mary Anderson. That is due in part to the fact that data on tests was uploaded directly to AdvaGenix’s web portal. That is also why the county didn’t directly notify patients who were awaiting test results, Anderson said. The county collected some contact information, but it does not have a definitive list. Instead, she said the county sent out a news release recommending that everyone who had been tested in the two weeks before AdvaGenix was shutdown be re-tested. That release said patients should be re-tested to “to confirm their results,” but it did not say some patients would never receive results in the first place. County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said on Wednesday that the county attempted to reach patients by notifying the public to alert them to the possible need to be retested. “We apologize for any frustrations that folks experienced in terms of the delays associated with the lab … We take full responsibility,” Gayles said during a press briefing. When the state ordered the lab to halt testing, the responsibility for notifying patients was placed on AdvaGenix. Health Secretary Robert Neall’s eight-point order directed the lab to “immediately” notify all patients, whose tests the labs had processed, that their results are “erroneous or questionable” and that they should consider getting retested. So far, those notices haven’t gone out. In a statement, health department spokesperson Charlie Gischlar said the state Office of Health Care Quality is holding off requiring the lab to notify all the patients it tested because state officials and the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are reviewing “additional information” the lab submitted to inspectors. AdvaGenix officials told CMS last week that they had addressed the issues identified in the inspection. Late last week, the lab also posted a short message on its website, saying “COVID-19 testing by AdvaGenix is temporarily on hold. We understand your concern and frustration that AdvaGenix is currently not permitted to release COVID-19 test results. We are eager to return to supporting the needs of our community and doing our part to keep the public safe and healthy. The State of Maryland advises that you consider being retested, out of an abundance of caution, if you were tested at a Montgomery County facility between June 5-
Marriott International could lay off up to 673 workers from its Bethesda headquarters next month due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, Marriott filed a notice of the layoffs under the federal Worker Adjustment Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires some employers to give advance notice of business closures and mass layoffs. According to the notice, the layoffs take effect Oct. 23 and are due to the pandemic. There are about 4,000 corporate employees who work at Marriott’s Bethesda headquarters. Ben Gerow, a Marriott spokesman, confirmed on Thursday that the dislocation notice is for layoffs and not furloughs. Marriott announced at the beginning of the health crisis in March that it would furlough tens of thousands of workers. At that time, the company said furloughed employees would be able to keep some of their benefits while they weren’t working. On May 27, Marriott issued a press release saying that furloughs and reduced work-week schedules that started in April would be extended through Oct. 2.
Montgomery County will not move into Phase Three with the rest of Maryland, County on Friday. “I get the desire to reopen businesses. I would love to have the tax revenue, but I don’t want the tax revenue if the price to be paid is more sick people and more fatalities in our community. It is not worth it if you can’t do it safely,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during a press conference Wednesday. “So we are going to spend the next couple of days seeing what we can do differently and where in the governor’s guidance is there room for us to make steps forward and what are the places we’re not going to go. So I won’t say we’ll move into Phase Three.” On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the state would move into its third and final reopening phase on Friday. While individual counties and cities are allowed to make their own decision of how and what to reopen, the announcement caught the county by surprise. “We will likely continue to modify our Phase Two, which we’ve been doing all along,” Elrich said. For example, he said, the county requested that restaurants be allowed to have entertainment like a singer or comedian on a stage without dancing or people gathering around the stage. “We finally got guidance from the state saying we could do it as long as it is done primarily as a dining establishment,” Elrich said. “So we will definitely modify our rules on entertainment to accommodate something which we asked for. We have trepidation over some of the other stuff, and we’re going to examine this very closely and continue to make what we consider are the best decisions for the health of our residents.” The county has seen about 70 cases a day recently down from 200 a day earlier in the pandemic, but there have been 90 to 100 some days “We are not at a place that I can say we’ve made great progress and we continue to make great progress and let’s open the doors. It is not party time yet. It is not a time to relax. It is not a time to say mission accomplished. … None of those things are true. We’re making progress. That is true. But we’re not where we need to be. When we are where we need to be, we’ll all have a celebration of being able to reopen things in a more normal way. But until we’re there, we’re not there.” Both Elrich and Dr. Travis Gayles, the county health officer, declined to provide a timeline or any clarification on metrics that would determine when the county would move into Phase Three. “We don’t operate on a timeline because if I have to stick to a timeline and the conditions aren’t right, then the question is ‘why didn’t you do it?’,” Elrich said. “That’s not how you make health-based decisions.” They did say that they would consider making modifications to Phase Two to allow for some further reopening. Guidance on those modifications will be announced by Friday as residents prepare for Labor Day weekend. A move to Phase Three would mean more potential places for transmissions, something that officials worry would lead to an increase in cases. “The policies in our county are probably the most restrictive [in the state],” Elrich said. “Not as restrictive as we could have been and should have been early on. Being the most restrictive is limited contact. Limited contact, we know, limits the virus.” Prince George’s County is expected to announce today if it will move into Phase Three.
The coronavirus pandemic has ended a decade of tourism growth in D.C., and the city faces millions of dollars in lost revenue from canceled conventions and events while domestic and international travel have seen sharp declines. Destination D.C., the city’s tourism marketing organization, laid out the grim details during its annual Marketing Outlook Meeting on Wednesday. “We’ve all been faced with a massive blow,” said Elliott Ferguson, Destination D.C.’s president and CEO. “The pandemic changed things for us, and as we can expect, this year won’t look good.” Last year, the city hosted 22.8 million visitors from around the U.S. This year, the projection is 11 million, a 53% drop. And tourism from other countries isn’t expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. “We know that after 9/11, it took us 10 years to get back to the number of visitors that we had in 2000,” Ferguson said. “If we’re fortunate enough to have a vaccine by the end of the year, then the expectation loos better.” Visitors from other countries typically make up a small percentage of the city’s tourists, but they spend a lot of money. Last year, foreign visitors made up 7% of the total number of visitors to D.C., but they were responsible for 27% of visitor spending. The shift from in-person to virtual mass gatherings dealt one of the heaviest blows to the city’s tourism economy. So far, 42 large events and conventions have been cancelled — 35 scheduled for this year and seven scheduled for 2021 — leading to a $422 million revenue loss. The daytime population of downtown D.C., an area heavily populated by business travelers and tourists, as well as local office workers, dropped 90% from February levels. The decline in tourism will impact everything from restaurants and food trucks to hotels and AirBnB rentals. Hotels in the city’s central business district are projecting a 25% occupancy rate this year, according to STR, a market data company that monitors the hotel industry. Last year’s rate was 76%. Trying to be optimistic, Ferguson pointed to a number of major upcoming events that could still bring tourists to the District, including the DC Jazz Festival later this month, the presidential inauguration in January and the National Cherry Blossom Festival next spring. Until there is a vaccine, Destination D.C. will shift its focus to the 50 million people who live within a four-hour drive of the city, rather than people who would have to travel by plane. It also plans to encourage area residents to book rooms in area hotels for staycations.
DMV residents will be among the first to have new iPhone software that could alert them of potential exposure to COVID-19. A collaboration between Apple and Google, Exposure Notification Express allows users to receive notifications if they have been exposed to another user who tests positive for COVID-19. The software, which is available in the iOS 13.7 update that was released Tuesday or via an app for Google phones, works in jurisdictions where public health officials are collecting contact tracing data and have employed the technology to enable notifications. D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Nevada are the first jurisdictions where exposure notifications will work without a separate app, and an Android version will be available later this month. Apple and Google announced a joint plan to develop a contract tracing software in April, and the first phase of production began with the release of an API in May that allowed jurisdictions to develop their own apps, the first of which was Virginia’s COVIDWISE app. Like COVIDWISE, Apple’s built-in software uses Bluetooth signals to flag smartphone users who are in close proximity for a period of time. If one of the users later tests positive for COVID-19, the software will notify individuals who may have been in contact with that person that they are at risk of exposure. Only data from people who opt into the service will be used for the software’s exposure tracing. When COVIDWISE launched, the app’s productivity relied on participation, a factor made more difficult by those skeptical of big tech companies and government agencies infringing on their privacy. Officials in Virginia stress that no location data or personal information is ever collected, stored, tracked or transmitted to the state’s health department as part of the app, and that users have the ability to delete the app or turn off exposure notifications at any time. Experts say that about 40% of the population in an area would need to use it to be helpful in managing the spread of coronavirus, although lower engagement wouldn’t render the software completely useless. Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alabama and Arizona have their own apps. Apple and Google said these apps will not be affected by the now built-in software. According to Apple, data from the software will only be shared with public health officials if a user chooses to report a positive diagnosis or if a user is notified that they have been in contact with someone who has reported a positive test. In the case of a contact, the system will share the day the contact occurred, how long it lasted and the Bluetooth signal strength of that contact, as well as whether the case was confirmed by test, clinical diagnosis or self-report. Apple and Google will not have access to the user’s identification information or location.
Delaware will allow some beach bars to reopen for the Labor Day weekend under strict social distancing guidelines. Seats must be socially distanced and reservations will required. Also, food must be ordered. The order affects taprooms and bar service in Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Long Neck, Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Fenwick Island, West Fenwick Island, Ocean View and Millville. Gov. John Carney shut down bars in Delaware beach towns in early July after the state saw a spike in COVID-19 cases. Heading into the holiday weekend, Carney said the most important guideline that people can follow is wearing a mask. The governor said the Labor Day weekend will be a “big test.”
The sweeping national eviction moratorium that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Tuesday has significant implications for renters and landlords.. The federal mandate is not as strict as D.C.’s eviction ban, so that policy will remain as-is. The national order, which applies through the end of the year, would only be effective in D.C. if the city allows its ban to expire after October. But the CDC’s order is stricter than eviction protections in Virginia and Maryland, which means it will replace their policies. Bringing the patchwork of local policies closer into alignment could keep thousands of area residents in their homes. But tenant advocates and building owners alike want to see more action to prevent rather than delay a housing crisis after the pandemic ends. Housing attorneys say many tenants aren’t aware of protections offered under the various laws and orders that have gone into effect, leaving them vulnerable to what is known as self-eviction — simply moving out when presented with the possibility of eviction — or being illegally removed from their homes. Vulnerable renters continue to face intimidation and confusing legal notices from landlords desperate to collect rent. The National Housing Law Project released a survey of legal aid attorneys across the country in July that showed an alarming rate of illegal evictions during the health emergency. In Virginia, where a statewide eviction ban expires Sept. 7, advocates say the federal order will protect thousands of residents behind on their rent. The Virginia Poverty Law Center estimated that about 230,000 evictions will be filed by the end of the year. The commonwealth ranks among the worst states in the country for evictions, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. The CDC order halts all evictions for nonpayment of rent until Dec. 31 for renters who either expect to earn less than $99,000 or $198,000 for couples who file taxes jointly in 2020; who were not required to report their income to the IRS in 2019; or who received a pandemic stimulus check from the federal government earlier this year. The mandate does allow property owners to evict renters for reasons other than nonpayment, such as criminal activity. That is more lenient than D.C.’s ban, which doesn’t allow evictions for any reason. It also may protect renters from being removed from their homes after landlords terminate their leases, which is one way some property owners in Maryland have been able to legally evict tenants behind on their rent. Housing attorneys note, however, that some judges may choose to not interpret the mandate so broadly. The order also doesn’t absolve anyone of paying their rent, which means tenants in arrears can still be evicted after the order expires. Banning evictions during a pandemic is a public health priority, the CDC says. “Housing stability helps protect public health because homelessness increases the likelihood of individuals moving into congregate settings, such as homeless shelters, which then puts individuals at higher risk to COVID-19,” the order says. Federal aid is also needed to protect landlords, some say, particularly small owners who lack the cushion to pay their mortgages after months of tenants missing rent payments. “For property owners, [the CDC’s eviction order] is a crushing unfunded mandate that will bankrupt many small businesses,” said National Housing Conference President and CEO David Dworkin in a statement. The CDC order is expected to be challenged in court, although administration officials have said the mandate is permissible under federal law that allows the health agency to issue emergency orders when they believe state and local governments have failed to sufficiently prevent the spread of a communicable disease.
Maryland will begin moving into Phase Three of its reopening plan at 5 p.m. Friday. Gov. Larry Hogan made the announcement Tuesday citing declining numbers in positivity and several other health metrics. “All Maryland businesses will be able to open,” Hogan said during a press conference. “As we begin to move into Stage Three, the law still empowers individual counties to make decisions that are more restrictive regarding the timing of Stage Three reopenings in their own individual jurisdictions.” He warned residents to stay vigilant as the state moves into Phase Three. The state’s positivity rate is at 3.39%, a decline of more than 87% since it peaked at 26.91% on April 17. It has been under 4% for 24 days since Aug. 8. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization benchmark is 5%, Hogan said, and the state has been below that since June 25. Hospitalizations are down 77% since they peaked 122 days ago at 1,711; and ICU levels are also down by 30%, he said. “We continue to be in much better shape than the nation and better than most states across the country. And while it is critical that we remain vigilant as we battle this deadly virus, it is also important that we continue to fight to protect and improve the economy and the health of our small business community and our struggling Maryland families by continuing to push to safely reopen our economy and to get more people safely back to work,” Hogan said. In Phase Three, houses of worship, retail businesses and malls may open at 75% capacity, and all manufacturing businesses may open. Businesses that provide personal services such as beauty salons, barber shops, tattoo parlors, tanning salons, massage parlors and others that provide aesthetic services may open by appointment not to exceed 50% capacity. The total number of people allowed in entertainment venues including movie theaters may not exceed 50% capacity or 100 people per auditorium indoors and 250 people outdoors. Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the county needs time to review Hogan’s order to determine the best way forward. “We will do this over the next few days to determine the best way to move forward for our residents and businesses while protecting the public health,” Elrich said in a series of tweets. He added that Hogan’s announcement had “again taken us by surprise,” and although he wants to see the county open as quickly as possible, Elrich tweeted, “we also must proceed with care. We will continue to follow the data and science in Montgomery County, as we have done every day throughout the pandemic. We are averaging about 70 cases per day, and yesterday we had 97 cases – those numbers are concerning because they’re higher than they were a few weeks ago,” Elrich tweeted. Hogan said that through a partnership with Apple and Google, Maryland will be one of the first states that will use an app designed to help public health officials to quickly notify individuals if there has been an exposure to COVID-19. The app is called Exposures Notifications Express. The governor cautioned residents against letting their guard down when spending time with family, especially during the upcoming Labor Day weekend. According to contract tracing in Maryland, 41% of those who tested positive reported attending family gatherings and 19% reported that they attended house parties and outdoor events.
As Virginians head into the Labor Day weekend, the state’s COVID-19 case numbers have remained fairly steady since early July. “With a holiday weekend coming up, with back-to-school coming in different forms and with colleges returning, now is the time to double down on what we know is working so we can set ourselves up for fall,” Gov. Ralph Northam said during a press conference Tuesday. He reminded residents to remain vigilant through the holiday to avoid the surge that followed Memorial Day and the Fourth of July weekends. “This virus is still alive and well around the commonwealth of Virginia,” Northam said. “Overall, Virginians are doing a good job of keeping this curve flat,” but he noted that “the trend line has risen slightly over the past week or so.” Virginia’s statewide positivity rate remains just below 7% compared to 20% a few months ago. In Northern Virginia, the positivity rate is around 6%. The region is “trending very slightly higher than earlier in the summer” when it comes to new cases, Northam said: The seven-day average for new cases stays around 240. The commonwealth’s Eastern Region is seeing some progress as well. Its positivity rate has come down from a mid-July high of around 12% to just under 9% now. Although the state is conducting from 15,000-20,000 tests daily, Northam said the number should be higher. Not as many people are going to get tested, he said, and that lack of testing could mean a spike in infections. Despite recent CDC guidance to the contrary, he said, tests will be offered to anyone who has no symptoms but thinks they’ve been exposed. “If you believe you need a test, please get a test, especially if your job requires you to be around other people, like teachers,” he said. “I get it. We’re all tired, and we all want to get this behind us. But the basic facts remain the same. If you have COVID, you need to isolate yourself and stay away from other people. That starts with getting tested.” In the meantime, more than 460,000 people have downloaded Virginia’s COVID-19 exposure notification app since it launched four weeks ago. “This is a great start, but we have to remain vigilant,” Northam said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a directive Tuesday halting the eviction of some renters though the end of 2020 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Federal, state and local governments have approved eviction moratoriums during the course of the pandemic for many renters, but those protections are rapidly expiring. A recent report from the Aspen Institute said that more than 20 million renters live in households that have suffered COVID-19-related job loss and concluded that millions more are at risk of eviction in the next several months. The CDC’s action stems from an executive order that President Donald Trump issued in early August. It instructed federal health officials to consider measures to temporarily halt evictions. The CDC declared that no landlord shall evict a “covered person” from any residential property for failure to pay rent. Senior administration officials said the director of the CDC has broad authority to take actions deemed reasonably necessary to prevent the spread of a communicable disease. Covered renters must meet four criteria. They must: have an income of $198,000 or less for couples filing jointly or $99,000 for single filers; demonstrate they have sought government assistance to make their rental payments; affirmatively declare they are unable to pay rent because of COVID-19 hardships; and affirm they are likely to become homeless if they are evicted. Landlords can still remove tenants for “committing criminal acts, threatening the health and safety of other residents, damaging property or other health and safety considerations.” Officials said local courts would still resolve disputes between renters and landowners about whether the moratorium applies in a particular case. Deputy White House Press Secretary Brian Morgenstern said Tuesday’s announcement means that people struggling to pay rent due to COVID-19 would not have to worry about being evicted and risking the spread of the disease or exposure to it. Congress enacted the $2.3 trillion CARES Act in March that paused evictions in most federal subsidized housing, but that moratorium expired and Congress and the White House have been in a monthslong stalemate over new relief.
The Maryland State Board of Education adopted new guidelines for local school systems on Tuesday, granting them until December to meet certain online learning requirements. Also, school districts that planned not bring students back for in-person instruction until the second semester in January, like Montgomery County Public Schools and Prince George’s County Public Schools, are required to “reevaluate their reopening plans” and submit them to the Maryland Department of Education by the third week of November. According to the new requirements, schools must include an average of 3.5 hours of synchronous learning each day, meaning students are receiving real-time, virtual interaction from a teacher. Half-day pre-K students must receive at least 1.5 hours of synchronous instruction. It is up to local school districts to decide how to provide that. Synchronous learning, under the guidelines, can include guided instruction, one-on-one meetings between a student and teacher or group work. The vote came after State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon proposed a minimum number of synchronous learning hours last Monday, with the requirement that all school systems meet that minimum by Sept. 28. During Tuesday’s meeting, board members amended Salmon’s original proposal, giving school systems until the end of the calendar year to meet the minimum number of synchronous hours, adding that the state will offer technical assistance to help local systems meet the requirement. Board members went back-and-forth on the details and definitions outlined in the proposed guidelines. The new guidelines come on the second day of virtual instruction for many students across the DMV and after weeks of criticism from local districts about Maryland’s lack of school reopening guidance. MCPS and PGCPS had their first day of 100% remote learning on Monday with several technical problems. Last Thursday, Gov. Larry Hogan urged school systems to reconsider their virtual plans, only five days before some schools began classes. According to Carol Williamson, the deputy state superintendent for teaching and learning, the board will address return-to-classroom plans for special needs students at its Sept. 22 meeting.
Following an outcry from educators, the U.S. Agriculture Department extended a school meal program that has provided free meals to millions of children since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools in March until Dec. 31. The program allows families to pick up free food from any convenient school, regardless of whether their child is enrolled there and even if they do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals. It is a form of meal delivery typically offered only during the summer. But due to the pandemic, the Agriculture Department, which oversees the nation’s school lunch program, launched the program ahead of schedule in March and has kept it running since. However, federal officials were planning to let certain parts of the meal program expire at the end of September. Most notably, starting in August, families would have had to pay for their food and pick it up from the school their child attends. School leaders feared that stricter lunch program eligibility would make it harder for students to eat “Today, we are . . . extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement Monday. This will “ensure meals are reaching all children — whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually.” The extension means school officials can serve meals “in all areas and at no cost,” outside typical meal times and to parents and guardians who show up without their children, according to a USDA news release. The last item is an important one for families of immunocompromised children. Those families spoke up early in the spring to demand, and eventually win, that flexibility. Roughly 30 million students across the U.S. eat school meals; of those, 22 million live in households whose income levels — no more than 185% of the federal poverty level — qualify them for free or reduced-price meals. The number of families reliant on school meals has probably increased over the summer, after the pandemic stalled the economy and drove unemployment to record levels. Perdue’s announcement marks a significant reversal from his department’s previous position. School leaders nationwide had begun to sound the alarm about the meal program’s expiration in late August, as the new school year approached. Officials in the DMV warned that ending the program would force children to go hungry. In the news release Monday, USDA officials acknowledged the impact of the school leaders’ pressure campaign, even as they noted that the new extensions fall short of what had been requested. “While there have been some well-meaning people asking USDA to fund this through the entire 2020-2021 school year, we are obligated not to spend more than is appropriated by Congress,” the release said. “Congress did not authorize enough funding for the entire 2020-2021 school year.”
Earlier this summer, some election officials warned of a possible shortage of volunteers to work polls in the DMV come November. But a recent surge in interest has left those officials with more poll workers than they may need. “We have too many right now, to be honest,” said Eric Olsen, deputy director of Arlington County’s Board of Elections. “I can’t remember an election where I felt where we had this many people.” Olsen said he expects his county to need 750 poll workers for the November election. There were 1,000 applicants in August alone. In D.C., Board of Elections Executive Director Alice Miller said she needs 4,000 poll workers for early voting and Election Day and has already trained 1,300, with another 4,000 still waiting. In Maryland, a move to trim the number of polling places and use state workers as election judges has eased the crisis caused when many of the traditional older poll workers opted out this year due to COVID-19 concerns. “We were having an emergency situation with the election judges, but that crisis has passed,” said David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials. Poll workers do everything from opening polling places and checking-in voters to providing assistance and tabulating vote counts at the end of Election Day. “Without them, it would be impossible to run the election,” Garreis said. Election officials in D.C., Maryland and Virginia attribute the end of the shortage of poll workers to a rise in volunteers, to jurisdictions choosing to consolidate polling places and to elected leaders marshaling the power of their workforce to serve at the polls. Both D.C. and Maryland have chosen not to open every normal polling place. Instead, they will open a few large voting centers where residents can cast their ballots early or on Election Day. Both jurisdictions are also using government employees as poll workers. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said his administration drafted 11,000, in part by offering workers 16 hours of administrative leave to work the polls. In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser said she will do much the same. “We are going to work with our own employees to help make sure [the D.C. Board of Elections has] enough people,” Bowser said last week. Both Olsen and Miller say they have noticed a spike in interest among younger people who are signing up to be poll workers for the first time. That marks a generational shift of sorts. During the 2016 general election, Pew Research found that 56% of U.S. poll workers were 61 years and older, mirroring the demographics of voters. “Definitely a lot of 20-somethings and 30-somethings and 40-somethings are in the mix here that have heard the message that seniors aren’t going to work the polls and they need to step in,” said Olsen. “There are a lot of first-time poll workers,” said Miller of the people she’s sees signing up for trainings in D.C. “I love it. We love our veteran poll workers because they know the process, but to introduce new people is always a good thing because we need everyone involved.” Both Miller and Olsen said the spike in interest among younger people has come in part from media reporting on the election, as well as professional associations representing attorneys and realtors motivating members to work the polls. Business are also stepping up. Compass Coffee said it would offer employees paid time off to work the polls. Still, some election officials are waiting to celebrate. They say it is better to have more people sign up to work the polls than are needed, since not all people complete training and changing conditions could suddenly require more poll workers than initially expected. “I’m always holding back enthusiasm because while we are grateful for our civic minded county residents, there’s always a process,” says Gilberto Zelaya of the Montgomery County Board of Elections. “Between Point A and Point Z, things get in the way. We’re doing well so far, but until we cross that finish line. We’re being cautious. We’re still looking for individuals. We always want to have a stand-by team.” Last week, officials in Prince William County said they are still looking for 1,600 volunteers to work at 93 polling places. Still, Keith Scarborough, the secretary of the Prince William County Board of Elections, said he would like to see more young people sign up to work the polls. “We haven’t gotten as a great a response as we have from middle-age professionals. We’re trying to do what we can to reach out to young people. Once people try it, they have a positive experience. It’s not rocket science, but younger people are more comfortable with the technology. We’re hopeful we’ll get more millennials and young people to sign up,” he said.
The Planet Word Museum, 925 13th St. NW, will finally open its doors to the public on Oct. 22. The museum, which was slated to open in May, made the announcement Tuesday. It will feature interactive galleries and exhibits centered around words, reading and public speaking, billing itself as the first voice-activated museum of its kind. Housed in the historic Franklin School building, where Alexander Graham Bell made the first wireless voice transmission in 1880, the museum was founded by philanthropist Ann Friedman. “During the coronavirus pandemic, our focus has remained on the health and safety of our employees, contractors and future visitors,” Friedman, also the museum’s CEO, said in a press release. “We’ve continued the work of designing immersive and interactive galleries, curating content to feature in our exhibits and revitalizing the historic Franklin School, with deference to guidance from public health officials.” Like other museums that have reopened during the pandemic, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the National Gallery of Art, Planet Word will open on a limited basis with safety protocols. General admission will be free, but visitors must register in advance for timed tickets. Masks will be required and social distancing measures will be enforced. The museum will also provide stylus pens for its interactive exhibits, so visitors won’t have to touch surfaces. In addition to spaces for listening to poetry and solving puzzles, the museum will also host an immersive “Portal” from the arts collective Shared Studios. The shipping container Portal will be outfitted with immersive AV technology that will allow visitors to communicate with other people around the world like they are in the same room. In the museum’s courtyard, visitors can walk underneath “Speaking Willow,” a tree sculpture from artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that will play poems and sayings in various languages from motion-activated speakers. The museum’s construction was delayed in 2018, when the city issued a stop-work order after learning that parts of the building’s interior had been removed or changed, a violation of D.C.’s strict historic preservation rules. The building, which has served as a public school, homeless shelter and more in its more than 150-year history, is an official National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Friedman cited her inexperience in real estate development as the reason for the mistake and implemented regular meetings and walk-throughs with city officials to avoid further issues. The museum said in the release that it has met its initial $20 million goal to cover the creation of the museum’s exhibits and its start-up operating costs.
Public tours of the White House, halted nearly six months ago due to the coronavirus outbreak, will resume Sept. 12 with new health and safety policies in place. Tours will resume two days a week instead of five, and for just a few hours a day, the first lady’s office announced Tuesday. Tours will be offered from 8-11 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The number of visitors will also be capped at 18%. “In order to ensure the safety and health of all visitors, there have been new policies implemented that align with the guidance issued by federal, state and local officials,” the White House said. All guests ages 2 and older will be required to wear a face covering and practice social distancing. Social distancing dots will be placed on the ground to guide guests during check-in, and hand sanitizer will be available in multiple locations. National Park Service workers, U.S. Secret Service officers and White House Visitors Office staff working the tour route will wear face coverings and gloves, and encourage social distancing while interacting with guests.
The coronavirus pandemic is having a catastrophic impact on the downtown D.C. economy. A new report from the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, a nonprofit that provides services to downtown businesses, residents and property owners inside its 138 square blocks bounded by Massachusetts Avenue to the north, Constitution Avenue to the south, Louisiana Avenue to the east and 16th Street to the west, sums up just how bad the pandemic has been for business in a part of the city that had been an economic engine. Just 5% of office employees worked from an office in the BID in July, according to the report. The daytime population, including residents and commuters, fell 90% from 225,000 in February to 22,000 in July. Only 48% of downtown’s hotel rooms were available in July, but occupancy was only 8% due to the lack of business travel, conventions and tourism. Downtown restaurants, several of which have permanently closed during the pandemic, including high-end destinations Momofuku and The Source, have yielded 20%-40% of their 2019 sales. Brick-and-mortar retail sales have been sagging across the country for a while now, but destination stores in downtown D.C. were ringing up just 30%-50% of their 2019 sales in July while five destination stores closed permanently and retail vacancy reached a record high of 17.1% in July. Arts, sports and entertainment, central to the resurgence of downtown D.C. after the 1968 riots, have been shut down by COVID-19. More than 1,000 performances were canceled at downtown venues through December for a loss of 400,000 patrons this year, the report says, especially devastating to restaurants, parking garages and Metro. Housing was the strongest economic sector, despite apartment vacancies rising to 8.1% in downtown D.C.. Luxury rents were still fairly high as of June with Class A apartments were renting at an average of $3.37 per square foot per month in June, or about $2,700 per month for an 800 square foot apartment. That is up from an average of $2,640 per month for similar apartments at the end of last year. Nonetheless, downtown economic activity in July was 12% of what it was in 2019, the BID estimated. The numbers add up to a grim reality for business owners, landlords and workers in the city’s central business district, not to mention the city’s budget. D.C. may have to cut an additional $500 million from its FY 2021 budget, based on a worst-case-scenario forecast from the city’s chief financial officer. The possible loss of tax revenue will likely only intensify pressure on the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser to cut spending. That could have long-term consequences for budget priorities like affordable housing, as well as city services to assist residents who have lost income during the pandemic. In 2019, downtown D.C. contributed nearly 16% of D.C.’s gross tax revenue, with a net fiscal impact of $870 million, according to the BID’s State of Downtown 2019 report. The new analysis notes that federal unemployment benefits and the Paycheck Protection Program were “very helpful” to workers and businesses in downtown D.C. So was the $33 million microgrant program the city created to help businesses during the crisis, and other measures like sales and hotel property tax deferments and D.C.’s decision to allow commercial construction to continue as the virus spread. But even those factors won’t be enough to fill the gap in downtown D.C.’s economy. Federal unemployment benefits have dried up, the Paycheck Protection Program hasn’t worked that well for restaurants, microgrant applications are closed, taxes probably won’t be forgiven and new construction is likely to slide if the local economy enters a full-on recession. And signs of a return to normal are faint to nonexistent, the report says. “It is very likely that [downtown D.C.] will continue at a low level of economic activity for the next few months — until the office worker, the business traveler, the out-of-town tourist, the conventioneer, the sports fan, the museum-goer, the theatre lover and the live music fan and other entertainment patrons return.”
Hundreds of thousands of students in D.C. and Maryland hit some snags as they returned to the classroom virtually on Monday. In Montgomery County, students received error messages when they tried to log on. In Prince George’s County, children missed half of their morning classes when pages on school-issued Chromebooks wouldn’t load. In D.C., a school hotline set up to troubleshoot technology issues received 3,000 calls. School leaders spent the summer planning for the fall, weighing the possibility of bringing students back to classrooms for at least part of the school week. But as COVID-19 cases rose and teachers protested plans to return, every school system in the DMV opted to begin the year online. “We cannot jeopardize the health and well-being of our students, staff and community,” Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack R. Smith said in a letter to families. “For our virtual learning model, our highest priority is to ensure excellence, access and equity in the learning experience for all of our students.” Some families in the 163,000-student school district faced their first obstacle early Monday when students trying to log on to Zoom or the online portal they use to access learning materials wouldn’t load or gave them an error message. The connectivity issues resulted from issues with CenturyLink, an internet service provider that experienced an outage Sunday, said MCPS spokesperson Derek Turner. He said the issues were resolved before noon. In Prince George’s County, webpages on Google Classroom and online student portals wouldn’t load. Prince George’s County Schools spokesperson Gabrielle Brown said two of the county’s more than 200 schools experienced problems because too many people were using the same web server. She said the 133,000-student school system fixed the problem by moving the schools to different servers. She did not say which schools experienced issues. In D.C. Public Schools, about 60% of families said they needed a digital device and 27%t said they needed internet access, but not every student had one on Monday morning. “DCPS is committed to promoting equity by ensuring every family who needs technology and support to complete learning at home has it,” Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said Monday. Some parents who received devices from the school system reported programs and services that did not work and long wait times on the technology hotline established by DCPS. Ferebee said most families who called needed to have passwords reset. He said the school system directed more staff to help address families’ technology troubles.
A new $4 million initiative in Virginia will help cover the legal costs of renters facing evictions. Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday that furniture giant IKEA was donating $2 million for the effort, which will pay for 20 legal aid attorneys during the next two years. The governor said the funding is critical to help the state’s poor amid the coronavirus pandemic. The state is matching the grant with $2 million from revenue generated by so-called “gray machines” that look and play like slot machines and have proliferated in bars and convenience stores in recent years. The money will go to the Legal Services Corp. of Virginia, which oversees regional legal aid programs geared toward providing legal services to the poor. Lawmakers are currently considering a proposal by Northam to ban evictions until May.
After 12 hours of testimony late last week, the Maryland Public Service Commission voted 4-1 Monday to extend the state’s moratorium on utility service shutoffs through Oct. 1. Chairman Jason M. Stanek cast his proposal as a balance between protecting the needs of consumers, many of whom have been hammered financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the needs of utilities that have also suffered from the economic downturn. “Solutions from a problem of this magnitude do not come easy,” he said. In addition to extending the moratorium on service shutoffs until Oct. 1, the measure adopted by the PSC also requires utilities to supply residential ratepayers with a 45-day notice that service will be terminated. Residential customers in arrears would have 45 days from receipt of a notice to work out a payment plan with their utility or to apply for energy assistance programs. Customers who take either action would not have service disconnected. It also requires utilities to offer a 12-month repayment plan for consumers who are in arrears — and a 24-month repayment for low-income ratepayers whose payments are in arrears. The measure also decrees that no down payment is required by consumers who enter into a repayment agreement with a utility and that negotiations between a utility and a consumer over a repayment plan cannot be cut off if the consumer has been in arrears in the past. Commissioners noted that the state’s Office of Home Energy Programs has about $170 million available to low-income Marylanders who need relief with their energy bills. But Michael T. Richard, who voted against the plan, called Stanek’s proposal inadequate. “This is no time for business as usual and [to] throw Marylanders at the mercy of monopoly utilities,” he said. Richard said he preferred a “sound, moderate and compassionate” proposal put forward by the Office of People’s Counsel, a unit of the state attorney general’s office that represents consumers before the PSC on utility matters, that sought a longer-term moratorium on service shutoffs. More than 60 members of the General Assembly sent a letter to the PSC last month in support of the proposal. “What we’re doing today is putting too much power in the hands of utilities,” Richard said.
D.C. is getting a pop-up drive-in movie theater this fall at Buzzard Point near Audi Field in Southwest D.C. Drive-in theaters have become popular during the pandemic, with viewers watching from the safety of their cars. Although many of the local drive-ins are limited to summer, the Capitol Riverfront Drive-In Movie Series, hosted by the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, will be open every Friday at 7:30 p.m. from Sept. 25-Oct. 30 at the Akridge Lot, 100 V St. SW. “We recognize the challenges the District has faced over the last few months, and we wanted to create an experience where residents and visitors alike could gather for an entertaining activity while still maintaining a safe distance,” BID president Michael Stevens said in a statement. Attendance will be limited to 75 cars per movie. Tickets are $20 per carload, with the funds going to the Capital Area Food Bank, D.C. Central Kitchen and Van Ness Elementary School. Drive-in theaters have made a comeback during the pandemic — a chance to leave the house and watch films on the big screen, rather than a laptop or TV. Alhough some movie theaters have reopened in Virginia, they are still closed under D.C. and Maryland reopening guidelines. Food will not be available, but moviegoers may take their own. Alcohol is prohibited.
Sept. 25 – Selma (PG-13)
Oct. 2 – Abominable (PG)
Oct. 9 – Knives Out (PG-13)
Oct. 16 – Frankenstein & Dracula double header
Oct. 23 – Us (R)
Oct. 30 – People’s choice of Beetlejuice (PG), The Corpse Bride (PG), The Addams Family (PG-13) or Poltergeist (PG)
MGM National Harbor laid off nearly 800 employees Monday as the casino chain suffers during the coronavirus pandemic. A spokesman for MGM National Harbor confirmed that 779 employees lost their jobs Monday as part of corporate cutbacks. MGM laid off 18,000 previously furloughed workers nationwide. “While we have safely resumed operations at many of our properties and have returned tens of thousands of our colleagues to work, our industry – and country – continues to be impacted by the pandemic, and we have not returned to full operating capacity,” CEO Bill Hornbuckle said in a statement. “Federal law requires companies to provide a date of separation for furloughed employees who are not recalled within six months. Regrettably, August 31 marks [that] date,” Hornbuckle said in a letter to employees. The company will continue health benefits for affected employees through Sept. 30. MGM said it will welcome back laid off employees as it begins to add staff. MGM National Harbor reopened at limited capacity in June after months of shutdown due to the pandemic.
When employees begin returning to work rather than telecommuting as their offices reopen, commuters will likely face more cars on the roads. Auto sales remain lower than a year ago, but those sales, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, rose in recent months as Americans swap public transportation for private transportation or plan for their return to work.. Despite Metro’s recent return to near-normal service, ridership remains significantly lower than before the pandemic. In June, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority reported average daily rail entries of 52,000, compared to 633,000 entries in June 2019. Automotive marketplace Cars.com reports 21% of U.S. consumers it surveyed in August purchased cars in the last six months, and 57% of those said they did so because of the pandemic. Cars.com found 62% of workers swapped public transportation for cars. And 60% of subway or commuter rail riders nationwide either have stopped riding or are riding less frequently. When it comes to bus riders, 65% either stopped riding or are riding less frequently. Almost half of everyone surveyed by Cars.com — 43% — said they lack faith in fellow passengers to abide by health and safety protocols, while 57% only moderately trust other passengers. “When they do finally return to the office, it won’t be via mass transit. Personal vehicles will dominate the work commute as distrust in public transport and ride-sharing continues,” said Matt Schmitz, assistant managing editor for Cars.com. Uber reported second quarter rides were down 73% from a year ago. The company’s Uber Eats business was more than double what it was a year ago. The Cars.com survey found 49% believe it will be at least three months before their travel on mass transit returns to pre-COVID levels, and 7% said they will never resume their pre-COVID levels. Cars.com said 3,062 people responded to its survey from Aug. 13-14.
Montgomery County health officials will reopen more free COVID-19 test sites this week, after the county closed sites two weeks ago when its test supplier, Rockville-based AdvaGenix, was ordered to stop processing coronavirus tests by the Maryland Department of Health. Test sites provide walk-in and drive-thru tests and do not require an appointment or a doctor’s order The sites will use self-administered nasal swab from CIAN Diagnostic Labs in Frederick, under a contract with the state. Testing will be conducted at PlumGar Community Recreation Center and Wheaton Library & Community Recreation Center from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. today and at the Silver Spring Civic Building from 1-7 p.m.; at the White Oak Community Recreation Center from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesday; the Wheaton Library and a CDC Mobile Lab Trailer at Lakeforest Mall, both from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday; the White Oak Community Rec Center fr9m 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and the Silver Spring Civic Building from 1 p.m.-7 p.m. on Thursday; and the PlumGar Community Rec Center and a CDC Mobile Testing Trailer at the Recreation Department Administrative Building in Silver Spring from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday.
The D.C. Superior Court granted a temporary restraining order preventing Washington Sports Club from collecting fees on Sept. 1 from customers who canceled their membership between March 17-June 22. Customers should have received a confirmation email of the cancellation. The gym, operated by Town Sports International, currently has four D.C. locations along with two in Maryland. “The Court is satisfied that the District has shown a [temporary restraining order] is warranted to prevent ongoing unlawful trade practices,” Judge Yvonne Williams said in her order Friday. At a preliminary injunction hearing on Sept. 23 the company must address how it will credit consumers who were charged during the three months the gyms were closed. Stuart Steinberg, general counsel for Town Sports, said the company has already credited those that canceled their membership during the three months gyms were forced to close under D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s executive order. “All those members have already been terminated and we have not been taking their money with the possible exception of one or two that may have fallen through the cracks,” Steinberg said. The ruling comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed Aug. 20 by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine alleging the gym has not processed membership cancellations or credited fees to members as promised in April. The company said it would credit fees back to customers and allow members to cancel without penalty. The promise came after Racine and attorneys general from New York and Pennsylvania sent a letter on April 4 telling the company to stop charging customers for memberships they were unable to use due to the coronavirus shutdown. Racine said his office received more than 50 complaints. “Unfortunately, we’ve got a raft of complaints that Washington Sports Club once again has broken its promise,” Racine said in April. Steinberg said Town International has made it very clear to members in correspondence how to cancel, either by going through the website or sending a letter to the club. The confusion, he said, may come from the fact that a member may not have canceled correctly, which means they wouldn’t have gotten an email confirmation. He said anyone who thought they canceled but didn’t get a confirmation to contact the company directly. This isn’t the first time D.C. has sued the company over deceptive practices. In January 2019, the attorney general’s 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 the contract required cancellations to be done in writing with a 30-day notice. Members ended up being charged while thinking they had canceled. In late 2016, cancellation and membership issues also resulted in the attorney general’s involvement.
Montgomery Parks, part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, is extending its Open Parkways initiative to allow pedestrians and cyclists to use closed-off parkways in the county for recreational purposes until further notice. “People are really taking advantage of the open parkways as a great way to exercise and enjoy nature while still being able to stay safe during the COVID-19 crisis,” Mike Riley, director of Montgomery Parks, said in a press release. “The recent decision by Montgomery County Public Schools to hold school virtually for the first semester reminds us that we are still very much in the midst of the pandemic and need these outdoor opportunities. In response, we plan to continue this initiative until further notice.” On Labor Day weekend, the parkways will be available beginning at 9 a.m. Friday through 7 a.m. the following Tuesday. The following parkways will then be available for recreation on weekends: Sligo Creek Parkway between Old Carroll Avenue and Piney Branch Road and between Forest Glen Road and University Boulevard West from 9 a.m. Friday through 6 p.m. Sunday; Little Falls Parkway between Massachusetts Avenue and Arlington Road from 7 a.m. Saturday through 6 p.m. Sunday; and Beach Drive between Connecticut Avenue and Knowles Avenue from 9 a.m. Friday through 6 p.m. Sunday. People using the parkways should follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, including wearing face covering and maintaining social distance.
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.