Bowser Aide Hid Metrics to Enter Phase 2
COVID-19 Cases Reach 263,025 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of yesterday morning, 14,552 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 616 deaths; there have been 115,533 cases in Maryland with 3,693 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 132,940 cases with 2,722 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
Emails obtained from the office of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser suggest that city officials removed unflattering data from the city’s COVID-19 dashboard in mid-June, rushing to reopen as the data showed the city failing to meet one key metric. City officials deny they hid the data, and said they safely followed their own metrics when moving into Phase Two of reopening. The emails, released in response to an open-records request by law student Allison Hrabar, cover a period from June 8-21, a day before D.C. moved into Phase Two. In an email sent the morning of June 20, D.C. Health Communications Director Kimberly Henderson noticed a spike in community spread of COVID-19 earlier in the month, referring to the number of infectious people in the city. That spike on June 11 disrupted a 14-day decrease in cases, one of the key metrics for moving to Phase Two. In response, Benjamin Fritsch, a member of Bowser’s communications team and former press secretary for D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, wrote back, “Please hold on posting data. Thank you.” By noon that day, data about the increase in community spread was posted online. But within hours, it was gone. The emails from Bowser’s office suggest that Fritsch intentionally pushed to remove the data. The following day, Fritsch wrote, “Please do not update the community spread element of the ReOpen dashboard. All the other data is good to go.” The community spread figure was a key parameter in Phase Two reopening. In a presentation on June 8, city officials identified six metrics for reopening: a 14-day sustained decrease in community spread, a low transmission rate, a positivity rate below 15% for seven days and hospital capacity below 80% for 14 days. In addition, officials set two contact tracing metrics: to make a first contact attempt for 90% of new positive cases within a day and to attempt to reach the close contacts of 90% of new cases within two days. The emails released in response to Hrabar’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal the city did not meet its own criteria. On the day D.C. moved to Phase Two, a mayor’s staff member noted the city had only achieved a 13-day decrease in community spread. Its contact tracing efforts also came up short. In a statement, Bowser’s office denied that there was an attempt to conceal any COVID-19 data. “Throughout this pandemic, D.C. has been a leader in transparency and making data publicly available so that Washingtonians have the information they need to protect themselves, their families and our community. We have and will always strive to ensure the data we present is clear, concise and accurate. The emails reflect the process, and we present the data in a way that is understandable and gives residents and press confidence in our response and recovery efforts,” the office wrote. Further, a source in the mayor’s office said the city took down the community spread data initially because the unusual development required a more detailed explanation. The mayor’s office said it posted the June 11 spike in cases later in the week, and the community spread data that is now available includes that rise. According to the mayor’s office, D.C. reached a 14-day sustained decrease on June 18 and reopened days later to give businesses time to prepare. That claim, however, contradicts several increases in community spread: on June 8, June 11 and June 15. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says one-day upticks in new cases can have different meanings. Sometimes they indicate a wider spread of the virus, and sometimes they simply reflect a large testing event. Still, he said removing the data was the wrong call. “The right thing to have done would have been to hold off on the reopening and confirm that this is an isolated uptick or to confirm the fact that community transmission is increasing again,” Beyrer said. In D.C., however, the consequences do not appear to have been dire, he said. Cases increased slightly, then plateaued and slowly fell from mid-August. In total, 616 people died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Contact tracers now reach nearly all new cases within a day. “They’re reporting pretty good rates of contact tracing and increasing rates of testing,” Beyrer said. “Those are all elements of getting the epidemic under control.” Still, there are ominous signs. Last Thursday saw another spike in cases with 81 new cases reported. Hospitals were at 84% capacity the same day. D.C. remains far from moving to Phase Three of its reopening plan. Hrabar, 26, says monotony drove her to look at the data. She says she was observing strict quarantine “because I don’t have great lungs,” and began monitoring the daily numbers the city published on COVID-19. “In June, I became very obsessed with it, and I was just checking it every day and just seeing what our progress was,” she said. “I just started noticing it was inconsistent or poorly reported, so I started posting screenshots on Twitter.” She now attends law school virtually at New York University while living in D.C. Hrabar sent FOIA requests to the mayor’s office, D.C. Health and the Office of the Chief Technology Officer for the District of Columbia, which posts data to the coronavirus dashboard. Only the mayor’s office provided her with documents.
The University of Maryland is set to resume limited in-person classes Monday following three rounds of campus-wide COVID-19 testing. About 15% of undergraduate classes will resume in-person classes under the university’s “cautious, phased approach,” university President Darryll Pines said in a message Thursday. “This represents a small but important step toward pursuing the full richness of a university experience that comes from an on-campus environment, where a community of scholars, students and staff unite for an academic, research, residential, social and athletic experience,” Pines said. Over the past 15 days, the university conducted nearly 19,000 COVID-19 tests, with 135 positives cases — a positivity rate of 0.7%. In addition, there were 143 self-reported cases at the university, which are unconfirmed, Pines said. The school’s positivity rate is well below the positivity rate for the rest of Prince George’s County, which is 5.26%, and the state of Maryland, which is 3.76%. Even as it is moving toward the limited return to in-person classes, Pines said there remains “several areas of concern,” including a recent rise in the number of cases in athletics programs that forced the school to pause all training until all student-athletes are re-tested and a surge in cases involving Greek life houses. Earlier this month, the university said 46 student-athletes from 10 different teams tested positive. And earlier last week, a report in the university’s student-run newspaper said residents of two Greek life houses — the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house and the Sigma Kappa sorority house — were asked to self-quarantine. Another potential trouble spot is the university’s quarantine and isolation space, which is already at 62% capacity, although Pines said many students will cycle out of their isolation periods by end of last week. “If we are to maintain in-person instruction and on-campus housing for our students, these areas must see improvement,” Pines said. “We must remain vigilant in our actions.” The university is set to conduct another round of campus-wide testing during the weeks of Sept. 14, 21 and 28. In addition, residence halls, classrooms and labs are all operating with “significantly lower levels of occupancy,” and cleaning and disinfecting efforts have been stepped up, Pines said. In his message, Pines also pointed out that the College Park City Council recently approved an ordinance that increases fines of up to $1,000 for anyone violating local health guidelines. The university’s fall semester began Aug. 31, but all classes were online the first two weeks.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Virginia fell below 1,000 Saturday for the first time since July 9, even as the state reported 1,300 new cases. The number of patients being treated statewide in intensive care units and on respirators also fell to their lowest levels in two months – 228 and 113, respectively — according to data from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. In Northern Virginia, 217 patients were reported to be hospitalized for treatment of the coronavirus, the lowest number since July 28. Hospitalizations in Northern Virginia peaked at 818 on April 30 and were more than 300 as recently as Aug. 18. The 1,300 new cases reported statewide Saturday was the highest single-day number since Aug. 8 and increased the seven-day average to 1,030, the highest since Aug. 13, the Virginia Department of Health reported. It isn’t clear how many of the new cases are related to outbreaks at Virginia colleges and universities. On Saturday, Virginia Tech suspended all football activities for four days and postponed its Sept. 19 game against the University of Virginia until December due to the number of COVID-19 cases among its own football players. The state health department’s outbreak data shows only 494 cases reported in outbreaks at educational institutions, but James Madison University alone has reported more than 1,000 cases. Northern Virginia localities reported 281 new cases on Saturday, with 136 of those from Fairfax County. The region’s seven-day average stands at 228, generally in line with trends over the past six weeks. State health officials reported 11 new deaths linked to COVID-19, including two in Northern Virginia.
Peeps, the colorful marshmallow treats, are disappearing for several months as the coronavirus pandemic halts production. Just Born Quality Confections said it won’t produce the popular marshmallow sweets for Halloween, Christmas or Valentine’s Day as the Bethlehem, Pa.-based company prepares for Easter, pennlive.com reported. The company suspended production in the spring as the coronavirus spread across the country. Limited production resumed in mid-May with new protocols in place to protect employees, Just Born said. “This situation resulted in us having to make the difficult decision to forego production of our seasonal candies for Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day in order to focus on meeting the expected overwhelming demand for Peeps for next Easter season, as well as our everyday candies,” the company said. Easter is one of their biggest and busiest times of the year for confectioners as children and adults use the holiday as an excuse to indulge in candy eggs and chocolate bunnies. Just Born, which has been in business since 1923, said holiday packaging for its other candies, including Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales, are expected to return by Halloween 2021. “We look forward to offering our fun seasonal shapes and packaging at all major seasons again beginning with Halloween of 2021,” the company said.
D.C. reported its highest number of new COVID-19 cases in nearly a month Friday. The city recorded 81 new cases, the biggest number since Aug. 14, when 94 cases were logged. It fell back to 59 on Saturday. Since the beginning of September, D.C. has seen daily cases between 25-47. Prior to Aug. 14, daily cases hovered between 40-70. The city’s seven-day average of new cases has steadily decreased since mid-August, dropping to 40 on Thursday for the first time since July 8. It isn’t known how Friday’s jump will impact that measure. The city has also maintained a positivity rate — the number of positive cases out of total tests administered — below 3% since Aug. 15. Day-by-day jumps are only one metric in looking at how the coronavirus is spreading in the community. The city also measures community spread, which measures new cases by the date symptoms begin and excludes cases in congregate settings like nursing homes and jails, rather than test date. There were 43 cases reported in this tally on Friday, reflecting cases with a symptom onset of August 29.
A second-grade student and teacher at Holy Redeemer Catholic School in Kensington tested positive for coronavirus this week. Archdiocese of Washington spokesperson Paula Gwynn Grant said the student at the Montgomery County school tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday after showing mild symptoms on Tuesday. Grant said this was after the student’s teacher had already tested positive earlier in the week. The school community was updated by Holy Redeemer’s principal that the student is now symptom-free and healthy, according to Grant, but the class and the employee remain quarantined based on guidance from the Montgomery County Health Department. As a result, Holy Redeemer students had virtual learning last week and will continue until Sept. 18. Of 21 archdiocese schools in Montgomery County, 10 are following a hybrid schedule that blends online and in-person learning, while seven have chosen in-person learning, with families able to do all virtual classes if they wish. Four of the 21 schools opened in an all-virtual mode. The opening status of private schools in Montgomery County was the subject of a lawsuit filed by parents and an executive order by Gov. Larry Hogan in August. County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles initially issued an order to keep nonpublic schools closed until at least October. Gayles later rescinded the directive after a memo from the Maryland state health secretary said county health officers are prohibited from closing such schools in a “blanket” manner. Hogan, who issued an executive order to block the move, applauded Montgomery County’s decision to rescind the directive. The original order was the target of a lawsuit by parents and families of the archdiocese, but its court hearing was canceled, although the case remains pending to see how Gayles “treats “religious and private schools going forward,” according to lawyer Timothy Maloney. In D.C., St. Peter School on Capitol Hill also had a teacher test positive, the archdiocese said.
Beginning Sept. 20, the D.C. Circulator bus will resume its route along the National Mall and the D.C. Streetcar will return to its pre-pandemic hours. Face coverings or masks are required at all times, and passengers must enter and exit through the back doors of the bus. “As we gradually and safely reopen the District’s attractions and cultural spaces downtown and elsewhere, we are expanding public transit options to provide commuters and visitors with free, socially-distanced travel,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a press release Friday. The restoration of the route and hours follows the recent resumption of other transportation service across the region, and the Phase Two reopening of some downtown D.C. museums. The Circulator extended its hours in late August, while last week all Metro stations reopened for the first time since the pandemic began. Starting Sept. 20, the Circulator will resume its weekday hours along the Mall from 6 a.m.-7 p.m. and weekend hours from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Rides are still free for all routes. The streetcar will resume its normal hours of 6 a.m.-midnight Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.
Montgomery County health officials are investigating COVID-19 outbreaks at several private schools in the county. Several non-public schools in the county are holding in-person classes, contrary to guidance from county officials. “We currently have, I think, seven ongoing investigations that involve non-public schools that have cases,” said County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles during a press conference Thursday. So far this fall, Gayles said, the county health department has investigated approximately 13 schools and has quarantined two groups of students who may have been exposed. He declined to name the schools due to privacy concerns and the ongoing nature of investigations. Montgomery County Public Schools is conducting all-virtual classes, and plans to continue through at least the end of the first semester, which ends in late January, but private schools were allowed to open, after a faceoff between county and state health officials. After rescinding a prohibition on private schools opening, Gayles continued to “strongly advise schools against in-person learning due to the risks posed by COVID-19.” Gayles said the protocol for investigating COVID-19 cases at private schools is the same as for public schools. Under state regulations, schools must report any cases to the local health department, which then conducts a contact tracing investigation. Gayles said that based on the results of that investigation, county officials then determine the appropriate action for each school, which could include, “closing a classroom, cleaning a building or closing an entire school for the time needed for a full quarantine and isolation.”
Maryland will buy and deploy 250,000 rapid antigen COVID-19 tests within days under a multi-state compact signed by six states back in early August, which has since grown to 10 states to acquire rapid tests that are able to provide results within 15-20 minutes. Gov. Larry Hogan said during a press conference Thursday that state, which is the first to get the tests, will initially deploy them in congregate settings like nursing homes, assisted living centers, juvenile detention centers and correctional facilities in the state. There are also discussions of sending the tests to college campuses and dormitories. “We are going to get them into utilization as soon as we get the first supply which, I think, is days away,” Hogan said. The tests that Maryland is acquiring are from Becton, Dickinson and Co., which is one of four companies to receive emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. They have a facility in Baltimore County, which is where the governor made the announcement. Each test costs roughly $30, Hogan said, which works out to an initial purchase of $7.5 million. That cost is covered by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant. However, government officials cautioned that the tests should not replace molecular PCR tests that are more common. PCR tests are more sensitive and provide more accurate results than antigen tests. But rapid antigen tests are a crucial tool in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, particularly as it relates to initial screening of large populations. The speed of results allow testing to be done more often and quickly. In congregate settings, like in nursing homes and even schools, it can help provide a roadmap to isolate infections. Currently, Maryland has done more than 2.1 million tests covering just under 25% of its population. For the moment, rapid antigen tests remain hard to come by and limited in the DMV, mainly due to the lack of availability of supplies needed for the tests and concerns over their performance. However, Maryland’s upcoming deployment of a quarter of a million tests that they claim to have an accuracy rate of about 85% may change that. Presumably, Virginia, which was also part of the original August compact, isn’t far behind.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam eased restrictions on restaurants and gatherings in the Hampton Roads area, which includes Virginia Beach, bringing them back in line with the rest of the state Following a surge of cases in the region in late June and early July, Northam ordered restaurants to limit capacity to 50%, stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. and close at midnight. In addition, he banned gatherings of more than 50 people. Elsewhere in the state, restaurants are allowed to operate at full capacity, provided social distancing guidelines are followed, and gatherings of up to 250 people are allowed. The region’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases peaked at 483 on July 25, just a few days before the restrictions were enacted, and has fallen steadily since, averaging 163 on Thursday. “Hampton Roads residents, businesses and health officials have worked together to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Northam said in a press release. “New cases have dropped by more than half, hospitalizations have declined and percent positivity has fallen below the statewide average. But we cannot let our guard down — we all must continue practicing social distancing, wearing facial coverings and following all public health guidelines. If we want to keep moving forward, we must stay vigilant and do the things that we know will keep our communities safe.” In addition to Virgnia Beach, the area includes Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Williamsburg, Newport News and Poquoson as well as James City County and York County.
Art All Night, D.C.’s annual overnight arts festival, will go virtual this year. In a normal year, the festival pulls together a night’s worth of artistic events involving hundreds of artists and thousands of participants in neighborhoods around the city. Fire dancing, body paint and glow-in-the-dark dance parties are typical mainstays of the evening. Due to the coronavirus, D.C. has reimagined the 2020 festival as a “two-week virtual activation,” according to a press release from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, featuring online workshops, performances and exhibits. The mayor’s office said the event will still feature hundreds of artists and businesses, as well as promotions from local restaurants. This year marks Art All Night’s 10th anniversary. The festival launched in 2011 in the Shaw neighborhood. D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities took the event over in 2016. The festival kicks off on Sunday, when 10 business corridors in the city’s Main Streets program launch online marketplaces featuring local artists’ works. Over the following two weekends — Sept. 18-19 and 25-26 — the city will put on virtual performances by D.C. artists. So far, headliners include musician Aaron Abernathy, go-go group TakeOvaBand (TOB), hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon and the CPU Congo Players. The virtual event will have more of a focus on promoting local businesses than in previous years. Sundays through Thursdays, the festival will promote deals from local businesses and live-streamed events like yoga classes and fashion showcases. These events will be organized by themes, such as Date Night and Kid-Friendly Events. “This year, our virtual celebration will showcase the unifying power of art, even in these unprecedented times,” Bowser said in the release. Art All Night is the latest in a lineup of annual city events that have moved online due to the pandemic.
Facing a pandemic-induced budget shortfall, Metro is proposing closing two hours early most weeknights, running trains less frequently and requiring bus riders to start paying fares again as part of a plan to close about a $250 budget shortfall unless the federal government provides more funding. The WMATA Board is set to discuss the upcoming fiscal year’s budget today. In budget documents, Metro said ridership has failed to bounce back as initially expected, with most schools in the area providing virtual classes and many employees continuing to telework. “These factors have heavily suppressed revenue and ridership,” the budget documents state. Overall, ridership across bus and rail is still down about 88% compared to pre-pandemic levels. That is even after Metro last month ramped rail service back up to pre-pandemic levels. In addition, more than $876 million in emergency funding provided by Congress in the CARES Act to replace lost revenue and pay worker salaries is expected to be depleted entirely by January. So far, the transit system has already spent $537 million of the federal funding, and there is no guarantee Congress will approve more. Management has proposed cutting Metrorail hours, closing the system at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursdays and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Currently, trains run until 11 p.m. every night. The budget also includes longer waits for trains — every 12 minutes instead of every eight minutes currently. In addition, Metro would bring back turnbacks on the Red and Yellow lines, when trains don’t run the full-length of the line but turn around earlier to serve core areas. Under the plan, all trips on the Yellow Line would begin and end at Mt. Vernon Square and every other Red Line train would only run from Grosvenor to Silver Spring. Metro said it also plans to push back officially opening Phase Two of the Silver Line, which includes a stop at Dulles International Airport, to July. On Metrobus, Metro plans to stay with the reduced level of service it rolled out last month, under which no trips start after midnight and more than 30 routes were canceled entirely. Metro does not plan to add back any bus service. However, Metro wants to start charging riders again beginning in January. All buses have been free since March, when Metro moved to rear-door boarding to reduce contact between drivers and passengers. Metro said it expects to net $5 million from bus fares. The documents say drivers would be protected by panels near the driver’s seat. “Returning to front-door boarding would also allow more riders to board with increased seat availability, and consequently, increase social distancing space,” Metro said in the documents. The changes are scheduled to be discussed by the Metro Board today, with public hearings in October and final adoption in November with changes taking effect in January. Together, the changes to bus and rail service would save $169 million. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has also proposed $43 million in savings through contracting efficiencies, reducing the number of managers to one per station, eliminating “runners” who assist station manager, and furloughing and laying off nonunion staff. Metro aims for another $30 million in savings by putting off capital programs that it says won’t have an impact on safety, including the purchase of some IT equipment and the installation of some digital screens at stations. In the documents, officials said they don’t expect ridership to return anytime soon. Even by the end of the fiscal year — June 30, 2021 — Metro predicts system ridership will be only 20% of what it was pre-pandemic. Metro’s estimates of ridership and revenue predict a “widespread resurgence” of the virus this fall and winter, and that a vaccine remains unavailable widely through at least next summer. In addition, planners, who had initially predicted workplaces would slowly reopen by the end of the year, now predict a slower pace stretching into next summer.
Small groups of students may be able to return to D.C. classrooms starting this month. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wednesday that schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee is working on the effort and there are guidelines in place for having people in buildings that are in the works. On whether the District of Columbia Public Schools could have in-person learning in small groups like in some charter schools in the city, Bowser said, “I think DCPS can do it, and I think DCPS should do it.” She said that DCPS can learn from the experience of those schools that have small-group in-person learning, and Bowser has asked the deputy mayor for education to survey those schools to learn their best practices and experiences. However, she cautioned that D.C. has to base its decision to get students back in classrooms on what is best for the entire district, which is different for independent or charter schools. “We believe that in-person learning is preferred to virtual, but we also know that we have to do it in a safe way,” Bowser said. Small groups may be approved where it makes sense, starting this month, the mayor said. “I don’t want to suggest that we have whole classrooms or whole grades or thousands of kids going back to a school,” Bowser said.
A student who attended in-person classes at Montgomery College has reported a positive COVID-19 test to school officials. In a memo posted to the college’s website Wednesday, President DeRionne Pollard said the student notified school officials on Tuesday afternoon that they tested positive on Saturday. The student attended an in-person class at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus on Sept. 1 and 4, according to Pollard. All students and staff in the class were contacted and notified about their possible exposure. The class has been suspended in-person meetings for two weeks and will transition to a virtual format. A college spokesperson said there were five students and one faculty member in the class. The room underwent a deep cleaning, Pollard wrote. Staff members who conducted the cleaning wore protective suits, face masks, gloves and face shields in the room. Montgomery College announced in late August that nearly all of its classes will be held virtually until at least March, extending a previous announcement that there wouldn’t be in-person classes until the end of January. In a message to community members at the time, Pollard wrote that summer enrollment showed “distance learning courses are more attractive to students in the midst of COVID-19 stressors.” But, some programs that require hands-on learning, like automotive technology, could have some on-campus instruction. Over the summer, the college piloted a face-to-face automotive technology class that met 14 times, for an average of three hours per session. There were seven students and three instructors. None reported any COVID-19 symptoms or positive tests more than two weeks after the class concluded, Pollard wrote.
The GALA Hispanic Theatre will reopen for indoor, in-person performances this fall as it celebrates its 45th season. The Columbia Heights theater promotes Latino works and cultures, mostly through shows in Spanish with English captioning. Its first show of the 2020-2021 season will be an adaptation of El Perro del Hortelano, or The Dog in the Manger, a comedy by 16th century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. It run Oct. 29-Nov. 22. The theater has instituted a reopening plan with safety precautions. To help stop the spread of coronavirus, the theater, lobby, restrooms and backstage areas will all be cleaned daily. Masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes will be available in the lobby. GALA said in a press release it installed a new “high-end air filtration system. Staff and patrons will be required to wear masks at all times, in accordance with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s mask ordinance. Volunteers will check the temperatures of everyone entering the theater with no-touch thermometers. D.C. regulations currently limit mass gatherings to 50 people, so GALA will only sell up to 50 tickets per show — 19% of the theater’s capacity. Patrons can buy up to two tickets online. If they want to buy three or more, they must contact the box office to coordinate a socially distant seating arrangement. GALA is the first theater in the DMV to announce firm reopening plans for the fall. Some theaters have canceled all 2020 performances, including Round House in Bethesda and Theater J near Dupont Circle. Arena Stage plans to start its 2020-21 season in January. The Kennedy Center has announced plans to host in-person, indoor concerts, but is waiting until D.C. enters Phase Three of reopening to proceed. When that happens, the performing arts center will transform its opera house into a COVID-era performance space. Artists will perform on a stage extension built out into the hall’s orchestra-level seating section. Patrons will be seated in pairs on stage and look out at the performers. The hour-long performances will have no intermission in an effort to reduce contact and audiences will be capped at 200. While many theaters fired employees due to the shutdown, GALA said it avoided laying off or furloughing any staff members. “Today there are still too few theaters staging stories by Latinx writers with Latinx actors, and at the same time we are faced with a public health crisis that reveals the inequities faced by communities of color,” said Rebecca Read Medrano, GALA’s co-founder and executive director, in a press release. “So we affirm our commitment, continue the experiment, and renew our act of love and faith by taking the necessary steps to safely open our 45th season.”
D.C. Health updated its list of high-risk coronavirus states Tuesday, adding Montana and Ohio and removing Alaska and Arizona. Travelers coming to D.C. from any of the states on the list for non-essential reasons must self-quarantine for 14-days after arriving, under an executive order. There are 29 states on the list. Maryland and Virginia remain exempt from the order. Delaware, a popular destination for vacationers from the DMV is not on the current list, after an on- and off-again situation two weeks ago. The list will be updated next on Sept. 21. States on the list include Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin
D.C. received approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue residents facing job loss due to the pandemic an additional $300 in weekly unemployment benefits retroactive to Aug. 1. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced on Tuesday the city will participate in the Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) Program, created in response to the expiration of $600-a-week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program that expired at the end of July. In order to qualify, D.C. residents must already be collecting at least $100 from an approved unemployment compensation program and show they are unemployed or partially unemployed due to the pandemic. Those who qualify will receive an additional $300 through the program per week. The city expects residents will start receiving payments the first week of October. Bowser urged the federal government to restore the full $600 in unemployment benefits originally offered to residents facing economic hardship during the pandemic. “We know workers continue to struggle during this pandemic, and we are committed to providing them with the maximum benefit they deserve so they can care for themselves and their families,” she said in the press release. D.C. is currently approved for LWA benefits for up to four weeks. The city initially applied for the funds from Aug. 1-Dec. 27, but FEMA asked that it only apply for the initial three weeks and one additional week, then renew weekly basis. Funding could be pulled at any time if it runs out or if the government passes a new law dictating how the money is spent. People eligible for the benefits should continue filling out their weekly unemployment claims. Any additional aid through LWA will be added to those preexisting benefits. Some residents were displeased up earlier this month with Bowser’s reluctance to enroll D.C. in LWA after the federal government’s $600 weekly unemployment benefits expired. At the time, Bowser questioned the legality of President Trump’s approval of $44 billion in federal disaster relief funds through the program and instead called on Congress to pass additional funding. D.C. was among the last jurisdictions to apply for benefits on Aug. 31. At the time, Bowser said the extra money “is the only option that we have to give some additional relief to people.”
The Dunn Loring and Vienna Metro stations reopened Tuesday after a summer of reconstruction and pandemic closures. Yesterday was the first day all 91 Metro stations were open since closures began in March. The East Falls Church and West Falls Church stations opened last month ahead of schedule. Improvements to western Metro stations include slip-resistant tiles on the platforms and in the mezzanine, stainless-steel platform shelters with outlets, energy-efficient LED lighting, additional screens displaying passenger information and improved speakers. Metro said the conclusion of its summer renovations marks a major milestone in its Platform Improvement Project. It is now halfway through planned renovations at 20 outdoor stations. Vienna and Dunn Loring openings marked completion of summer closures for platform reconstruction. “Customers can look forward to safer, more convenient stations, whether they are traveling now or looking forward to getting back to their routines as the region recovers from the pandemic,” General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in the press release. The agency said parking restrictions will be in place as construction activity on the Orange Line continues into the fall, but expects it won’t be an issue since ridership has been down significantly since the start of the pandemic. Metro’s revenue have been hit hard by the pandemic. Metro recently invested $20 million into making Metro cards available on iPhones with hopes it will attract more customers after months spent adapting to life without its services.
D.C. will provide free internet to up to 25,000 low-income students and families. The move, announced Tuesday, comes one week after virtual classes began for students in D.C. Public Schools. The new program, Internet for All, will use $3.3 million in allocated funds from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to provide DCPS and charter school families with free, broadband internet connection. According to Tuesday press release, the initiative is in collaboration with the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, who will be working with Comcast and RCN. Beginning yesterday, D.C.’s technology office was to begin reaching to SNAP and TANF-eligible families to connect them with the service. “During this virtual school term, we know how critical it is for all of our students to have internet access to successfully learn at home and stay connected to their teachers outside of the classroom,” Mayor Muriel Bowser says in a press release. The investment in internet accessibility follows months of pressure on D.C. school leaders by parents and legal advocates, who called on the city to equip each of the system’s 51,000 students with a laptop and internet access. When classes moved online last spring, the city distributed 10,000 devices and 4,000 WiFi hotspots to students, according to DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee. But a survey of D.C. families over the summer found that 60% of respondents needed a digital device and 27% needed internet access in order to participate in online learning this fall. By the first day of virtual classes Aug. 31, the system had distributed nearly 19,000 devices, leaving many students without the technology they needed to navigate the first week of classes. “As schools begin classes online, students without regular access to the internet are at a severe disadvantage,” Chief Technology Officer Lindsey Parker says in the press release. “The Bowser Administration is committed to work with our partners and our community to break this cycle and create a fair shot for everyone in D.C.” According to a report from the Alliance of Excellent Education this summer, 45% of D.C. households with an annual income of less than $25,000 and 27% of households with an income between $25,000-$50,000 are without high-speed internet. More than 20,200 children in D.C. lack high-speed home internet. The $3.3 million investment also marks the first step in the D.C. technology department’s Tech Together initiative, which includes goals like equipping every D.C. resident with Internet, making free devices and software available to small businesses and increasing the accessibility of IT support for Washingtonians.
The Montgomery County Health and Human Services Department cited four restaurants on Saturday for not following county rules on social distancing during the pandemic. Casa Oaxaca, 4901 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda in Woodmont Triangle, was cited for exceeding the county’s limit of six people seated at one table, department spokesperson Mary Anderson said Tuesday. Raquel Zavala, Casa Oaxaca manager, said an inspector issued a warning because there were seven people seated at a table, but the restaurant was not closed. Nada, 11885 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda in the Pike & Rose devilment, also received a warning because there were 11 people sitting at a table, Anderson said. Also, Unplugged Restaurant & Sports Bar, 11305-C Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, was cited for allowing dancing, which the county’s order prohibits and Caliente Restaurant & Bar, 2442 Ennalls Ave., Silver Spring, was cited for not maintaining physical distancing, In all, according to Anderson, county inspectors visited 21 facilities to check for violations.
Two University of Maryland Greek life houses are under quarantine after at least four residents tested positive for COVID-19. Cases at the university have surged in recent days. Since the fall semester began virtually Aug. 31, the university has identified 85 new cases of the virus among students, faculty and staff. Another 73 cases have been self-reported by individuals who have been on or near the campus in the past two weeks. More than one-fifth of quarantine-designated housing units are occupied. Undergraduates are allowed to live on campus while classes are online, through Sept. 14 at least. On Aug. 29, one Phi Delta Theta fraternity member tested positive, according to The Diamondback school newspaper. Two dozen other residents were tested off-campus, with two testing positive. While about five are quarantining in the house, others are in an alternate isolation space, the newspaper reported. One resident at the Sigma Kappa sorority house also tested positive, and all the residents are quarantining at the house or alternate locations, according to The Diamondback. Last week, the school suspended 19 students for failing to adhere to its COVID-19 safety protocols. Andrea Goodwin, the director of the Office of Student Conduct, said in an email to students Friday that the number of coronavirus cases had increased despite “the majority” of students following guidelines. “This can largely be attributed to a failure by some to comply with 4 Maryland expectations, in particular gathering in large groups, failing to wear masks and failing to maintain 6 feet of physical distance from others and, at times, to the reckless disregard for the directives of the medical professionals at the University Health Center that those infected with the virus isolate themselves so they do not infect others,” Goodwin wrote The university, located in Prince George’s County, which has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the state, also temporarily suspended athletic training after 46 of 501 student athletes tested positive a week ago.
Restaurant workers rallied at Meridian Hill Park in D.C. on Labor Day to remind everyone that the COVID-19 pandemic is especially hard on them, some of whom are afraid of the health risks they are facing and the economic uncertainty that lies ahead. The crowd listened to speakers and occasionally chanted, “People power” and “Restaurant owners shame on you, food workers have rights, too.” Speakers said the work was especially hard these days, with extra walking to reach outdoor tables, hot weather and long hours. Some charged that restaurants often failed to enforce D.C. coronavirus rules, which require diners to wear masks when they’re not actively eating or drinking. “Workers are having to interact with guests who are often unmasked,” said Sophia Miyoshi, a rally organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center United. “Patrons of restaurants — some are great, but a lot of them think they can do whatever they want because they think that the customer is always right and so they won’t be wearing their mask when they should,” said bartender Nikki Del Casale, a 15-year restaurant employee and member of Restaurant Opportunities Center United. The restaurant workers called for higher pay for those who find themselves on the front lines of the pandemic. Del Casale suggested that even a little extra would help workers worried about the coming weeks. After the speeches, demonstrators marched through the Adams Morgan neighborhood. The rally served as a reminder of current hardships for restaurant workers due to the pandemic. “We think that there should be hazard pay … patio season is going to be coming to an end, how are we going to survive?” Del Casale said. She offered diners some advice. “When someone comes up to your table … if you’re asking someone to order, just put the mask on, be polite, tip more than you think you should and thank people for working,” Del Casale said.
D.C. is in good shape for poll workers in the upcoming presidential election. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, many election officials worried there would be a shortage of people to work the polls. But that doesn’t appear to be the case, at least not in D.C. “We’re really feeling pretty good,” Michael Bennett, chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections, told WTOP. He said the turnout of new volunteers “has been phenomenal over the last couple of weeks.” The city needs just under 4,000 poll workers for the November election, Bennett said. So far, it has 1,400 new poll workers ready and “just over 3,000 applications and people in the queue to be trained,” Bennett said. That doesn’t include returning poll workers or 2,000 D.C. government employees Mayor Muriel Bowser has promised to make available if necessary. Bennett said many of the volunteers are younger than those who normally staff the elections. They were “in the 20s, 30s — I mean, dramatically younger than we’ve ever seen before.” That is important since many of the experienced poll workers are older and at higher risk if they contract the coronavirus, many are saying they don’t feel comfortable working this election. The city is still asking people to volunteer because workers sometimes drop out at the last minute.
MARC commuter rail service would be reduced, dozens of Baltimore area bus lines would be cut and another 11 bus routes would be reduced under a new Maryland Transit Administration proposal. According to the Maryland Department of Transportation’s MTA website, the proposed cuts, which it referred to as “service adjustments,” were a response to “an unprecedented decline of transportation revenues due to the COVID-19 health emergency.” There will be 10 virtual public hearings to gather public comment between Oct. 5-10 and Oct. 13-16. In a joint statement, local elected leaders from the Baltimore area expressed their concern, saying, “Make no mistake about it: This decision will disproportionately impact our poor, Black and brown residents, especially those living in historically disinvested neighborhoods.” The statement was signed by Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., Howard County Executive Calvin Ball III and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman Jr. The MTA statement said of the 3.6% of riders affected by the cuts to bus lines, more than half would still have service on other routes within one-fourth mile of their current stops. The proposed MARC train changes on the Penn Line include terminating Train 520 at Baltimore Penn Station Monday through Thursday and Perryville on Fridays; terminating Train 548 at Penn Station Monday through Friday; eliminating Train 537 in the afternoon between Union Station and Perryville, Trains 410 and 418 in the morning from Union Station to Penn Station and Train 423 from Penn Station to Union Station in the morning. Changes on the Camden Line include eliminating Trains 844 (morning) and 848 (afternoon) from Union Station to Camden Station; and Train 855 from Dorsey to Union Station in the afternoon. Commuter bus Route 210 between Kent Island and Annapolis to downtown Baltimore and Route 215 downtown Baltimore to Annapolis would be discontinued. Frequency would be reduced on 20 routes including Route 201 between Gaithersburg and BWI; Route 203 between Bethesda and Columbia; Route 204 between College Park and Frederick; Route 220 between D.C. and Annapolis; Route 230 between D.C. and Severna Park; Route 240 between D.C. and Kent Island; Route 260 between D.C. and Severna Park/Davidsonville; Route 305 between D.C., Silver Spring and Columbia; Route 315 between Silver Spring and Columbia; Route 320 between Laurel and Baltimore; Route 325 D.C., Silver Spring and Columbia; Route 345 between D.C., Columbia and Ellicott City; Routes 705 and 715 between D.C., Waldorf and Charlotte Hall; Route 810 between D.C. and Pindell; and Route 840 between D.C., Prince Frederick and St. Leonard.
Keeping D.C. music venues alive will require city funds, according to D.C. Music Stakeholders, a coalition of venue owners, musicians, activists and other nonprofit leaders. Using the hashtag #SaveDCVenues, group is hoping to convince Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council to adopt legislation that would help local clubs and restaurants that rely on live music for their income. Coalition members have been working together since the coronavirus pandemic began, trying to find financial support for the hard-hit local music scene. According to a letter it planned to send Bowser and council members, the pandemic shutdown has severely damaged the city’s music industry, already leading to four area institutions going out of business. Most recently, Twins Jazz, which had been a home for area artists for more than three decades, closed its doors on Aug. 27. The coalition started an online campaign, which is collecting signatures and voices of support for the open letter to city leaders. It said the pandemic is especially threatening to the legacy of D.C.’s Black music, with clubs that offer jazz, R&B and soul music having to shut down permanently. The coalition is calling for city leaders to approve the D.C. Music Venue Relief Act, which would offer financial support for those businesses until May 2021. Under the proposed act, dedicated music venues would be eligible to receive up to $15,000 a month based on its square footage. Smaller restaurants and bars that hosted live music will be eligible to receive up to $7,500 a month. The coalition is gathering signatures from the public online, asking them to sign the open letter supporting the relief act, so it can deliver the signatures with the letter to the council, which is set to reconvene this week. The group said it hoped it can get enough names to convince the council to introduce the legislation and ultimately put the legislation into effect.
Some of D.C.’s largest hotels that closed at the beginning of the pandemic are reopening their doors: The Conrad Hotel, Hay-Adams and Mandarin Oriental all reopened in late August. But the future is unclear for others. The Marriott Wardman Park, one of D.C.’s largest hotels, has said it may never reopen. MGM National Harbor, which reopened in late June, just cut 779 furloughed employees, 25% of its pre-pandemic workforce, many on the hotel side. For those hotels that are reopening or never closed, the near-term outlook is not good. The pandemic-truncated peak summer season for tourists is ending, and there are few, if any, big conventions or business meetings on the books. “It is certainly struggling right now,” said Chip Rogers, president and CEO at the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “I talked to one of the large brand hotel CEOs who was staying in an iconic hotel in Washington, D.C., and he told me that this time last year they were running at 90% occupancy and as of today they are running at less than 40% occupancy. That is not a good sign.” Nationally, the average occupancy rates at hotels in urban markets and near airports is 38%-45%, according to the hotel association. The break-even point for large, urban hotels, such as those in D.C., is typically 55%-60%. The good news for hotels is that leisure travel started picking up in July, although total visits to travel sites remains down 39% since February, according to Reston, Virginia-based digital audience tracking firm Comscore. The bad news is that people aren’t searching for destinations in big cities such as D.C. According to Travelocity, the biggest increases in booking searches are for beach locations in the Carolinas, Florida and the Northeast; lake destinations in California and Michigan, and outdoor destinations in Colorado and the American West. Urban hotels face a double-whammy: Their bread-and-butter business traveler is also not coming back yet. “They are absolutely more dependent on the business traveler,” Rogers said. “And the type of travel that’s happening right now is people going on vacation and wanting to be outdoors. They are wanting to go to the beach, to the mountains, to camp and hike and things like that. But that’s not typically what you are going to get in an urban environment. A high percentage of jobs are in those large, urban hotels, especially those that are connected to convention centers.” But there is reason for the hotel industry to be optimistic: The AHLA says one-third of frequent travelers expect their next hotel stay to be within the next three months; 18% say within the next three to six months; and 25% say within the next 6 to 12 months. An AHLA survey of frequent travelers also highlights what current hotel guests expect. Or don’t expect. Such as regular housekeeping. “We began asking guests what are your expectations? What do you want?” Rogers said. “Do you want people coming into your room cleaning it every day? Or do you prefer that your room is clean when you show up, and if you need anything, we’ll provide it to you, but no one is going to come into your room during your stay?” An overwhelming majority — almost nine of 10 — prefer on-demand housekeeping only, he said. Other top priorities for hotel travelers are face coverings for both employees and guests, and the use of technology to reduce direct contact. The AHLA released a State of the Industry Analysis report last week, which found four out of 10 hotel employees are still not working. The leisure and hospitality industry is still down 4.3 million jobs since February. It also said the hospitality industry has an unemployment rate of 38%, compared to the national average of 10.2%. Only 37% of hotels have brought back at least half of their full-time employees and 36% have brought back none, according to the report. Consumer travel remains at an all-time low. Only 33% of Americans have traveled overnight for vacation since March. Also, 65% of open hotels remain at or below 50% occupancy after hitting a historic low of 24.5% in April.
Since mid-May, Uber has required drivers to take selfies to verify they are wearing a mask or face covering before they are able to pick up riders. Soon, some riders will also be required to take a selfie prior to ordering a ride. The company said last week that passengers who have previously been reported by a driver for not wearing a mask will be required to take a selfie for mask verification purposes when requesting their next ride. Passenger mask verification is slated to roll out in the U.S. and Canada by the end of September, and will expand to Latin America and other countries after, the company said in a blog post Tuesday. Mask use, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, has proven to be difficult, in both public and private spaces. Uber and Lyft riders have had to confirm they are wearing a mask or face covering before hailing a ride for several months now, but enforcement has come down to being reported by a driver. Now, there will be an added layer once a rider violates the policy. “We firmly believe that accountability is a two-way street,” wrote Sachin Kansal, Uber’s global head of safety product. If a passenger wears a mask on their next ride, they will not have to take a selfie again the next time they request a ride. The mask verification selfie, for both drivers and riders, uses object detection technology to determine whether a person is wearing a mask. Kansal told CNN that the company has done “a lot of optimizations” to detect things like if someone is trying to cover their mouth with their hand instead of a mask. “It has to be a real-time picture of a face wearing a mask.” If someone orders an Uber for a friend or family member with their account, “the person who is actually requesting the ride is the person who will have to go through the face verification process.” For both riders and drivers, repeated violations of Uber’s policies could lead to deactivation, but the company declined to go into detail regarding how many violations contribute to a removal. “We have definitely taken action, including taking people off the platform, both from the rider and driver side,” Kansal said, referring to mask-related violations. The company also said it has allocated $50 million to purchasing supplies like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant sprays and wipes for drivers. It said that it has given out 10 million masks, wipes and sanitizers to more than 750,000 drivers and delivery people in the U.S. and Canada to date. The company said on July 1 that its mask requirement in the US and Canada would be in effect indefinitely.
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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.