D.C. Allows Live Entertainment at Six Venues
COVID-19 Cases Reach 283,595 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of yesterday morning, 15,215 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 624 deaths; there have been 122,972 cases in Maryland with 3,780 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 145,408 cases with 3,144 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read
As part of D.C.’s Phase Two reopening, the city will allow live entertainment at City Winery, GALA Hispanic Theatre, Pearl Street Warehouse, The Kennedy Center, The Hamilton and Union Stage as part of a pilot program. The new program allows up to 50 people per event with reserved seating and social distancing protocols. It runs through Oct. 30, and the city will not accept applications from other venues, according to a news release. The GALA Hispanic Theatre already announced its first performance under the pilot. Venues must sell tickets in advance and have a maximum of 50 people, including attendees, performers and staff. Reserved seating with individuals or groups of no more than six people must be at least 6 feet apart. Venues must follow the city’s mask-wearing policy, and guests must remain seated during performances. The city is also inviting outdoor entertainment venues that submitted plans to the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency for a waiver to resubmit their plans as part of Phase Two. The venues include the Adams Morgan Partnership BID, Arena Stage, Busboys and Poets, Capitol Riverfront BID, District Wharf, Et Voila Restaurant, Heist Group at the Kennedy Center and The Bullpen.
Shawn Marshall Myers, 42, of the 15200 block of Lukes Lane, Hughesville, Charles County, Md., was sentenced to a year in jail on two counts of failure to comply with an emergency order after refusing to break up large parties at his home in late March. After a bench trial before District Court Judge W. Louis Hennessy, Myers was sentenced to one year in the Charles County Detention Center, and he must pay a $5,000 fine. After his release, he will be on unsupervised probation for three years. The convictions stem from two incidents on March 22, when officers responded to his house for the report of a large party violating Gov. Larry Hogan’s orders prohibiting large gatherings. Police said Myers was argumentative but eventually agreed to end the party. Less than a week later, on March 27, officers responded again to his home for reports of another party exceeding 50 people. Police said Myers directed his guests to stay in defiance of the Hogan’s order, and he was arrested.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and first lady Pamela Northam have both tested positive for COVID-19. On Wednesday, the Northams were told that a member of the governor’s residence staff who works in their living quarters had developed symptoms and tested positive for coronavirus. Both the governor and first lady received PCR nasal swab tests on Thursday afternoon and tested positive, according to a Friday press release. While Northam is not currently experiencing symptoms, his wife is experiencing mild symptoms. “Both remain in good spirits,” the release said, and the couple will self-isolate for 10 days, in accordance with Virginia Department of Health guidelines. “As I’ve been reminding Virginians throughout this crisis, COVID-19 is very real and very contagious,” the governor said in the statement. “The safety and health of our staff and close contacts is of utmost importance to Pam and me, and we are working closely with the Department of Health to ensure that everyone is well taken care of. We are grateful for your thoughts and support, but the best thing you can do for us — and most importantly, for your fellow Virginians — is to take this seriously.” Northam’s announcement came just after he visited George Mason University on Tuesday, where GMU President Gregory Washington spoke of his efforts to control the virus on campus. Washington said the university recently tested about 3,000 residential students and found only 12 cases. “Governor, you being here today is probably safer than just about any place you could be in the commonwealth, with the exception of your home,” Washington said at the time. A GMU spokesperson said Northam “was on campus for a short time on Tuesday, wore a mask during his entire visit and came into close contact with a very small group of individuals.” The spokesperson added that the health department will notify people who were in close contact with the governor, and urged people concerned about possible exposure to call their health care provider. The first couple is working with VDH and Richmond’s Health Department to undergo contact tracing, as the executive mansion and Patrick Henry office building are closed down for deep cleaning. “The work of the Governor’s office continues remotely and uninterrupted,” the release said.
Gaithersburg -based Novavax Inc., one of nearly a dozen companies developing a potential COVID-19 vaccine, has begun late-stage human trials with 10,000 participants in the United Kingdom. Novavax is one of several drug companies that have received federal funding under Operation Warp Speed; receiving $1.6 billion to develop and manufacture its vaccine, if proven successful. The Novavax vaccine candidate, NVX-CoV2372, is being tested in humans in partnership with the UK government’s Vaccines Taskforce and will enroll individuals between 18-84 years old. Half will receive two doses of the vaccine; the other half will receive a placebo. “With a high level of transmission observed and expected to continue in the UK, we are optimistic that this pivotal Phase 3 trial will enroll quickly and provide a near term view of its efficacy,” said Dr. Gregory Glenn, president of research and development at Novavax. The vaccine is a liquid that can be stored at 2-degrees to 8-degrees centigrade, similar to others. Novavax has reached manufacturing partnerships with several companies, including Gaithersburg-based Emergent BioSolutions, and purchased its own manufacturing facility in the Czech Republic. Novavax said it would have the capacity to produce up to 2 billion doses a year, once all manufacturing availability is brought online by mid-2021. The promise of a COVID-19 vaccine has boosted the company’s stock price to more than $100 per share from around $15 per share in March.
Despite the state of Maryland moving into Phase Three of reopening on Sept. 4, Prince George’s County will remain in Phase Two for at least two to three more weeks. During a press conference Thursday, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and Health Officer Ernest Carter blamed concerning metrics that are preventing the county, which has the most COVID-19 cases in the state, from easing restrictions. While Alsobrooks noted the progress the county has made over the past six months, both she and Carter warned residents to stay cautious as the fall approaches and flu season rolls in. They said health officials will reassess the data in the coming weeks to determine a potential timeline for a Phase Three reopening. “We can’t get weary at this point, we cannot let our guard down,” said Carter. “Even if the state and other counties have decided to head to Phase Three for reopening, Prince George’s County will remain in Phase Two for now. This is a long haul, and we need to be a bit more cautious in our reopening.” In Phase Two, county businesses like theaters, bars and nightclubs remain closed, and restaurants and other retail can operate at 50% capacity. Phase Three allows all businesses to reopen and increases capacity at establishments like retail and houses of worship to 75%. Officials said the county’s test positivity rate slipped below 5% following a brief spike earlier this month, but that the county’s daily new case and infection rate metrics remain too high for a move into Phase Three. On Thursday, the county reported an infection rate – the measure of how many people are infected from one positive case — of just above 1. But Carter said that metric needs to be below 0.9 for a move into Phase Three. The county also reported 11 new positive cases a day per 100,000 residents, translating into more than 100 cases per day, which Carter said is too high to consider loosening restrictions. Ideally, the county would like to see 10 new cases or fewer a day per 100,000 residents, although that would still be “medium risk.” Five new cases a day is the low-risk benchmark. The statewide rate was 8.06 as of Thursday. “We still have folks dying, that’s why we have to stay vigilant,” Carter said. “Especially if we know that we can tick back up at any time, and it can get worse. COVID will be with us for a while longer.” The second-most populous county in Maryland, Prince George’s has been one of the state’s hardest-hit jurisdictions during the pandemic. For weeks, it remained one of the only counties holding a positivity rate above the 5% benchmark, and it currently reports a total positive case count of nearly 29,000, according to Maryland Department of Health data. Neighboring Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties also have not moved to Phase Three, although Montgomery County has made slight adjustments to its restrictions in recent weeks.
Mail-in ballots are on their way to Maryland voters who requested one. The Maryland State Board of Elections said yesterday that almost 800,000 ballots will be sent to voters starting Thursday, formally kicking off election season in the state. Voters who requested a ballot by email will also start receiving those this week, and the board is asking those voters to watch for emails from a “@marylandelections.us” account. The board also announced that ballot drop boxes, which voters can use instead of returning their ballot by mail, will start being delivered to the state’s most populous counties by next week. A list of all more than 280 ballot drop boxes and the dates they will be in use is online. In total, more than 1 million mail-in ballots have been requested to date by Maryland voters, with Montgomery County leading with just more than 250,000 requested. In Prince George’s County, more than 130,000 mail ballots have been requested. Unlike during the June primary, when all voters were mailed a ballot, state officials required that voters request them for the November election. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 20; the deadline to register to vote is Oct. 13. In D.C., ballots are being mailed to all registered voters and should start arriving in the next two weeks. Maryland will also offer early voting beginning Oct. 26. In D.C., early voting starts Oct. 27. In-person absentee voting already started in Virginia and jurisdictions across Northern Virginia are reporting long lines and record turnout as some voters expressed concern over whether the U.S. Postal Service will deliver their absentee ballots on time. In-person voting options will be available on Election Day in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, although D.C. and Maryland have consolidated polling places due to the ongoing pandemic. Election officials across the DMV are urging voters to cast ballots early, because long lines are expected on Election Day due to social distancing and cleaning protocols.
Four D.C. councilmembers demanded that Mayor Muriel Bowser release more information about how D.C. Public Schools will keep students and teachers safe if campuses open for in-person learning come November. In a letter sent to Bowser this week, Councilmembers Mary Cheh, Brianne Nadeau, Robert White Jr. and Trayon White Sr. asked the mayor to share more details about safety protocols and standards for school buildings by Sept. 30. Councilmember Robert White Jr. said parents do not have enough information to decide if they should send their children back to school. “You have to give parents some heads up, some notice, for them to evaluate what is going to be an incredibly difficult decision,” said White, who has children in DCPS. “At this point, they have no information on which to start making that decision.” The school system, which enrolled more than 51,000 students last school year, has not officially said if it will start offering in-person learning. But Bowser said last week she hopes the school system will be prepared to offer a mix of in-person and online learning for the second quarter, which begins Nov. 9. About a dozen principals have submitted proposals to offer some in-person instruction, she said. The city is in Phase Two of reopening, which allows schools to offer in-person classes with safety precautions. All DCPS students have been learning online since the academic year began in late August. Some charter schools, which educate about half of the city’s public school students, are teaching small groups of students in person. Fairfax and Loudoun county schools, two of Virginia’s largest districts, plan to bring small groups of students back to classrooms in October. In D.C., the Washington Teachers’ Union has fought plans to reopen school buildings during the pandemic. In the letter to Bowser, the councilmembers asked the mayor to provide more information about access to personal protective equipment, more learning space and cleaning services. They also asked for an update about building ventilation and urged the city to evaluate all school buildings and provide safety upgrades. “Given how little the Council and our communities currently know about the steps we will take within schools to protect against the spread of COVID-19, we run the risk of reopening schools only to have parents refuse to re-enroll their children,” the letter said. Cheh said she toured schools virtually before the start of the school year and encountered one school building where the windows could not open. Residents are worried about adequate air circulation and having enough room to safely space students in class, she said. “I’m not saying that a lot isn’t being done. It’s just we don’t know what’s being done,” said Cheh. “Parents are anxious. Teachers are anxious. And we need to keep them informed so we can build confidence if and when we do go back.”
Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday expanded the Rent and Mortgage Relief Program, which first launched at the end of June with $50 million in federal CARES Act funding to assist those facing eviction or foreclosure due to COVID-19. Landlords can now apply for financial assistance for current and past-due rental payments dating back to April 1 on behalf of their tenants who qualify for the RMRP. This new application is available in addition to the existing tenant-based application. Current state and federal eviction protections through the courts do not prevent rent and mortgage payments from accumulating. Northam said in a news release that the commonwealth is focused on helping eligible households and property owners access resources to maintain housing stability during the pandemic and in the future. Virginians are encouraged to act quickly and work with their landlord or lending institution to understand their rights and responsibilities and seek rent and mortgage relief assistance if needed. The Department of Housing and Community Development administers the RMRP through about 30 local and regional housing-related agencies. Virginia Housing, the state’s housing finance agency, has partnered with DHCD to manage landlord-initiated applications. Eligible households must demonstrate difficulty in making rent or mortgage payments due to the pandemic. Monthly rent must be at or below 150% of Fair Market Rent and eligible households must have a gross household income at or below 80% of area median income. “The top goal of RMRP is to keep families in safe and affordable housing by utilizing the funding resources to make tenants and homeowners, as well as landlords and mortgage companies, whole on outstanding payments,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball. “A strong partnership between landlords and tenants is imperative to keeping Virginians who owe back rent stably housed through this pandemic and beyond.” More than 60% of households served between Aug. 27 and Sept. 9 included children younger than 8 years old, and 58% included children ages 9-17. Of those who identified race, Black households accounted for more than 45% of those served, and white households accounted for 30%. The RMRP provides financial assistance in the form of a one-time payment with the opportunity for renewal based on availability of funding, the household’s need for additional assistance and continued eligibility. That includes financial assistance for rent or mortgage payments past due from April 1, 2020 onward. A federal moratorium on evictions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently in place through Dec. 31 and suspends eviction proceedings for households facing eviction due to unpaid rent. The moratorium requires tenants to sign a declaration of eligibility and deliver the document to their landlord, but does not prevent rent payments from accumulating.
Maryland school districts will be able to reintroduce fall sports beginning Oct. 7. Gov. Larry Hogan and state Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon made the announcement Thursday. The decision was made after each of the state’s 24 school jurisdictions submitted their plans for bringing students back for in-person instruction, according to a press release. “Getting our kids back on the playing field and allowing youth sports to resume this fall is critical for the social and mental well-being of our students … Allowing fall sports to begin next month marks another important step on our road to recovery,” Hogan said in the statement. The release also outlines the potential dates of the 2020 fall sports season. Schools will be able to bring back cross-country, field hockey, football, golf, soccer and volleyball this fall. Practices can begin Oct. 7, and competition can start Oct. 27, except in the case of golf, which can begin Oct. 7. The last day of play under the state’s guidelines would be Dec. 12, and the finals or tournaments would be held Dec. 14-19. “High school sports and competition are deeply rooted in the fabric of our schools and communities,” Salmon said. “The steps taken today are directly related to the need of our students to be active and engaged for their physical, social and emotional well-being.” The start dates for winter and spring sports have been moved back under the guidelines to prevent overlap of sports seasons. So far, 11 school districts have announced plans to bring students back to school campuses for in-person athletics this fall. Prince George’s and Montgomery county schools have not announced a decision on fall sports yet.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church, an evangelical church, is suing D.C. over its continuing restrictions on mass gatherings. The suit alleges that city government is infringing on the church’s First Amendment rights by limiting worship services due to the pandemic while allowing large anti-racism protests. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, seeking the right to “gather for corporate worship free from threat of governmental sanction” and saying it wants Mayor Muriel Bowser and the District of Columbia to stop violating its First and Fifth Amendment rights. The First Amendment protects religious gatherings and free speech while the Fifth Amendment prohibits “governmental deprivation of ‘life, liberty or property, without due process of law.’” The church argues the administration is favoring “certain expressive gatherings over others” and creating a “de facto exemption” for protests like Black Lives Matter. The lawsuit demands the city allow the church to physically gather as a congregation if services are conducted with appropriate social distancing practices. The church says it has offered services nearly every week since it was established in 1878. It did stop services during the 1918 flu outbreak, according to Capitol Hill Baptist Church pastor Mark Dever. Nearly 1,000 people attended services before the pandemic. “A weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a religious conviction for which there is no substitute,” the lawsuit says. The church does not offer virtual worship services. “CHBC believes that a central part of following Christ is worshipping together in the same physical space.”Dever said he will not hold online services because “a video of a sermon is not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together and all the various means of God’s grace in that.” Bowser’s March order prohibited large gatherings. Her latest executive order issued for Phase Two on June 22 says “places of worship can operate services and activities with up to 100 people or up to 50% of their capacity, whichever is fewer, with strong safeguards and physical distancing.” Groups of persons attending together may not exceed 10 people and each group must be seated at least six feet from other groups. The rules apply for indoor and outdoor worship services. The church applied for a waiver for large-group gatherings outdoors but said it was denied. It said “CHBC had been told that it could use an outdoor space near RFK Stadium that ‘would very comfortably accommodate’ its congregation, but only if CHBC had a waiver from the District of Columbia government.” The church said the city denied its request, despite allowing another gathering in that same spot: a pop-up drive-in movie theater with a 350 socially-distance car capacity. The church said it won’t be able to return to full in-person gatherings until a vaccine is widely available, according to D.C.’s reopening plan. Meanwhile, church officials criticized Bowser for allowing large outdoor protests and even delivering a speech saying it was “wonderful to see” the protest “with tens of thousands of people.” A church on the Eastern Shore of Virginia has sued the state of Virginia for limiting gatherings. In Maryland, nine churches have joined a federal lawsuit that seeks to overturn the state’s pandemic restrictions. Churches outside the DMV started opening around mid-May with safety precautions in place, like spread-out seating and mask requirements. Many cases have been connected to church services, the New York Times reported in July.
Banquet halls, reception and meeting rooms in hotels, conference centers and similar establishments that offer dining or meeting facilities to the public in Prince George’s County may reopen at 50% capacity or a maximum of 150 people, whichever is lower. County Executive Angela Alsobrooks announced the change on Wednesday. According to a press release, buffets will not be allowed, there can be no more than six people per table and physical distancing must be enforced. Cigar, hookah and vape establishments may reopen for retail sales only with a maximum of one person per 100 square feet of sales space, not to exceed 50% of maximum capacity. Physical distancing must be maintained and employees must wear personal protective equipment. Tanning salons may reopen by appointment only under the same guidelines as other personal services. Only one customer is allowed per 200 square feet of service area, up to a maximum of 50% capacity. Public and private indoor pools may reopen up to 50% maximum capacity. Physical distancing must be maintained and individuals must wear face coverings when not in the pool. “Medium-risk” youth sports may resume in small groups of no more than nine team members and one coach, with a maximum of 100 people in any given area. Sports include soccer, baseball and lacrosse. The county also announced parents and guardians are no longer allowed inside of daycare facilities for pick-up and drop-off of children. The county also expanded the requirement for face coverings inside public buildings or establishments to anyone older than 5. Previously, face coverings were required for people ages 9 and up.
While COVID-19 testing has rebounded in Montgomery County over the past week or so, officials warned of “COVID fatigue” on Wednesday and said the numbers are still lower than they need to be to keep track of the virus. While Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said testing was inching back up in the county and statewide, the numbers were still down from the heights of the summer, mentioning “COVID fatigue” as a possible explanation, as well as recently corrected misinformation from the federal government about who needs to be tested. County Executive Marc Elrich emphasized, “We have capacity for more testing; we need people to come in and get tested.” Otherwise, he said, it is hard to know where the virus is until someone gets sick. Elrich also advised residents to get flu shots. Gayles said getting flu shots is important so there is “as little confusion as possible about who has COVID, who has the flu and who may have both.” Elrich also emphasized the importance of wearing masks, pointing out the controversy last week when for a short time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put an advisory on its website saying that six feet of distance between people “isn’t necessary a foolproof barrier.” Elrich said that “for political reasons, the items got taken down,” but that people should take the uncertainty seriously. “It’s not all that difficult” to wear a mask, he said. Gayles also reported that another nonpublic school in the county has met the state’s criteria for a COVID-19 outbreak, and that students at “a number of other” nonpublic schools have had COVID-like symptoms. Asked whether there had been any cases in the limited in-person structure of public schools, Gayles said that there may have been cases “separate from their school setting, but at this point we have not had any reported” that would require quarantines. Earl Stoddard, director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said county officials were working on a draft proposal to expand alcohol sales until midnight from the current 10 p.m. cutoff. He said the move would eventually be made, but that the county was “extremely scrutinous” of the idea. “Any circumstance that has people indoors congregating,” especially in places such as restaurants and bars where people aren’t wearing asks to eat and drink, has the potential to spread the virus. Asked whether he was worried about the effect of safety restrictions on businesses, Elrich replied, “I’m worried about everything.” He added, “Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing in the context of whether or not we can keep people safe” and emphasized that indoor and outdoor dining are among the highest-risk activities. Still, Elrich maintained, “We need to make sure we are as little exposed” to a possible second wave as possible. If the county’s numbers were similar to those in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, he said, “We’d be having a different conversation. But we aren’t even close.” Stoddard said that the county is looking at the potential to emulate D.C. with a grant program to winterize outdoor dining spaces. He added that the county is working with neighboring jurisdictions on guidelines for how to safely celebrate Halloween, and hopes to have an announcement next week. Asked about the fiscal impacts of the pandemic and related closings, particularly whether tax increases and/or service cuts were on the way, Elrich said the county was anticipating less of an income-tax hit than they feared at first, thanks to the federal unemployment program. “We’re not going to see the complete falloff” of tax revenue that people saw in the Great Recession and other fiscal calamities, he said. Revenues will be off for fiscal 2021, but “it won’t be a deal-breaker.” Next year will be the challenge, Elrich said, with the possibility of not filling empty government jobs, but “We’ve got ways of avoiding drastic cuts, at least for this year.”
Montgomery County Public Schools is expanding the number of locations where students can pick-up free meals. “Our number of meals served is continuing to increase every day,” Essie McGuire, the school district’s associate superintendent for operations, told the school board Tuesday. The district currently offers curbside breakfasts and lunches outside 74 schools and at five bus stops. “We are expanding the number of bus stop sites in the coming weeks, and we anticipate being able to add some additional sites even as early as next week,” McGuire said. “What we’re going to be doing here is really focusing on some of those neighborhood bus stops where there are large numbers of families, but also they may be separated from a school that’s serving food by a major road or other obstacles that really prevent them from being able to access those meals as easily as we would like.” Meals are distributed on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. On Wednesdays, students can pick up two days’ worth of meals to cover Thursdays. And on Fridays, MCPS serves triple meals. “This is a way that we are really pleased to be able to serve and provide additional food to our families over the weekend,” said McGuire. The district has served more than 300,000 meals since the new virtual year began Aug. 31.
The D.C. Council on Tuesday approved legislation further protecting renters from eviction during the coronavirus pandemic. Councilmembers voted unanimously to allow Mayor Muriel Bowser to prolong the city’s state of emergency through the end of the year. D.C.’s ban on evictions is tied to the health emergency, and would be prolonged if the mayor issues an extension. There is also a ban on new eviction filings that lasts for 60 days after the emergency ends. The city’s eviction stay is among the strongest in the country, prohibiting eviction proceedings for any reason, including lease violations. It is more comprehensive than a recent order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that bars landlords from evicting people who have lost income due to the pandemic. The council also approved temporary legislation from councilmember Anita Bonds that places a one-year moratorium on a little-known provision in D.C. law that grants tax credits to landlords if the council expands the city’s existing rent control law to more properties. That potential expansion is a top priority for tenant organizers and advocates for low-income renters, who have been pushing to expand rent control since last year. Another bill, co-introduced by Bonds and councilmember Elissa Silverman, makes it illegal for property owners to serve tenants with notices to vacate for 60 days after the health emergency expires. Notices to vacate are legally unenforceable during the eviction ban, but Silverman said Tuesday that some landlords continue to use them to intimidate out-of-work tenants who are behind on rent payments. Some renters who have received the notices think they are being evicted, and they have permanently left their homes out of fear or misunderstanding. An approved amendment by councilmember Trayon White clarifies that landlords aren’t allowed to coerce renters to move out by “decreasing services, harassment and refusing to renew a lease or rental agreement,” although this behavior, called “self-help eviction,” is already illegal in D.C. Representatives for property owners and managers generally oppose the broad stay on evictions and notices to vacate. Some landlords say they are being forced to absorb hits to their income during the health crisis, with little financial relief from the city or the federal government. Landlord attorneys recently argued before D.C. Superior Court Judge Anthony Epstein that the city’s eviction ban should be narrowed to include only nonpayment cases so landlords can evict people who pose a danger to their neighbors or property. Landlord surrogates have raised similar reservations about the temporary ban on eviction notices. The bill prohibits landlords from sending notices to tenants who are violating their leases in other ways beyond nonpayment, such as by keeping pets, disturbing other tenants or causing damage to the residence. Those tenants aren’t able to be evicted now, either, but landlords sometimes use the notices to pressure tenants to stop violating their leases. The ban on eviction notices goes into effect for 90 days after it’s signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, and it will be extended through the health emergency plus two months if it clears both the mayor’s office and a standard 30-day congressional review.
The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday approved tweaks to COVID-19 restrictions that relax existing rules to allow more people at houses of worship and let children younger than 18 play outdoor sports without masks. Under the order, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other religious facilities are allowed to open to the public for indoor and outdoor services. The crowd size will be determined by diving the total square footage of the worship space by 50, but cannot exceed 40% of permitted occupancy. Seating must be marked and distance, and every other row of fixed seating or pets must be empty and closed off. People must remain 6 feet from anyone not in their household. Also, leaders, volunteers and staff must be screened with a specific set of questions regarding potential COVID-19 symptoms or contact with the virus before each service. Temperatures must be taken and anyone with a temperature more than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit cannot enter the building. Outdoor services are capped at 150 people. The council also approved a provision that grants an exception to mask requirements for kids participating in outdoor sports outside. The mask requirement remains in place for adults 18 and older. But while the state recently moved to allow restaurants to increase seating capacity to 75%, Montgomery County will continue to restrict dining capacity to 50%.
The Fairfax County School Board voted Tuesday night to allow some students to resume in-person learning in October. The plan, which Fairfax County Public Schools Supt. Scott Brabrand presented, calls for about 3.5% of students and teachers to participate in what the county is calling in-person “cohorts.” About 6,707 students and 653 teachers would resume in-person learning under the approved proposal. The county said students returning to schools would be those it identified as “in greatest need of additional support.” High school students taking career and technical education courses, preschool children with autism and English language newcomers are among them. The decision to resume some in-person learning was made with factors, such as teacher, custodial staff, administration and classroom availability, in mind. When schools reopen, the county said social distancing practices will be enforced. Staff and students will wear face coverings, desks will be separated by 6 feet of space and students will eat meals in classrooms whenever possible. FCPS officials are using metrics, such as case incident rate and visits to emergency rooms per 100,000 people, to inform its decision-making. Parents will be asked to complete a form each day indicating they completed a health screening before sending their children to school, and teachers will be asked about symptoms and exposure. Schools will also use random temperature checks throughout the day. The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers is urging the county to ensure the safety of its teachers and staff moving forward. “FCPS staff are the heart and soul of ensuring our school system runs successfully,” said Tina Williams, the federation’s president, in a statement. “Our number one priority continues to be the health and safety of all students and staff. We continue to urge FCPS to adopt our 11 Pillars of a Safe Reopening and give all staff an option to work in the environment that they feel most safe.”
Enrollment in Montgomery County Public Schools is down about 3,000 students as more students than usual opt for homeschooling and private schooling. Last academic year, 51 students withdrew from MCPS for homeschooling compared to 984 this year, as of Sept. 16, according to data presented during a school board meeting on Tuesday. MCPS Supt. Jack Smith attributed the drop to families not wanting to participate in remote learning, which MCPS is set to use during the first semester that ends in January. “I certainly would draw that conclusion,” Smith said when asked. He said many families told the district in the spring that they planned to homeschool if buildings did not reopen for face-to-face learning in the fall. “My hope is they come back to us when we’re not in an all-virtual environment,” Smith said. Data presented on Tuesday showed that last year 908 students withdrew to attend private schools, and this year, the number climbed to 1,120 students. MCPS’ enrollment this year — 162,342 as of Sept. 13 — is down about 3,000 students compared to its official enrollment last academic year. Official enrollment is recorded on Sept. 30 each year. Last year, Smith had said the school district’s enrollment climbed to more than 166,000 students later in the 2019-20 academic year. Smith said much of the decrease can be attributed to a decline in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment. He also said the most recent enrollment data show that none of the 135 elementary schools met or exceeded projections, while all middle schools did. Most high schools are slightly below their projections, he said. MCPS’ enrollment drop will have a “significant impact” on the next fiscal year’s budget, according to district officials. During a meeting of the school board’s Fiscal Management Committee on Monday, MCPS staff members said they are projecting a revenue loss of about $101 million in Fiscal Year 2022, about $36 million of which is attributed to lower enrollment. On Tuesday, Smith and school board members emphasized that “nobody would choose” remote instruction and they are looking forward to reopening facilities. “Every single thing and the way we do it has had to change,” Smith said. “We’ll keep working through it because we can make it better, but that doesn’t imply it’s preferable or what we would choose.”
D.C.’s top health official on Monday introduced new criteria for determining when to lift additional restrictions and enter Phase Three. The 10 criteria include some goals the city has already met, including a coronavirus test positivity rate below 3% and the ability to contact almost every new patient within a day of testing positive. But the city is far from reaching others, especially a requirement that more than 60% of new cases be closely connected to other known cases — a metric that now stands at just 6%. D.C. leaders say a move of the next phase would allow public schools to reopen and additional capacity for activities already permitted. The new list eliminates a metric that had long been one of the city’s most prominent and questionable measures of coronavirus progress: community spread. D.C. relied on that count, which considered the number of cases outside of settings such as nursing homes and the D.C. jail, to determine when to enter the first two phases of reopening. But the metric, used by few other jurisdictions, was criticized by some, and on Monday, D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said the city will not require declining community spread to move to Phase Three. New metrics include a requirement that, on average, fewer than five new daily cases per 100,000 residents be identified (it is now 7.4 cases), that test results come back within two days (it is now 2.1 days) and that more than 80% of people who test positive complete a contact tracing interview within three days (two-thirds are now participating in interviews, although the city is calling nearly every patient). Nesbitt also lowered the bar for utilization of the city’s hospital beds. The Phase Two requirement was that fewer than 80% of hospital beds be occupied. On Monday, with 83% of city hospital beds full, she put the bar at 90%. She said previous months have shown hospitals are prepared to accommodate a possible surge in coronavirus patients. Nesbitt said more changes are possible as public health knowledge about the virus grows. “I would not commit to never changing the threshold of a metric,” she said. Entering Phase Three would require meeting all 10 criteria, Nesbitt said, although Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday she is considering lifting bans on some activities during Phase Two. In the next two weeks, she said she might reopen city-owned indoor pools, allow more activities in libraries and grant waivers for more activities at some businesses, such as live music.
The Smithsonian Institution, which reopened four of its museums on the National Mall last Friday, will reopen the National Museum of American History and National Museum of the American Indian this coming Friday. As will last week’s openings, there will be health and safety changes due to the pandemic. The American History museum will be open from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday to Tuesday, while the American Indian museum will be open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Visitors must reserve free timed-entry passes. Also, museum cafes and retail shops will be closed, tours are suspended and children’s play areas are closed. At American History, visitors must enter through the entrance between 12th and 14th Streets on Constitution Avenue NW. The National Mall entrance will be closed. Visitors age 6 and older must wear face coverings and social distancing will be in place, including one-way paths and directional guidance where appropriate.
Delaware, West Virginia, Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming were added to D.C. Health’s high-risk states list where the seven-day average of new daily coronavirus cases is 10 or more per 100,000 on Monday morning. Delaware and West Virginia are popular destinations for Washingtonians. Delaware has been on and off the list several times. People coming to D.C. from a high-risk state must self-quarantine for 14 days. The health department removed California, Hawaii and Ohio. The full list includes Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. The list will be updated again on Oct. 5.
The Maryland State Department of Education is offering $10 million in grants to school districts to help them reopen for in-person instruction by the start of the second quarter. One day after the state announced new lows in its coronavirus positivity rate, MSDE, which is encouraging in-person instruction, offered school districts grants of at least $200,000 plus a per student allocation each to get buildings and transportation ready for returning students. Applications, which must include the school system’s in-person learning plan for this fall, are due by Oct. 2. The grants will be provided by the second quarter of the school year, a news release said. The decision to reopen school buildings remains in the hands of county school boards, but the state is hoping the grant money provides incentive. “This additional $10 million in funds will assist schools in reopening and safely getting some of our kids back into classrooms and into healthy and supportive learning environments,” said Gov. Larry Hogan. “With our health metrics continuing to improve, small group in-person instruction can occur safely and should be available across the state.” The money is from federal emergency funding to elementary and secondary schools. “It is our responsibility to make sure that school buildings reopen safely as soon as possible so that every child has access to a high quality, meaningful education,” said State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon in the statement.
D.C.’s Office of Nightlife and Culture is offering $6,000 grants to help restaurants prepare outdoor dining spaces for winter. The Streatery Winter Ready program is available to restaurants and non-food retail businesses with an active sidewalk cafe permit, including temporary “streatery” permits, or private outdoor space with a liquor license, like beer gardens. Applications are now being accepted, and funds will be distributed on a rolling basis beginning Oct. 1. The program has an added emphasis on locally owned and operated businesses. To qualify for the grants, at least one of the following must apply: more than half of the business is owned by D.C. residents; more than half of the employees are D.C. residents; or more than half of the restaurant’s total receipts originate in D.C. The $4 million will help restaurants rent or purchase tents, heaters, propane, lighting, furniture, advertising and marketing for the winter months, which local restaurant owners predict will be worse than summer has been for business with reduced capacity and hours. Since the pandemic began, many restaurants have relied on takeout, delivery, pop-ups and outdoor dining to stay open, while many have closed temporarily and dozens more have closed permanently.Last week, the Hilton brothers announced they will close seven of their bars on Oct. 31. To date, the D.C. government has approved nearly 600 streateries, while the winter streatery program would cover 666 restaurants. The administration has spent nearly $1 billion in relief efforts, $33 million of which has gone to small businesses.
Ocean City is preparing for an unofficial car show that is expected to draw large crowds and a number of vehicles to the resort town through the weekend. The town used to host the now-defunct “H2Oi” car show years ago, but people continue to organize online and show up in late September. The town said it is establishing a Special Event Zone from today through Sunday in hopes of alleviating the expected traffic congestion and to address safety concerns. The zone lowers the speed limit and increases motor vehicle violation fines and penalties. Last year, Ocean City had issues with drag racing, people burning out their tires and overall reckless driving. Under new state law approved through the Maryland Legislature’s Special Event Zone Bill, police can also arrest people for unauthorized exhibition driving and certain other offenses. “Due to the pop-up car rally, this upcoming weekend is not going to be a typical fall weekend at the beach,” Mayor Rick Meehan said in a statement. “We encourage our residents to avoid traveling on Coastal Highway if possible, as traffic is going to be unusually heavy.” Meehan also discouraged people from visiting this weekend. “We pride ourselves on being a coastal community that everyone can enjoy year-round, but unfortunately, we are asking everyone to please exercise caution before deciding to visit Ocean City this weekend,” Meehan said.
Maryland’s daily and 7-day positivity rate dipped below 2% and 3%, respectively, on Saturday with hospitalizations falling below 300 and ICU levels dropping below 70 — the lowest levels since March. Gov Larry Hogan announced the upbeat coronavirus metrics on Sunday as the state continues its fight against the virus. Hogan said the statewide positivity rate has now been under 5% for 87 days, or since June 25, with the 7-day positivity rate hitting 2.85% for the first time since the pandemic began. Twenty-three of the state’s 24 jurisdictions have a positivity rate lower than 5% — with Cecil County being the lone outlier at 5.19% as of Sunday morning. Two-thirds of the jurisdictions have a positivity rate below 3.5%. It is also the first time hospitalizations have been below 300 since March 30, according to the release. They stand at 281 and ICU bed usage is currently at 68, the lowest it has been since March 26 — bringing ICU bed usage down 56% since July 25. The good news comes on the heels of Hogan’s Friday announcement allowing restaurants to increase indoor dining capacity from 50% to 75% at 5 p.m. today. Montgomery, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties will keep dining capacity at 50%.
Theaters and performance venues in Anne Arundel County may resume operation this coming Friday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began. County Executive Steuart Pittman said that when the state decided to move forward with reopening theaters in the first week of September, the county was still seeing an increase in cases. “When Gov. Hogan authorized limited re-opening of theaters earlier this month, our county’s coronavirus numbers were rising,” Pittman said in a press release. Both indoor and outdoor theaters, where live performances take place or movies are shown, can reopen to the public at 50% capacity or 100 people per auditorium — whichever is less. “We chose a cautious approach. Since then, we have carefully reviewed the protocols developed by the industry, monitored the impact in counties that took the action before us and considered potential impacts on community spread with our health officer, our recovery work group and others,” Pittman said. Theatergoers must wear a mask and remain safely distant from those not in their group. The decision to reopen came after a meeting with Pittman’s Recovery Work Group on Thursday, reviewing the trend of COVID-19 cases in the county. “Like all other openings, this one has the potential to increase the spread of coronavirus at a time when we must reduce case rates to meet the school reopening metrics set forth by the state,” Pittman said. He is expected to sign an executive order this week to make the change.