Holiday Market Returns with Precautions
COVID-19 Cases Reach 415,611 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Saturday morning, 19,961 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 670 deaths; there have been 179,971 cases in Maryland with 4,261 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 215,679 cases with 3,938 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
The 16th annual Downtown Holiday Market opened Friday on F Street NW, between Seventh and Ninth Streets, in front of the National Portrait Gallery, which closes today because of surging coronavirus cases in the DMV. A long row of white-canopied tents decorated with Christmas lights offers some holiday cheer in downtown Washington, despite the gloom of the pandemic. Because of the pandemic, this year’s market, operated by the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, has moved off the sidewalk and into the street closed to traffic. The extra space allows visitors more room to distance while shopping. The entire two-block area is secured by fencing. Visitors enter the makeshift-village at the center of the block, following a temperature check. All visitors exit the market-area a few steps down from the entrance. People browsed stalls with art prints, jewelry, antiques and collectibles, clothing and gift foods. Families, couples and small groups of friends were among the people visiting the Holiday Market. The Downtown Holiday Market will be open daily from noon-8 p.m. through Dec. 23.
COVID-19 cases in the Fairfax and Loudoun health districts is officially surging, according to new analysis from the University of Virginia Biocomplexity Institute, and Northern Virginia’s overall caseload is at its highest level since it peaked May 31. The new update on the spread of the coronavirus come as the Virginia Department of Health reported an additional 2,348 cases on Saturday, increasing the statewide seven-day average of new daily cases to a record 2,125.7. That is up almost 50% from just a week ago. In Northern Virginia, 666 new cases were reported Saturday, raising the region’s seven-day average to 588, the highest since it peaked at 685.3 at the end of May. The Biocomplexity Institute, which updates its COVID-19 model weekly, says the spike of cases that began in Southwest Virginia several weeks ago is now spreading statewide, with Loudoun and Fairfax among eight health districts in which cases are currently surging. “For the past several weeks experts have been warning that cold weather, the holidays and ‘COVID fatigue’ could result in a surge of COVID-19 cases,” the institute said. “Unfortunately, these warnings have proven prescient. Cases are surging nationally and growing in Virginia, even before the rapid rise that could occur following Thanksgiving travel and gatherings.” Virginia’s average weekly case load of about 21 new cases per 100,000 residents is still among the lowest rates in the country, but the institute warned that could change as cases spread elsewhere. “In Virginia, case growth continues to defy surges in neighboring states, creeping upward slowly instead,” the institute said. “However, there are worrying signs that the exceptionally high incidence occurring in Southwest Virginia and some neighboring states is making its way into more populous regions, including surging cases in Fairfax and Loudoun Health Districts. If this continues, Virginia could quickly join neighboring states with very high incidence.” The institute noted that hospitalizations for treatment of COVID-19 often lag case reports by two to three weeks, yet they have increased statewide this week to more than 1,500 patients, the most since the peak of 1,625 in early May. In Northern Virginia, 391 patients were hospitalized Saturday morning, well below the region’s peak of 808 on April 30. The average daily caseload in Southwest Virginia, the least populated region of the state, continues to rise, although more slowly than earlier this month, and now stands at 548.9. The state health department reported 26 new deaths on Saturday. Of those, one was in Northern Virginia, in Prince William County.
On Saturday, Maryland performed the most COVID-19 tests since the start of the pandemic. The state reported a new daily high of 51,510 tests conducted as state officials expand testing capacity during the recent coronavirus surge, encouraging all Marylanders to get tested for COVID-19. Prior to now, the state’s previous high was 43,969 test results in one day. The state reported 2,885 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, for a total of 177,887 confirmed cases, and 16 new deaths, for a total of 4,261 confirmed deaths. Saturday’s milestone comes one day after Gov. Larry Hogan announced the state surpassed 4 million total COVID-19 tests. “As we battle this fall surge, one of the most important things you can do to protect your friends and family is to get tested for COVID-19,” Hogan said. “If you are a college student planning on returning home for the holidays — get a test. If you are planning to spend any time around your grandparents — get a test. If you are returning from any out-of-state travel — get a test.” Maryland’s seven-day average positivity rate dropped slightly on Saturday to 7.13%, and the daily positivity rate also decreased to 6.41%. The statewide positivity rate has been over the CDC benchmark of 5% since Nov. 9. Total current hospitalizations rose by 22 to 1,229, their highest levels since May 30 and 278 patients are currently in intensive care units, the highest level since June 17. Maryland’s average case rate has risen to 36.2, with a 49.3% increase in the past week. Case rates have now risen above 10 in all 24 jurisdictions and above 20 in 20 jurisdictions. The state supports and manages dozens of community-based sites located in areas with the greatest needs, including the Baltimore Convention Center Field Hospital, Six Flags America theme park and Annapolis Capitol Area testing sites, according to a press release. Beginning on Nov. 30, the Baltimore Convention Center Field Hospital testing site will be open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. as well as Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-8 p.m. Marylanders can be tested at one of more than 230 testing sites by visiting the state’s testing website.
School leaders in Montgomery County looking for guidance on whether to hold in-person classes said Friday that conflicting messages from local, state and federal agencies complicate an already difficult situation. On Thursday, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles sent a letter urging private schools to transition to a fully virtual instruction as cases surge in the DMV. Gayles cited local data that show some metrics, like the county’s case rate per 100,000 people, which is used to guide school reopenings, have reached their highest levels since March. On Friday afternoon, Gayles told private school leaders that the rate of community transmission of COVID-19 is too high to safely gather for classes. As the transmission rate increases, so, too, does the likelihood that infected people will come to school and spread the virus, Gayles said. “As you know, the decision to open and close your schools is your decision,” Gayles told school officials. “However, it is my responsibility as the health officer to provide guidance when and where necessary.” On Thursday, just hours before Gayles sent his letter to private schools, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said the department did not recommend school closures in the spring, “nor did we recommend their closures today. The truth is, for kids in K-12, one of the safest places they can be, from our perspective, is to remain in school,” Redfield said during a press conference at the White House. During Gayles’ meeting with private school leaders on Friday, one asked how they are supposed to make sense of the conflicting messages. “I stand by my guidance,” Gayles said. Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said the lack of a national strategy to combat the virus has hurt the county’s ability to respond. “If we had made the national effort that we should have made three months ago, I think both Dr. Gayles and I agree, schools could have been and should have been open today,” Stoddard said. “We failed to do that as a country, and, as such, we’ve left ourselves in a situation where we have rampant community transmission.” Since March, Montgomery County Public Schools’ 208 schools have been closed while more than 160,000 students learn from home. Many private schools, however, began the school year with a mix of in-person and virtual learning. Others began the year virtually, but have since returned to the classroom at least part-time. By opening, private schools went against the advice of Gayles, who at the time said the rate of community transmission was too high to keep students and staff safe in group settings “even with the most robust, well-executed plans.” Now, two months later, the county’s key coronavirus metrics are surging, and data suggest it is worse now than it was when the academic year began. On Sept. 1, the case rate per 100,000 people in the county was 6.9. On Friday, the rate was more than four times that, at 29.8. During a press conference this week, Gayles said there is limited evidence of student-to-student, student-to-staff or staff-to-student transmission of the coronavirus in schools. Of the more than 400 investigations into possible cases, at least 80 positive cases have been found, according to the health department. The cases found to have originated in schools is “in the low double digits” Gayles said. Nobody younger than 30 has died of COVID-19 in Montgomery County, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. Children younger than 20 have accounted for about 13% of the county’s total cases. But the number of confirmed cases in Montgomery County youths has increased since the start of the pandemic in March. In March and April, for example, 265 total cases were reported in children, compared to 1,204 in September and October. Through the first two weeks of November, 453 people younger than 20 had tested positive for the virus. The caveat: The county’s online data dashboard does not show how many tests have been administered to each age group, and a Department of Health spokeswoman did not provide that data when asked this week, so it is unclear if the rise in cases directly correlates with an increase in testing. Countywide, however, the testing capacity has increased dramatically since March.
Most DMV residents won’t be traveling this Thanksgiving, due in large part to the coronavirus pandemic. “Given the recent surge in COVID-19 and the strong urging of public health officials for everyone to stay home for the holiday, the Thanksgiving travel landscape continues to change,” John B. Townsend II, of AAA Mid-Atlantic, said in a news release. An AAA survey found 83% of D.C. residents will be staying at home for Thanksgiving, with 65% citing concerns about COVID-19, the others said they were not planning to travel anyway. In Maryland, 89% of residents said they would stay home for Thanksgiving, with 50% saying they were avoiding travel because of COVID-19, while the other half was not planning to travel anyway. In Virginia, 84% of residents said they would be staying at home, with 41% blaming COVID-19 and 59% with no travel plans anyway. About 90% of DMV residents said traveling at this time was a risk. According to AAA, up to 1.2 million DMV residents were expected to travel for Thanksgiving, down from nearly 1.4 million last year. That is a 13.7% decrease and the largest one-year drop in Thanksgiving travel in the region since the 2008 recession. The regional numbers reflect a nationwide trend. AAA Mid-Atlantic said last week that while it predicts more than 50 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home over the Thanksgiving holiday, down about 5 million from last year — and the numbers could go even lower as the holiday approaches. Of those who still plan on traveling, AAA said, most will be driving. In fact, it anticipates that Thanksgiving air travel will see the largest one-year decrease on record. “Although Thanksgiving is typically a driving holiday, it should be noted that, since the beginning of COVID-19, those who have decided to travel this year have predominantly done so by car, where they can have greater control over their environment and the ability to modify plans at the last minute,” Townsend said. AAA is urging drivers to be aware of the local and state coronavirus-related travel restrictions of where they are going, including any quarantine and testing requirements. AAA is also asking drivers to be extra-prepared for the road this year. “COVID-19 adds an extra layer of complexity to all interactions, including roadside emergency calls, so this year it is more important than ever for all motorists to ensure that their vehicles are road-ready, even if they are just driving across town,” Townsend said. For those who do hit the road this Thanksgiving, one bonus is cheaper gas. On average, gas prices nationally are nearly 50 cents lower than this time last year, with the October average the lowest in more than 15 years.
As COVID-19 cases surge in the DMV, the new Planet Word and the National Museum of the Marine Corps will join the list of area museums closing temporarily. On Thursday, the Smithsonian Institution announced it would close eight facilities that have reopened since they closed due to the pandemic. The National Gallery of Art, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Glenstone Museum also announced closures. On Friday, Planet Word, which only opened Oct. 22 near Franklin Park in Northwest D.C and is dedicated to language, will close to the public beginning Monday, Nov. 23, “in support of the safety of our community,” according to a statement sent Friday. “It has been exhilarating to bring Planet Word to life and to have your support of its mission to renew and inspire a love of words, language and reading,” the statement said. The museum will continue to engage with patrons online and via social media. The National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., will also close to the public on Monday. It will remain open for visitors throughout the weekend with “proper COVID-19 protocols.” The museum’s grounds, including the Semper Fidelis Memorial Park and the playground, will remain open. Neither museum has set reopening dates.
A plan to bring more students back to Fairfax County Public Schools classrooms remains on hold until at least Nov. 30, and now the school district might have to take a step backward. So far, four groups of students, amounting to a small percentage of total students, have returned to some in-person learning. Group 5, which includes Early Head Start, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and special education students, was supposed to return last Tuesday, but on Monday, the district delayed the return for at least two weeks due to surging coronavirus cases in the county. During a virtual “Return to School Town Hall” Thursday night, Supt. Scott Brabrand said that another change may be needed. “If the health metrics continue on the trajectory they are … [it] may impact Group 4 [Burke School elementary program and high school career preparatory programs], one of the groups that had recently come back,” Brabrand said. “We will be communicating to those Group 4 parents probably [Friday], that early next week there could be an impact for returning next Tuesday.” Despite this, Brabrand was adamant the district wants to bring students back to classrooms. “We are committed to returning our kids to in-person. There will be some setbacks. There will be some pauses. I cannot promise you that it will be linear,” he said. Brabrand said new safety teams are being created to make sure students and staff in schools are following proper procedures to protect against virus transmission, like wearing masks, disinfecting and social distancing. “As we get that data, we’ll be reporting it to the community and to the board, so that we can build confidence with our students, our staff and our community that the actual risk in schools is low,” he said. “Even if COVID transmission is higher than we’d like in the community, if we can show that it remains low in schools, we can continue to move forward on our return to school strategy.” In addition, every school has been tested to make sure there is good air flow inside. “We are putting in HEPA filters or other devices to really filter the air in our classrooms to the greatest extent possible,” Brabrand said. As for the online learning many students have been doing, Brabrand said it is clear that it is not a good fit for all of them. “We are looking at grade data already by high schools. It does look like we have more Ds and Fs in many of our schools. Some of our schools are also reporting more As. How can that be? I think the reality is, online learning works for some kids and may even work better for some kids based on their learning style. For other kids, online learning is a struggle.”
Prince George’s County Public Schools unveiled new safety technologies and protocols to make sure students are in their classrooms when the bell rings, but the walk to the bus stop may be a bit farther. During a virtual town hall on Thursday, school officials described new technology, such as stop-arm cameras to ticket drivers who fail to stop and new cameras installed on buses, which will provide real-time help in several scenarios. Although when students will return to classrooms for hybrid learning isn’t known, Rudy Saunders, the school district’s director of transportation, said new bus routes are being finalized to reduce the time students spend on buses and improve the likelihood of buses arriving at school earlier. “We’ve had neighborhoods with a high number of stops, a high number of times that the bus had to stop,” Saunders said. “Obviously, each time the bus has to stop, to open the door and let kids on, that takes more time.” Buses will have GPS-enabled tablets on the dashboard, providing turn-by-turn directions to help along the route — a help when substitute drivers are behind the wheel. Consolidating stops will mean some students will have to walk farther than in the past, but PGCPS said the new stops will fall within the 1.5-mile limit for elementary school students and 2 miles for middle and high school students. “We study the potential stops to make sure where students have to walk is not going to be in a dangerous situation and is not going to create any scenario where there’s potential harm that we need to alleviate, in some other way,” Saunders said The district will launch an Info Finder System, to help parents locate their children’s new bus stops and also provide an opportunity to voice concerns about the location. For safety, new high-definition cameras have been installed on the county’s 1,200 buses, which will provide real-time information and communication. “Being able to monitor who actually got on the bus; this is going to be particularly effective for our younger students and special needs students to make sure we can track that,” in cases where a child isn’t where a parent expects the child to be, Saunders said. If a student is in distress, or there is an incident, the cloud-based system will allow school officials to monitor the situation as it is happening, rather than reviewing a video. “If we need to give assistance to a driver in case of an emergency, we’re able to do that a lot faster,” Saunders said. A parent asked how the school system would ensure bus riders were wearing masks to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection when they get on buses. “We don’t have staff at bus stops,” said Barry Stanton, PGCPS chief operating officer. “It’s the parent’s responsibility to take on that safety requirement and monitor their students wearing masks before they get on the bus.” Stanton said bus drivers would carry some additional masks. Bus windows will be open to maximize air flow, even during winter, but bus heaters will be used.
Two of the DMV’s major airports remain stuck below 30% of normal passenger totals. September’s passenger count at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was down 78.4% from September 2019, with Washington Dulles International Airport down 73.2%. Efforts to recover passengers at the two airports remain mired in challenges – Reagan National is focused on business travel, which has nearly dried up since the coronavirus pandemic hit, while about a third of usual traffic at Dulles is international in nature, which is down 88.8% at the airport compared to a year ago. In September, American Airlines remained the dominant carrier at Reagan National; the airline and its regional affiliates carried 52.3% of all passengers during the month, up from 50.9% a year before. United Airlines solidified its position as the dominant carrier at Dulles; the airline and its regional affiliates carried 76.3% of all passengers, up from 65% a year ago, with the bump up largely due to the steep decline in service by international carriers like British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France, Avianca and Air China. Year-to-date passenger totals are down 64.7% at Reagan National and 66.1% at Dulles. The DMV’s third airport, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, operated by the Maryland Aviation Administration, has seen somewhat less of a downturn, because its major carrier – Southwest — focuses on leisure travel. BWI report passengers were down 60.3% in September compared to last year. Southwest, which carried 1.55 million passengers at BWI last October, reported 618,175 passengers this September.
Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of President Donald Trump, contracted COVID-19 and was quarantining Friday. A spokesperson said Friday that Trump Jr. learned his diagnosis at the beginning of the week and has had no symptoms. He is following all medically recommended guidelines for COVID-19, the spokesperson added. The 42-year-old is the latest member of the president’s family to be infected with the coronavirus, which has killed more than 250,000 Americans and infected nearly 12 million others. President Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron have all recovered from their COVID-19 infections in October. The president spent three days in a Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda where he was treated with experimental drugs; the first lady recuperated at the White House. Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, tested positive for the coronavirus in July.
With COVID-19 cases surging in the DMV, the Smithsonian Institution will again close all its museums and the National Zoo to the public as of Monday. “The Institution’s top priority is to protect the health and safety of its visitors and staff,” it said in a press release. “We will use this time to reassess, monitor and explore additional risk-mitigation measures. We are closely monitoring guidance from local governments, public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” The Smithsonian did not give a reopening date, citing “the changing nature of the situation.” The closures impact seven museums that had reopened to the public, including the National Portrait Gallery, the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The Smithsonian originally closed all its museums and the National Zoo when the pandemic hit D.C. in March, but began reopening in July. The Smithsonian laid off more than 230 employees from its shops, theaters and concessions, due to lost revenue as the pandemic limited its operations. Spokesperson Linda St. Thomas said it had lost $49 million between March and September. In an email, Smithsonian spokesperson Alexandria Fairchild said there are “currently no plans” to lay off or cut staff. The Smithsonian isn’t the only arts institution closing temporarily. The National Gallery of Art also said Thursday that it would close on Nov. 21 “out of an abundance of caution” in response to rising cases numbers. The closure will affect the West Building and the Sculpture Garden. Also Thursday, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum announced that it will close Monday. Visitors who have passes for after Sunday will be contacted. Glenstone Museum in Potomac also announced it will close temporarily starting Nov. 25. Its last day open will be Nov. 22, because it is only open Thursday-Sunday. All scheduled visits through the end of December have been canceled. January visits are still scheduled but “may be canceled at a later date,” according to a press release.
Maryland reported a record number of new coronavirus cases on Thursday, adding 2,910 cases and beating its previous high of 2,321 on Nov. 14. Virginia and D.C. also reported high numbers of new cases, 1,954 and 213, respectively, although neither set a record. However, both jurisdictions have set new record highs recently. Virginia’s most new cases so far came on Monday, and D.C.’s second-highest amount ever was reported on Tuesday. Even more worryingly, all three jurisdictions are seeing upward trends in their 7-day rolling averages of new cases per 100,000 people, the metric public health officials use to monitor the trajectory of the pandemic while accounting for random daily spikes. In Maryland and Virginia, the 7-day rolling average number has far outpaced spring number and are headed toward doubling them. Positivity rates — the number of how many people test positive out of the total tested — are also on the rise around the DMV. Maryland and Virginia are both above 7% — 5% is the benchmark for reopening set by the World Health Organization. D.C. is nearing that benchmark, with a positivity rate of 4.8%. Area governments have reimposed some restrictions as cases surge. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order requiring restaurants, bars and other establishments selling food and alcohol to close by 10 p.m. Also, all retail businesses, houses of worship, and gyms in the state can only operate at 50% capacity. “Our highest priority right now is preserving capacity at our hospitals so that doctors and nurses can do their jobs and make sure that people get the right critical lifesaving treatment,” Hogan said. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam made changes to the state’s reopening last week. He reduced the number of people who can attend indoor gathering to 25, down from 250, and prohibited restaurants, bars and other establishments from selling food or alcohol after 10 p.m. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced expanded hours for testing locations beginning this coming Monday and hinted at additional restrictions. Hospitalization rates around the DMV are rising steadily, although they haven’t yet surpassed spring highs, but nationwide they have. Hospitalization is a “lagging indicator,” meaning increases follow upticks in case counts by a week or two, as the people who have contracted the virus get sicker. The coronavirus surge comes as many people are grappling with decisions about Thanksgiving travel and gatherings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials have advised residents to cancel travel plans for the holiday and to host gatherings with people from outside their households outdoors.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s board approved a new budget Thursday that largely avoids service cuts, but calls for cutting 1,400 jobs through buyouts, layoffs and eliminating positions that are not associated with safety or other core missions. About 2,000 workers who are retirement-eligible will get information about the buyouts, which include a $15,000 bonus to leave, today. It isn’t clear what the deadline will be or when layoffs will be announced. Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, argued the transit agency should wait for the Biden administration and new Congress to pass funding relief. The transit industry is asking for $32 billion in federal relief, but it isn’t clear if or when that will happen. Metro officials said if the funding does come through, they would be able to rehire laid-off workers. Metro is facing a $177 million budget gap and has made a number other belt-tightening moves including hiring freezes and reduced bus service. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said the transit agency is in a historic crisis. “No board in recent history has faced the challenges this board has faced,” he said. Metro last saw this lean of a budget after the 2008 financial crisis. In 2009, it had a similar $176 million gap and was faced with cutting nearly 900 positions to put the staff at about 10,000 employees. Metro currently has about 12,000 employees. The board previously considered closing Metrorail at 9 p.m. instead of 11 p.m. and instituting turnbacks on the Red and Yellow lines, which would have reduced service at the end of those lines. Board members decided against those after rider input showed it would negatively affect service and other essential workers with non-traditional hours. Under the new plan, trains will run every 12 minutes on all lines, all day on weekdays. Red Line trains will operate every six minutes. On weekends, trains will run every 15 minutes except for the Red Line, which will run every 12 minutes. That is a slightly longer time between trains than current peak service, which sees trains every eight minutes and every five minutes on the Red Line. Many riders indicated they were ok with that level of service if it was temporary. The changes will be in effect from February 13 through June 30. On Metrobus, riders will start paying fares again in January. Ridership has been historically low, with Metrorail ridership down about 80% compared to 2019 and Metrobus ridership down nearly 60%. The recovery has been slower than Metro previously estimated. Next month, the board will begin on the budget that runs from July 2021-June 2022. Members are bracing for even tougher cuts if federal funding doesn’t come.
Citing a surge in COVID-19 cases, Prince George’s County instituted a weekend curfew for unaccompanied minors at National Harbor beginning Friday. County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said in a press release Thursday that unaccompanied minors have been spending time at the entertainment and shopping district without adhering to public mask rules. She called the rise in coronavirus cases “concerning.” In an effort to limit the spread of the virus, unaccompanied minors ages 17 and younger will not be allowed at National Harbor on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 5 p.m.-6 a.m. Youth accompanied by an adult may stay. Alsobrooks did not say when the curfew will end. County Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter said interviews and contact tracing have found that people who have recently tested positive for the virus have attended large gatherings. “We know COVID-19 is spreading due to people engaging in these high-risk activities, and it needs to stop,” he said in the release. Last Friday, the Hampton Inn and Suites National Harbor closed because it hosted too many occupants over a room’s capacity.
Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles on Thursday evening urged private schools in the county to discontinue in-person instruction as COVID-19 cases surge. In a letter, Gayles wrote that he and county leaders “strongly encourage all schools in Montgomery County to reassess continued in-person instruction and strongly consider a return to full virtual instruction” until the county’s case rate per 100,000 residents drops. The letter does not mandate the schools close. Every school was asked to notify the Department of Health and Human Services by Dec. 4 whether it plans to move to an all-virtual classes or continue offering in-person instruction. The county’s positivity rate has steadily increased over the past month, and currently stands at 5.1%. The seven-day average of cases per 100,000 people was 29.2 on Thursday, the highest since the pandemic began. Gayles, citing guidance from the state Department of Education and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked schools to remain in an all-virtual model until the rate drops to below 15 cases per 100,000 people. The reopening of private schools in the county has been a sore spot since summer. In August, after a week of back-and-forth with Gov. Larry Hogan, Gayles rescinded an order that prohibited private schools from reopening. After Gayles issued his first order on July 31, Hogan issued an order of his own three days later that banned blanket private school closures by local jurisdictions. Gayles then issued a second order, which cited a different part of the law, on Aug. 5. Maryland Health Secretary Robert Neall responded by issuing a memo stating that private schools in the state shouldn’t be closed in a “blanket manner.” Gayles rescinded his second order the day after Neall’s memo. During a press conference Wednesday, Gayles said there have been about 400 investigations into possible cases of the coronavirus associated with schools and childcare centers. But contact tracing has shown limited transmission in schools, he said. Of the confirmed cases, most have been traced to places and events outside of school. “It’s probably been in the low double digits in terms of situations where we have had cases where there’s been spread in school before we’ve had a chance to step in and interrupt those chains of transmission,” Gayles said. He added that there has been a higher rate of spread between students and teachers in childcare settings, but did not elaborate. There are 29 ongoing investigations into possible COVID-19 cases associated with schools, Gayles said. There are four ongoing coronavirus outbreaks at county schools, according to the Maryland Department of Health. St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac and St. Elizabeth School in Rockville each have two cases in their schools, according to the state’s dashboard. Bullis School has eight cases and The Heights School has four cases, according to the dashboard. Both schools are in Potomac.
The Nation’s Gun Show, which was expected to draw about 25,000 people to the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly this weekend, was canceled Thursday after a Fairfax County circuit court Judge Brett Kassabian declined to grant an injunction to allow it to proceed with no capacity limits. Organizers, promoter Showmaster’s Inc., firearms dealer Sonny’s Guns & Trasnsfers, and John Crump, an Ashburn gun enthusiast, sought an injunction to allow the show to proceed despite Gov. Ralph Northam’s order that went into effect Monday tightening COVID-19 restrictions statewide cutting the size of “entertainment and amusement businesses” to 30% of capacity or 25 people, whichever is less. Attorneys for the trio filed a complaint against Northam and Dr. Norman Oliver, the state’s health commissioner, saying the restrictions violated Virginians’ rights to keep and bear arms because the limit would force the show to be canceled. Kassabian ruled Thursday that scaling back or nixing the event wouldn’t restrict attendees’ rights under the state’s constitution, and that health considerations took priority because hundreds of Fairfax County residents have died of COVID-19. “To allow thousands to roam unchecked during the middle of the most serious health crisis this county has suffered in the past 100 years is not in the public interest,” Kassabian said. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who represented the state, celebrated the ruling on Twitter. “Putting hundreds or even thousands of Virginians at risk for the sole purpose of selling guns is just not worth it,” he tweeted. In their complaint, plaintiffs argued the Nation’s Gun Show should be treated the same as brick-and-mortar retail businesses, which don’t have a capacity limit under the new rules. Canceling the event, they argued, would irreparably harm its exhibitors and waste months of planning and effort. Attorneys for Sonny’s Guns & Transfers said the business derives more than 90% of its income from gun shows, and it would lose as much as $70,000 in sales if the show didn’t go on as planned. Crump said he wanted to attend the show not only to buy firearms, but to “gather together with like-minded individuals” to discuss “relevant issues with respect to the right to keep and bear arms,” and that he was willing to follow masking and social distancing requirements at the gun show. Showmasters president Annette Elliott defended the company’s health procedures in a Facebook post Thursday. “We limit our occupancy, everyone wears a mask and follows the COVID REQUIREMENTS,” she wrote. “We have also had two shows already and have not been a super spreader.” News footage from a Showmasters gun show in Richmond over the summer shows multiple attendees and vendors not wearing masks or social distancing. After Thursday’s ruling, Showmasters said on Facebook that the show is canceled. “We fought back and went to court at great expense and lost. We respectfully disagree with the judge’s opinion,” organizers said.
As coronavirus cases surge to record levels across the DMV and nationwide, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser warned Wednesday that new restrictions are coming “soon.” The city reported 245 new cases Wednesday, the largest one-day total since May. It also reported five additional deaths. D.C. never entered Phase Three of its reopening plan like Maryland and Virginia, but Bowser says officials are looking at way to help stem the increase in cases. “We want interventions that we think give us the chance to drive our numbers down as we go into winter,” Bowser said at a press conference. “So our business owners or social gatherings, people can expect that we won’t be able to maintain this level.” Maryland will tighten the number of people allowed at gatherings and require restaurants and bar to close at 10 p.m. beginning at 5 p.m. Friday. Virginia implemented new restrictions last week, including restricting gatherings to 25 people or fewer, lowering the age of mask requirements in the state to anyone 5-years-old or older, a 10 p.m. curfew for serving alcohol and a midnight curfew for restaurants. Gov. Ralph Northam did not ban indoor dining at restaurants or impose travel restrictions, as some other states have. D.C. will also ramp up testing starting Monday, adding a new testing site and extending hours testing hours. The GEICO garage at Nationals Park, 16 N St. SE, will be open from 2:30-7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. While it isn’t indoors, it can be heated and has less exposure to the elements. Some other testing sites will be getting tents and heaters. Firehouse testing sites will expand hours to 2:30-7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Saturday hours will remain noon-4 p.m. Testing sites at Judiciary Square, the University of the District of Columbia’s Bertie Backus Campus and Anacostia locations will open a half-hour earlier at 8:30 a.m. and continue to close at 1 p.m. Testing sites will be closed on Thanksgiving day, but open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday after the holiday. Additional hours at the four firehouses located at 2531 Sherman St. NW, 1520 C St. SE, 1342 Florida Ave. NE and 4930 Connecticut Ave. NW will be open 2:30-7:30 pm. Saturday and noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Also beginning next Monday, people seeking tests will be asked to provide their insurance information so the city can recoup some of its costs. Residents, including those without insurance, will continue to receive free tests, and no one will be charged a copay or turned away. “The proper places for those costs are the insurance companies,” Bowser said. “So we’re asking people to please, please just take a couple of extra minutes, get your insurance card and pre-register with that information, because that is, in the long run, going to help us with other parts of our recovery. Insurance companies should pay for the test and we want to collect info so they might.” Tests should be taken 3-5 days after possible exposure to reduce false negatives because there might not be enough viral load yet to be detected. Bowser also encouraged people to have frank conversations with their families and roommates. “Household spread continues to be a concern,” Bowser said. “Contact tracing data indicates that many Washingtonians are still getting infected or likely getting infected at home.”
Montgomery County is stepping up enforcement of coronavirus rules at big box and grocery stores as the DMV faces a surge of COVID-19 cases, and county leaders hinted stronger restrictions on gatherings and mask-wearing could be on the way. Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said during a Wednesday press conference that his office was beefing up inspection and enforcement at retail stores across the county. Capacity limits at businesses were cut to to 25% under an executive order from County Executive Marc Elrich last week. “We have heard a number of concerns raised about our grocery stores and other large establishments who have been open since the beginning of the pandemic,” but where there has been a “waning of compliance as it relates to face coverings, cleaning and other measures,” Stoddard said. His remarks come a day after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan tightened statewide COVID-19 restrictions. The governor also urged local jurisdictions to step up enforcement of existing coronavirus rules. “While we don’t believe that our local enforcement has been lacking, we are taking that, you know, feeling to heart and looking where we can increase our inspections capabilities across the board,” Stoddard said. During the press conference, Elrich and Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said the county is considering even stricter restrictions on gatherings. Last week, the county council approved new rules limiting social gatherings to 25 people and limiting capacity at restaurants, bars and gyms, in addition to retail outlets, to 25%. Gayles called those steps a series of “first line of restrictions” and said the county is considering further action, including limiting indoor social gatherings to 10 and requiring the wearing of face coverings outdoors. Similar measures were taken by Prince George’s County last week. Overall, the county is averaging nearly more than 280 new coronavirus cases a day, about double the average number of new cases at the beginning of the month. The number of cases per 100,000 is now at 25, up from 13 two weeks ago. In late July and early August, the number of cases per 100,000 was down to fewer than 10. Elrich called the increase “alarming,” and said, “This has clearly been spinning in the wrong direction.” He called the push over the last few months to lift more restrictions shortsighted. “In the face of knowing this was coming … there was a push to open more and more things,” Elrich said. Regarding the new capacity limits on businesses and the 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars that Hogan announced Tuesday, Elrich said: “Personally, I don’t think they went far enough. But I also want to say that I understand the governor’s got really difficult decisions to make.” Officials indicated the worst could still come. “We have yet to see the hospital surge and the fatality surge,” Gayles said. “But if you recall back to the spring, that surge lagged behind the case surge.” As it stands now, about three-fourths of the hospital beds in the county are filled, which is still below an 80% benchmark that the county considers a potential warning sign. However, about 13.8% of inpatient hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients, according to the county’s coronavirus dashboard, which county metrics consider a potential trouble spot. During a peak amid the first coronavirus wave in the spring, the percentage of hospital beds filled by coronavirus patients topped out at nearly 39% before dipping down to 4.6% in late August. “The hospital numbers are, obviously, sort of the next really big, big area of concern,” Stoddard said.
The Washington Teachers’ Union rejected an agreement with D.C. Public Schools over reopening campuses, creating another roadblock for the district as it tries to bring students back to classrooms. The union and school district reached a tentative agreement last week that set conditions for returning to in-person learning. The proposal covered protections for teachers who are exposed to the coronavirus and safety conditions inside buildings. Elizabeth Davis, WTU president, said at the time she wanted to seek input from teachers before formally approving the pact with DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee. On Wednesday, Davis said signing the agreement is not in the best interest of students, teachers and school employees. “Teachers recognized that many individual students, especially those furthest from opportunity, need additional supports, and that distance learning, despite the growth teachers have shown in its implementation, does not work for all students,” Davis said in a press release. “We hope to return to our schools in a smart, data-driven manner that protects our students, teachers and communities from COVID-19. However, we can only do so when adequate protections are in place.” DCPS did not comment. But during a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Muriel Bowser criticized Davis for rejecting the agreement after indicating early support. “I can’t say I’m surprised. She’s backed away from other tentative agreements,” Bowser said when asked about the union’s rejection. “It should be apparent that the goal posts, unfortunately, continued to move.” The union has lobbied for a provision that would allow teachers to opt out of in-person teaching, which the school system has resisted. Under the proposal, teachers would have had the ability to opt-out of teaching in person during the second quarter, which is underway. But the school system could have required teachers to return to classrooms starting in the third quarter, which begins in February. Davis said that was the main reason teachers did not want the union to accept the agreement. “With cases of COVID rising across the region and without clear guidance from the mayor as to what level of spread would cause our schools to close, we cannot move forward with an agreement that could force anyone, regardless of preexisting conditions or their living situations, back into an in-person classroom,” she said, adding the union will continue to negotiate terms for reopening with the school district. Ferebee previously said he has the authority to proceed with reopening schools without the union’s approval. But lack of union support halted plans to bring 7,000 elementary students back classrooms on Nov. 9. The union filed a complaint with D.C.’s Public Employee Relations Board, arguing the school system refused to negotiate with it, as required by law. The board, which mediates disputes between city employers and workers, sided with the union, leaving DCPS unable to staff classrooms. Instead, the district started reopening buildings under a much more modest plan. About 400 students at 25 elementary schools returned to classrooms Wednesday to what the school system is calling CARE classrooms. More are scheduled to open in the coming weeks. In the classrooms, class sizes are restricted to 11 students or fewer. Classes are not staffed with teachers, but other school workers or employees with organizations the school system partners with. Students continue with virtual classes. DCPS identified the students for in-person learning, prioritizing those who have high needs, including those enrolled in special education or English language learners.
Despite rising COVID-19 cases across the DMV, Prince William County Public Schools Supt. Steve Walts did not recommend any changes to the district’s staggered plan to bring students back to classrooms. Walts updated the PWCS board on Wednesday night on the virus and efforts to continue to roll out in-person learning in county schools. Last week, the county’s youngest students, pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners, went back to class for two days each week. Plans are for other elementary grades to follow in December and January. On Wednesday morning, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 95 positive COVID-19 cases among staff and students at county schools. Last month there were 84, and in September there were 50. Walts told board members he wasn’t recommending any changes in operations, and noted that the relatively low number of students currently in classrooms was part of the reason. The Prince William County Education Association, the teachers’ union, joined unions in Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington and Manassas Park earlier this week calling on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to order a statewide return to virtual learning. Fairfax County Public Schools earlier this week decided to delay resumption of in-person classes for at least two weeks. Manassas Park schools also decided this week to go virtual until at least January. Northam on Wednesday also said he doesn’t plan to impose any further restrictions on schools, saying “one size doesn’t fit all. We give very consistent guidelines to our school districts, then allow the localities to make those decisions.” Walts said the plan continues for first grade students to return on Dec. 1, with second and third grades expected to follow Jan. 12. Students will attend two alternating days per week, with Mondays remaining all virtual. Students in fourth through 12th grades will remain virtual through the second quarter, with a plan for fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth grades to start returning Jan. 26. Students in grades seventh, eighth, 10th, 11th and 12th would begin returning Feb. 2. Families can opt to continue remote learning for students.
As negotiations over a second stimulus package have stalled on Capitol Hill, D.C. rolled out a $100 million Bridge Fund to aid local businesses that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The city will distribute the grants to hotels, restaurants, entertainment and retail businesses in the coming weeks, Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wednesday. Of the total, $30 million will go to hotels, $35 million to restaurants, $20 million to entertainment businesses and $15 million to retail businesses. The program is being funded by $20 million in federal CARES Act money and $80 million in local money. The CARES Act portion must be spent by the end of 2020 and will exclusively support hotels, which can begin applying next week. “The Bridge Fund will focus on strategic investments in the hard-hit sectors, so we can support workers and help businesses make it to the other side of this crisis,” Bowser said. The program follows emergency legislation approved by the D.C. Council in July that set a $100 million target for local business aid. It also follows other economic-recovery programs that the city has implemented this year, including more than $30 million in small business grants, child care funding and “streatery” funding for outdoor dining. Most of the jobs lost in the city since the pandemic started were in hospitality, retail and entertainment, according to the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. About 56,400 jobs were lost between December and September as tourism and nightlife plummeted. John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff and deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said 80% of the money businesses receive from the Bridge Fund must be used on payroll, which was the case with a recovery program that sports and entertainment authority Events DC offered in the spring. He said the city will release details about program requirements in the next five weeks. Applications for each sector will be open for two weeks each, according to Falcicchio. Officials will then review the applications and start disbursing funds. Amounts and number of grants vary by sector. Up to 700 restaurants will be eligible for $10,000-$50,000; up to 140 hotels will be eligible for $10,830-$270,750; up to 400 entertainment businesses will be eligible for $4,000-$100,000; and up to 575 retail businesses will be eligible for $5,000-$25,000. Additionally, $7.5 million of the $100 million will go to restaurants and retail businesses owned by women or people D.C. considers “economically disadvantaged.” Owners must be city residents. But, without additional federal relief, it is unclear how much the Bridge Fund will help local businesses survive before COVID-19 vaccines become widely available. “We know that, despite this most recent infusion of funding, there’s still going to be some businesses that are really hard hit,” said D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, the chair of the council’s business committee.
As government officials ask residents not to travel or host large dinners for Thanksgiving due to the coronavirus surge, Giant Foods gained notoriety around the world for an full-page advertisement in the December issue of its own Savory magazine encouraging readers “Hosting? Plan a Super Spread.” The ad made news on the Today show, TMZ, HuffPost, London’s Independent and Daily Mail newspapers and the UK’s Sky News. The text is underneath a photograph of holiday food items sold at Giant, including a fruit tart, a cheese board and a huge shrimp cocktail ring. The flub even made the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’s opening monologue. “Marketing 101: Make the customer think of the virus and unrefrigerated shellfish,” Fallon said. “Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t there something extra gross about ordering a giant shrimp platter during the pandemic. Even worse, every order comes with a nice cold Corona. Why didn’t we just say Budwiser? The creator of the ad apologized and said the just wanted the ad to go viral.” The magazine also includes recipes for crowd-friendly dishes like dinner rolls, pigs in blankets for 32 and a chocolate/peppermint layer cake. Another ad from Campbell’s soup in the magazine encourages readers to “Slay the Spread” with a green-bean casserole for six. A subsequent Giant ad in the magazine does acknowledge that “this year, your crowd has to be smaller than years past.” In a statement, Giant said, “We apologize for our advertisement in Savory which used the language Super Spread to describe an abundance of food. While, in hindsight, the choice of words was a poor one, Giant had no intentions of insensitivity. We continue to encourage people to practice safe social distancing practices for celebrating the holidays in line with CDC recommendations. 2020 has been exceptionally challenging for so many reasons and this year the holidays will be celebrated very differently, but we hope that food can still be a source of joy and comfort and that the ad reflects that spirit.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued an order Wednesday allowing the early release of some prisoners in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus in jails. The order will consider the age of the inmate and if the inmate is near the end of his or her sentence. Inmates who may be eligible under the order include those scheduled to be released on mandatory supervision within 120 days of the order. Those who are eligible for home detention may be immediately considered for expedited home detention. The order also suspends barriers to gain credits that would reduce a sentence, and it authorizes the Commissioner of Correction to award credits, as is deemed necessary and appropriate, for expedited release on mandatory supervision. Parole may also be accelerated for inmates who are at least 60 years old and have a good prison record, an approved home plan and not have been convicted of a violent crime. Medical condition, pregnancy and other special needs will also be assessed when considering an inmate for early mandatory supervision. Those sentenced for a sexual offense are not eligible for early mandatory supervision, expedited home detention or accelerated parole. The victim and state’s attorney who last prosecuted the inmate must be notified at least five days before release. Before being released, the inmate will be evaluated for COVID-19 and must self-quarantine for at least 14 days. Hogan issued a similar order in April. As of Nov. 16, 1,199 inmates have tested positive COVID-19 and 13 have died from it, according to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
The Kennedy Center on Wednesday canceled all performances through at least April 25 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The performing arts center, home to the Washington National Opera and the National Symphony Orchestra, has been mostly closed since March. It recently presented some indoor shows to small audiences and outdoor activities on its Reach campus overlooking the Potomac River. Besides about 20 performances that will be presented to small audiences, all major indoor concerts, performances and national touring shows are canceled or postponed for the time being. Some of those national shows included Jesus Christ Superstar, Dear Evan Hansen and The Band’s Visit. The Kennedy Center said in a press release that it has lost approximately $80 million of income due to the cancellation of the 2020-21 season. All told the newest cancellations represent almost 400 events and a financial loss of just over $24 million. Some programming will continue, however, through a new online platform called Digital Stage+, designed to keep donors, members and subscribers engaged in the arts. Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter said the viability of the venue depends on the generosity of donors who will give money even while performances are on hold. “The institution’s only path forward is a strategic focus on increasing contributions from our donors and patrons while we wait to reopen,” Rutter said in the release. “Their generosity and patience over the last eight months have made all the difference and kept us strong.” The Kennedy Center will continue to offer free programs via its YouTube channel, but donors and subscribers will be able to see new material on the Digital Stage+ platform.
Blaming a “staggering, spiking” surge of coronavirus cases, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday ratcheted back the state’s reopening with several new restrictions including a 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants and tightened capacity limits to 50% at businesses effective 5 p.m. on Friday. “Every corner of our state” is seeing widespread community transmission,” Hogan said. “It’s not fake news. It’s not going to magically disappear just because we’re all tired of it. We are in a war right now, and the virus is winning.” In the last few days, Maryland has twice reported more than 2,000 new daily cases recently. Overall, Maryland has had at least 1,000 new cases for 13 consecutive days. The state reported 29 new cases per 100,000, a 46% increase over the past week, which puts Maryland “in the red zone,” Hogan said. The test positivity rate is now 6.85%, which is well above a 5% benchmark, and is above 5% in 20 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions. “This virus has been with us for so long that too many of us have become numb to staggering spiking numbers that are being announced every day,” Hogan said. He pointed to the state’s contact tracing data, which “shows a large uptick in new cases among Marylanders who have recently been exposed in bars and restaurants.” In particular, compliance with public health measures, such as mask wearing and social distancing, “drops dramatically” later in the evening, Hogan said. The order applies to any facility or venue where food and alcohol is served, including nightclubs and social clubs. Takeout and delivery can continue after 10 p.m., but dine-in service must close between 10 p.m.-6 a.m. Last week, Hogan tightened capacity restrictions on bars, restaurants and indoor gatherings, although most Maryland counties in the DMV have implemented more stringent restrictions. The governor also called on local authorities to enforce existing rules limiting crowding at bars. The 50% capacity limit applies to retail businesses; religious facilities; personal services businesses, such as beauty salons and barbershops; bingo halls; bowling alleys; pool halls; roller and ice-skating rinks; and fitness centers. In addition, fans will no longer be allowed at college or professional sports stadiums or racetracks. There is also growing concern about hospital capacity amid the surge. Hogan also announced an emergency order from the Maryland Department of Health suspending most visitation at hospitals and nursing homes to protect vulnerable populations and staff. In Maryland, the number of people hospitalized with coronavirus has doubled over the course of the month — from 523 on Nov. 1 to 1,046 hospitalized patients on Nov. 17. Currently, 85% of the state’s 6,600 staffed hospital beds are filled. For the first time since June, there are more than 1,000 Marylanders hospitalized with the virus and 255 people in intensive care units. The actions announced Tuesday include a “hospital surge” plan designed to prevent hospitals from becoming overburdened with critically ill patients. The plan allows hospitals that are full or nearing capacity to transfer patients to other hospitals that can handle them. “Our highest priority right now is preserving capacity at our hospitals so that our doctors and nurses can do their jobs and make sure people get the right critical, lifesaving treatment,” Hogan said. The state health department also issued an order Tuesday urging hospitals to avoid admitting patients for elective procedures that are not urgent or lifesaving. The governor urged Marylanders to continue wearing masks and to get COVID-19 tests if they planned to travel for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
The Manassas Park City School Board on Monday night voted unanimously to return to all virtual instruction as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across Northern Virginia and revised the district’s rollout to a hybrid return to classrooms.. All students will return to online learning beginning Monday. The new timeline for returning students to classrooms in a hybrid model remains tentative and based on health conditions. The new schedule includes Cougar Elementary School, PreK-2, special ed and Level 1 English language learners on Jan. 19; Manassas Park Elementary School on Feb. 2; and Manassas Park Middle School and Manassas Park High School on Feb. 16.
Essential workers who are working through the pandemic and need psychological support can get free help from George Mason University’s Center for Psychological Services. Essential workers, including people who work in healthcare, education, sanitation, transportation, hospitality, the food and beverage industry, the postal service or the military, can call 703-215-1898 and talk with a facilitator trained in mental health first aid. If callers need or want additional support, GMU is offering three free virtual sessions with doctoral students trained in COVID-19 assessment skills. There is also help for those experiencing trauma, depression or anxiety due to COVID-19. The help line is open from 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.
Wreaths Across America, which was canceled by Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, is back on. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy “has directed Arlington National Cemetery to safely host Wreaths Across America,” the cemetery said on its website less than a day after the initial decision to cancel the event because of the coronavirus pandemic. In a tweet Tuesday, President Donald Trump took credit for reversing the “ridiculous decision to cancel Wreaths Across American at Arlington National Cemetery. It will now go on!” Although Wreaths Across America said in an email Tuesday evening that it “cannot comment on what really happened today,” spokesman Sean Sullivan confirmed that organizers sent “phone calls, emails and pleas” to the White House to intervene. WAA Executive Director Karen Worcester announced the reversal at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, but what this year’s program will look like remains unclear. “We do know that there will not be [the usual] 30,000 to 40,000 people invited to come down there,” she said. Worcester did not mention Trump, but said that many people responded to the cancellation decision with anger and sadness, and that this response played a role in the reversal. “The people spoke … from all levels … some people with a lot of clout and some people with nothing but a prayer,” she said. In past years, thousands of volunteers participated, laying wreaths across veterans’ gravestones, but Worcester said there will be fewer volunteers this year. She also said that volunteers will wear face masks and maintain social distancing during the Dec. 19 event, and that the event will be safe amid the coronavirus pandemic. On Monday, Karen Durham-Aguillera, executive director of the Office of Army National Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery, said the cemetery “could not implement sufficient controls to mitigate the risks associated with hosting an event of this size … while still conducting a respectful and honorable public event.” She said officials “reviewed various options” and that they “could no longer envision a way to safely accommodate the large number of visitors we typically host during this event.” On Tuesday, Worcester acknowledged the cemetery’s concern. “They are concerned about their workers, being in an area where rates are high; they are concerned about workers intermingling with volunteers,” she said. “It just seemed as we got together and talked and listen to each other that we all want to do the right thing, and we want to do it safely … We are altering to keep people safe. We want to protect the living and honor our heroes.” Worcester added, “We don’t know what this is going to look like, but we do know that we’ve come together. And we’re committed to represent the families and those that are buried there. … So now we have a challenge — one that we’re up for meeting with some of the greatest minds out there and the greatest hearts out there.”
A Washington Football Team player tested positive for COVID-19, the team said Tuesday. “The player immediately self-isolated and the contact tracing data was evaluated. All of the player’s close contacts have been told to quarantine,” the team said in a press release. The player was not identified, but EPSN said defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis tested positive on Monday. “The health and safety of our players, coaches and staff is our number one priority,” the press release said. The Washington Football Team, which is scheduled to host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, said it has entered the NFL’s intensive coronavirus protocols. This is the team’s first positive test result since July. A person with direct knowledge of the situation said the player who tested positive did not travel with Washington for its game in Detroit last weekend. The person spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not release specific details about the positive case. Under new restrictions announced by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday, no fans will be allowed in the stands on Sunday.
Fairfax County Public Schools on Monday delayed expanding in-person instruction, as COVID-19 cases in Virginia rise and the virus spreads at record levels across the DMV. About 6,800 Early Head Start, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and special education students were slated to return to classrooms today, but now they won’t go back until at least Nov. 30, Supt. Scott Brebrand said in a letter to parents and staff. The roughly 8,000 students who have already returned to school buildings in Virginia’s largest school system part-time, including both young children and career and technical students, will continue in-person learning. “The current health metrics for COVID-19 cases in our community now exceed the threshold to expand our in-person learning,” Brabrand said in his letter. “We made this decision as soon as new health metrics were released and are communicating it to you as immediately as promised. We always anticipated the need to potentially adjust our return to school plans as necessary during this ongoing pandemic.” FCPS has set specific health markers to guide its reopening plan, one of which includes following the total number of new cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days. Sending additional students back this week would require that number to stay below 200, but on Monday the metric sat at 211.2, health officials reported. Some teachers in the region have also pushed back on plans to transition more students back to classrooms. Representatives from teacher associations for five Northern Virginia public school districts spoke out Monday against the state’s gradual return to in-person learning. Wearing masks outside the Fairfax Education Association, representatives of five Northern Virginia teacher unions urged Gov. Ralph Northam to return the state to phase one or two of reopening, which would include 100% virtual learning. “The safest option is to remain virtual for our schools, until cases return to a downward trend,” said Kimberly Adams, head of the FEA, before the district opted to delay further reopening. “Fairfax metrics are climbing. Everything we are talking about today is supported by data. Yesterday, Fairfax was at 191 cases per 100,000. Today we are at 211 per 100,000,” Adams said. “We absolutely want to be back in school. Everybody wants us to be back to normal. We are not there yet, and it’s not safe.” Fairfax is the latest school district in the DMV to delay part of its reopening plan as COVID-19 metrics worsen. Nearby Arlington County allowed a small cohort of students with disabilities to return on Nov. 4, but delayed the return of additional students for part-time in-person learning until at least January.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser will not issue any rollbacks on the city’s Phase Two reopening guidelines at this time and will allow science to guide any decisions going forward. As neighboring jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia scale back some of their reopening restrictions, Bowser said Monday at a press conference that D.C. will continue to look at its metrics and the impact changes will make on case load first before making any decisions. “We see a number of rollbacks in jurisdictions that surround us, and we’re happy to see that because now they’re coming more in line with where we’ve been throughout the response to the pandemic,” Bowser said. “If we determine that there’s something that needs to change that will impact our caseload, then we will certainly do some outreach and make those announcements.” New data released Monday included 87 new cases in D.C. but no new deaths. Of the new cases in the past week, the highest percentage was among adults between 25- and 34-years-old. D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said the information collected by contact tracers indicates that 42.3% of new cases are in people that did not participate in activities that would give high to moderate exposure. Instead, she said, most cases (27.9%) are coming from small gatherings with someone who unknowingly passed along the virus. When asked if the new data could be used by restaurant owners trying to avoid “winterizing” their venues and continue operating with only indoor dining, Nesbitt said it would be a “flawed assumption” to do so. Currently, indoor dinning services are limited to 50% capacity. “We know that areas with decreased ventilation have increased risk for transmission,” Nesbitt said. Although no rollbacks were issued, Bowser did recommend that residents celebrate the holiday only with people that live in their homes. If someone does visit, she advised that masks stay on during the visit, and everyone stay 6 feet apart while eating. With college students returning home for Thanksgiving and some staying home due to the surge of cases nationwide, Bowser said they must follow the city’s travel advisory of self-quarantining for 14 days or get tested three to five days after their return. “Many college and universities are offering tests,” Bowser said. “We advise families to talk to their students now about how they can schedule a test before they come homes [or] isolate when they get home, and take a test three to five days after coming home and stay home until they get a negative result.” As for two $1,000 citations Harry’s Bar and Family Restaurant received over the weekend for coronavirus-related health regulations by Trump supporters, the mayor said, ?It doesn’t matter who goes to Harry’s to us. It matters that they follow the rules. Whose supporters they are matters not to us. We want the patrons to be safe, but we also want our residents who work in those bars and restaurants and hotels to be safe as well.”
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority is revising its budget to avoid reducing hours and service, but employee buyouts and layoffs are still likely. Metro says it will have to cut 1,400 jobs to help fill a $177 million budget gap caused by decreased ridership during the pandemic. Metrorail ridership is down about 85% while Metrobus is down nearly 60% and isn’t collecting fares. Metro will offer buyouts to encourage eligible employees to retire, to help cut the number of layoffs. The buyout is $15,000. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said he hopes buyouts could stem the number of layoffs needed. Metro also isn’t filling vacancies to save money. Officials say they could hire those employees back if or when a second congressional stimulus bill is passed. The American Public Transportation Association said the industry needs $32 billion to stay afloat. Meanwhile, Metro said it has tightened its belt enough that it is no longer considering closing Metrorail at 9 p.m. More than 40% of people responded during the public comment period said those cuts were unacceptable. “I work at Tyson’s, travel from D.C. every day. I work at Whole Foods and I close the majority of the time at 9,” one comment shared with the board said. “I understand what’s going on … this decision on service hours affects a lot of people. Hours are already cut and it would be blasphemous to cut more.” Metro has also scuttled turnbacks, which would have meant longer waits for trains at the end of the Red and Yellow lines. Board members from Maryland pushed back on that proposal because they fought for years to end the practice. Twenty Metrobus lines would also see more service. Metro will go forward with some changes in the new year. Starting in January, Metro will resume front-door boarding and charging fares on buses. It has been using back door boarding since the pandemic began to protect bus drivers from exposure from passengers. On weekdays, trains will run every 12 minutes on all lines except the Red Line where they will run every six minutes. The Metro board will vote on the budget Thursday with service changes in effect Feb. 13-June 30. Metro has also already started its budget process for the next fiscal year, which runs July 1, 2021-June 30, 2022.
As biotech company Moderna Inc. on Monday announced its experimental mRNA-1273 COVID-19 vaccine was 94.5% effective at preventing the disease, hundreds of locals volunteers helped researchers test that new vaccine. Of the 30,000 volunteers nationwide for the late-stage trials for that vaccine, 349 were part of a study conducted at George Washington University – one of 90 tests sites in the U.S. All of the GW volunteers are from D.C., Maryland or Virginia. Each received two injections 28 days apart. Half received the vaccine, while the others received a placebo. Participants will receive $1,000 over the two-year monitoring period as long as they completed each check-in. Dr. David Diemert, the principal investigator for the trial at GW, said there were three big takeaways from the trial. First, only one of the participants so far has been officially diagnosed with COVID-19. Since it is a blind trial, it is unknown if that individual received the vaccine or a placebo. But, either way, Diemart said it is extremely encouraging. But he cautioned that as cases rise in the DMV, there may be more individuals in the trial who come down with the virus. “We might be contributing more cases to the overall total in the study in weeks, months to come,” Diemert said. “It’s not something I hope for, but it might unfortunately happen.” Also, there was a higher likelihood of individuals having reactions after the second dose. This included pain at the injection site, headache, body aches, fatigue and sore muscles. Diemert said this happened to “less than 5%” of those that got the vaccine and the reactions were short-lived, often for 24 hours or less. “We started to actually warn people who were coming in for their second dose that they might have more intense reactions after the second dose,” Diemert said. He was encouraged by the retention rate of the volunteers, since this particular requires two doses 28 days apart. Diemert said “close to 100%” of the volunteers came back for the second dose so far. Most volunteers have received their second dose already, although the last group will be receiving their second dose this week. Scientists are concerned that vaccines requiring two shots may result in some individuals not getting the second dose. Diemert said the GW findings do not vary much from the findings at other trial sites. Of the 349 volunteers in the GW trial, more than half are people of color, he said. Just under 40% are older than 65. There was also a “significant number of HIV positive individuals” enrolled along with others with chronic conditions. Children and pregnant women were not part of the Moderna trials. Local volunteers will continue to be monitored and assessed by researchers for two years after receiving their second dose. That is to ensure there are no long-term side effects and to know how long the vaccine is effective. “We need to know how long the protection and the immune response lasts. We have kind of short-term data right now,” Diemert said, “but we need to make sure that lasts another six months, a year, two years.” But he is very encouraged by what he has seen at his trials and the statistics nationwide. He believes that by mid- to late-December the Moderna vaccine will be available to select groups. “The vaccine prevented about 95% of all cases,” Diemert said. “As vaccines go, that’s probably the best you could ever hope for. It is an astounding efficacy.”
Georgetown University will double the number of students on campus for the spring semester bringing back 500 seniors who live outside the DMV. The university had 500 students living on campus during the fall semester. In a letter Monday, university President John DeGioia said the university is not currently able to bring back first-year and transfer students, who have had to delay their time on campus. The university is developing a special residential summer semester for the class of 2024, which will give students a chance to live on campus and take courses before starting their sophomore year. The program is optional and contingent on public health conditions, DeGioia said. Spring classes will be offered virtually, but Georgetown will offer some 200 hybrid courses for seniors and graduate students that have in-person components. “I know that this is not the message that many in our community hoped to hear when looking ahead to next semester,” DeGioia said. “We understand the disappointment in not being able to fully return to campus, and how eager our community is to be together in person.”
Spring undergraduate courses will begin Jan. 25. Other universities in D.C. have also announced their spring semester plans. George Washington University said last month that it will continue with virtual instruction but bring more students back to campus. American University said it will offer more in-person classes and other activities, along with other changes.
The Washington Football Team’s home game against the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday will be played without fans. “The Washington Football Team has been continuously monitoring the evolving health situation in the DMV region,” the team said in a statement Monday. “After careful consideration and working in close coordination with health officials in Prince George’s County, we have decided that this Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals will be played without fans in attendance. We take the responsibility of protecting our staff, players, fans and the community seriously and feel this is the right decision at this time.” The decision comes as coronavirus cases both locally and nationwide continue to rise. The Baltimore Ravens also announced their home game against Tennessee this weekend will be played in an empty stadium. Washington’s first four home games this season were played in an empty stadium, but the team reversed its course and allowed nearly 3,000 fans for their home game against the New York Giants.
Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery has been canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The cemetery announced Monday that it “could not implement sufficient controls to mitigate the risks associated with hosting an event of this size … while still conducting a respectful and honorable public event.” It was scheduled for Dec. 19. The decision applies only to Arlington National Cemetery and Soldiers and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery. “We reviewed various options to safely execute this long-standing event and held numerous consultations with WAA leadership and local government and public health officials, although this is disappointing for so many, we could no longer envision a way to safely accommodate the large number of visitors we typically host during this event,” said Karen Durham-Aguillera, executive director of the Office of Army National Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery, in a press release. Family pass holders and visitors may place their own wreath on graves from Dec. 1-Jan. 31. Cemetery officials hope to resume the tradition next year. Wreaths Across America, which started in 1992, honors those buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Volunteers lay a wreath on each veteran’s grave — more than a quarter-million wreaths altogether last year — and each veteran’s name is spoken aloud to honor them.
Harry’s Bar and Family Restaurant, located in the Harrington Hotel at 436 11th St. NW, received a pair of $1,000 fines after city officials witnessed patrons violating coronavirus-related regulations. The bar is popular with Trump supporters, Proud Boys and other right-wing fringe groups, many who flocked to D.C. this weekend for the Million MAGA March on Saturday. On Friday night, MAGA crowds packed into the dive bar with red Solo cups and cans of Truly hard seltzer on the patio. They sang God Bless the USA and waved a big “Blue Lives Matter” flag in the street. Almost none of them wore face coverings. The D.C Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration said one of its investigators issued the first $1,000 citation for “several observed Phase Two violations including patrons without facial coverings, patrons standing while consuming alcohol and insufficient table spacing” on Friday, Nov. 13. The establishment was issued a second $1,000 fine the following day for “patrons without facial coverings and more than six (6) patrons being seated at a table.” ABRA said it had previously issued a “verbal and written warning for similar Phase Two violations” on Oct. 7 and Oct. 10. Harry’s Restaurant refused to comment.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease expert, said on Sunday that he thinks the country could start getting back to “relative normal” by April or July of 2021, as the coronavirus continues to grip the nation. Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper on State of the Union he thought that would be possible to achieve by the second or third quarter of 2021, but the question of when Americans can safely gather in large groups again depends on a number of factors. He pointed to Pfizer’s announcement last week that early data shows the manufacturer’s coronavirus vaccine is more than 90% effective and noted that a second company is expected to soon unveil its early results. “That’s great, but we have to get people to take the vaccine,” Fauci said. “So, if we get the overwhelming majority of people taking the vaccine, and you have on the one hand an effective vaccine, on the other hand, a high degree of uptake of the vaccine, we could start getting things back to relative normal as we get into the second and third quarter of the year, where people can start thinking about doing things that were too dangerous just months ago,” Fauci said. But he added that the country “can’t just wish it happening.” Vaccines have to come, they must be deployed and fundamental public health measures can’t be abandoned, he stressed. “You can approach a degree of normality while still doing some fundamental public health things that synergize with the vaccine to get us back to normal,” he said.
Representatives from teacher unions in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Arlington and Manassas Park sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam Sunday calling for him to return schools to Phase Two of reopening, including returning all public schools in the commonwealth to virtual-only learning until case rates return to a downward trend and remain below 5%. The unions will hold a press conference on the subject at 11 a.m. today in the parking lot at the Fairfax Education Association. In a statement Sunday evening, the Fairfax Education Association said it “stands with our colleagues from the Northern Virginia region to ask the governor to return the commonwealth to a full Phase II of the reopening plan and to recommend that our schools return to a fully virtual method of instruction …” The letter to Northam said the five unions represent more than 12,000 school employees. Union leaders expected to attend include Ingrid Gant, Arlington Education Association; Kimberly Adams, Fairfax Education Association; Sandy Sullivan, Loudoun Education Association; Theresa Hayden, Manassas Park Education Association; and Maggie Hansford, Prince William Education Association. The letter follows Northam’s Friday announcement of renewed COVID-19 restrictions as cases continue to rise. Schools districts across the DMV have been grappling with phasing students back into classrooms over the next few months.