D.C., Virginia Set New Record for Cases
COVID-19 Cases Reach 486,429 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Saturday morning, 22,872 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 695 deaths; there have been 212,384 cases in Maryland with 4,659 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 251,173 cases with 4,197 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
After a day of record-high numbers Friday, D.C. and Virginia both reported their highest number of new daily COVID-19 cases ever during the pandemic on Saturday. Saturday’s numbers come after the collective daily caseload for D.C., Maryland and Virginia hit a new record Friday, with 6,985 new infections. D.C. reported 392 new cases on Saturday, passing the previous record of 371 new cases set on Nov. 28. Saturday marks the third consecutive day that the city has recorded a daily caseload topping 300. On Friday, the city’s average daily case rate per 100,000 residents reached a pandemic peak of 29.04. On Saturday, it jumped to a new high of 31.38, according to data from Dec. 3. The city’s average positivity rate is now 5.6%, a number last seen on June 12. D.C. recorded two new deaths, bringing the death toll to 695. The average percentage of hospital beds used to treat COVID-19 patients is continuing to trend upward in the city, but D.C.’s acute care bed capacity continues to stay in the “moderate range,” according to benchmarks set by D.C. Health. Virginia reported 3,793 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, breaking the previous record of 3,242 set on Nov. 23. Virginia’s seven-day average positivity rate increased to 10.0%, double the recommended 5% for reopening and up significantly from the 7% reported a little over a week ago. Hospitalizations in the commonwealth are the highest since the pandemic began, hovering around 1,850 patients for the past three days. While deaths decreased late last week and early this week, Virginia reported 37 new COVID-19 deaths on Saturday, bringing the state’s seven-day average back up to 20.4. After shattering its daily case record with 3,792 new cases on Friday, Maryland recorded its second-highest ever total of 3,193 new cases on Saturday. The state’s average positivity rate, which had dipped below 3% in October, is now 8.04%, and acute care hospitalizations continue to pass records set in the spring. Daily death counts have been increasing in the state since mid-November, reaching a fall peak on Dec. 1 with a single-day count of 38. The state recorded 29 new deaths on Saturday, bringing the death toll to 4,649.
Virginia churchgoers have refiled a lawsuit saying the state’s pandemic restrictions for churches discourage people from attending services. A lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam that was dismissed in September has been refiled by four churchgoers. The previous lawsuit was dismissed when Northam made the wearing of face masks the lone requirement for church gatherings with less than 250 people. In mid-November, the order was updated allowing church services with more than 25 people as long as attendees are 6 feet apart, seating areas are marked for social distancing, items used to give out food and drink are only used once and everyone wears face coverings. The lawsuit filed in Madison County argues that the requirements “ultimately ignore the previously reached agreement and discourage the religious gathering of large groups of people.” Press secretary Alena Yarmosky said the office does not comment on pending litigation but added that, “Gov. Northam will continue to base all decisions in science, public health and the safety of Virginians.”
D.C. reported 316 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, the second day in a row with more than 300 new cases, as pandemic numbers continue to surpass springtime highs across the DMV. On Thursday, the city reported 322 new cases, the third-highest number of new daily cases since the pandemic began. Less than a week ago, D.C. reported 371 new cases in a single day, breaking the record set in the spring of 335 new cases on May 1. The spikes in the daily case count are joined by several other troubling trends in the city’s metrics. D.C.’s average daily case rate on Friday hit a number not seen during the pandemic: For every 100,000 residents, the city reported 29.04 new COVID-19 cases, according to data from Dec. 2. The previous peak was 27.56 in May. Meanwhile, the positivity rate is now 5.3%, a number not seen since June, when the city had still not begun phased reopening. Hospitalizations in the city also increased this week. While the use of acute care beds fell slightly to “sufficient capacity” last week and early this week, that number jumped back to 86.2% as of Dec. 2. The city considers anything above 90% to be “insufficient capacity,” a benchmark the city hit in November. D.C. recorded one new death Friday, bringing the city’s total death count to 693. In November alone, 38 D.C. residents died from COVID-19, a large jump from the monthly totals recorded earlier in the fall. Over October, the city recorded 20 deaths. Conditions in neighboring Maryland and Virginia are just as grim. On Friday, Maryland reported a record high of 3,792 new cases, shattering the previous peak of 2,910 set on Nov. 10. The state’s seven-day average positivity rate, which in October had dropped below 3%, is 8%, a high for the fall and up three percentage points since this time last week. Following November’s trends, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise in the state. More than 30 Marylanders died of COVID-19 on both Tuesday and Wednesday. In October, the daily death count on a single day peaked at a high of 12. A total of 4,630 people have died of the virus in the state. As of Friday, there are 1,600 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 — a number not seen since early May — with 1,200 acute care beds filled for the first time ever during the pandemic. In Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, the state’s hardest-hit and most populous jurisdictions, pandemic metrics are surging, and in some cases surpassing records set in the spring. Prince George’s County reported a positivity rate of 9.65% on Friday , a peak for the fall, and 37.12 cases rate per 100,000 residents topping the state-wide rate of 32.25, and more than doubling the county’s daily case rate at this time last month. Montgomery County’s positivity rate also hit a fall peak at 6.18% on Friday, and its 31.04 cases rate per 100,000 residents set a pandemic record on Dec. 1. Maryland’s total daily cases at an average of 3,421 new infections per 100,000 residents this week leads the DMV. In Virginia, the average positivity rate jumped from 7% at this time last week to 9.5% on Friday, a number last seen in early June. Virginia reported 2,877 new cases on Friday, the third-highest ever daily number for the commonwealth, behind 3,173 recorded on Nov. 28, and 3,242 on Nov. 23. Like Maryland, Virginia is seeing record-high hospitalizations, with 1,860 patients hospitalized with the virus on Tuesday. As of Friday, the seven-day average number of hospitalized patients is the highest it has ever been at 1,742. Deaths, however, have steadied since spiking in late November. While the seven-day average number of deaths reached 21 on Nov. 25, that metric has since dropped to 16.6. The commonwealth reported 13 new deaths on Friday, bringing its total to 4,160. In Northern Virginia, a hotspot for the virus in the state, the average number of daily new cases has fallen since setting a record of 815.7 new cases on Nov. 28. But daily counts continue to hit spring-like numbers, with the region recording 662 new cases on Friday. The region’s record-breaking metrics on Friday come after the Thanksgiving holiday.
High school athletes in Maryland will soon begin practice, but not at Montgomery County Public Schools, the state’s largest school system. Winter sports practices are allowed to start Monday in the state under an October decision by the Maryland State Board of Education. But MCPS is pushing things back because of a surge in COVID-19 cases in the community. “MCPS will continue with operations as outlined in the R.A.I.S.E. Reimagined Framework for virtual athletics, including the virtual spring athletic season that occurs December through the end of January,” the school system said in a press release Friday. “The COVID-19 Task Force for MCPS Athletics will continue preparing for the return of in-person activities and will provide additional updates and recommendations to MCPS leadership for consideration and review.” The school system said that if health metrics allow for it, activities could instead begin when the first of its students return to classrooms in 2021. That would be Jan. 12, under the latest proposal, even though most students would be getting the option to come back in phases starting Feb. 1. The MCPS school board is expected to firm things up at its Dec. 15 meeting. Statewide, winter competition is set to run from Jan. 4-Feb. 13.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Friday again called for more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to be administered to city healthcare workers when distribution begins. The federal government’s plan, which determines high-priority patients based on where they live, would provide less than 7,000 initial doses for D.C. workers, less than one-tenth of the city’s 85,000 healthcare workers. Maryland is slated to receive 300,000 doses by the new year, and Virginia is expected to receive 140,000 for its first round of healthcare workers, according to state officials. “So far, the Operation Warp Speed is approaching every jurisdiction by resident population, and we think that that especially doesn’t work for us because of how people live and work in our region,” Bowser said during a radio show on Friday. “We are an outlier with the number of healthcare workers that don’t actually live in the District. So that makes it very difficult for us to get up to 30% or 50% of our healthcare workers, given our population.” On Thursday, Bowser sent a letter to U.S. health officials, pushing for more vaccine doses. “The proposed one-size-fits-all formula for distribution to states based [upon] residential population will prove woefully insufficient for the District of Columbia, providing less than 10% of the doses D.C. would need,” she wrote. Meanwhile, Bowser said on the show that she will take the COVID-19 vaccine when it is made available, joining other public figures and politicians who have announced they will take it as an example for the public. “I will take it,” Bowser said Friday. “My way of thinking even about that has evolved, because like most people I had questions. I was concerned. I was especially concerned about the political nature of it. But I paid close attention to the scientists.” Bowser added that a member of her team participated in the COVID-19 vaccine trials in D.C., and said D.C. Health director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt has been “intricately involved with the Operation Warp Speed project,” in reference to the federal government’s plan to develop and distribute a vaccine as soon as possible. “I have very high confidence in taking it, and I will take it as soon as I can,” said Bowser. One person who called into the show asked Bowser about a recent bill that passed in the D.C. Council, which would allow minors to seek vaccines without parental consent. Activists have asked for Bowser to veto the bill, which is not specifically tied to a COVID-19 vaccine. Bowser replied that she was currently reviewing the bill.
It is “highly unlikely” that millions will gather at the National Mall on Jan. 20 to witness President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration or gather for the traditional “gigantic parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.” “The key is, keeping people safe,” Biden said during a press conference Friday. This is due to the pandemic and surging number in the DMV. He still expects there to be some form of a “platform ceremony” on the Capitol steps, but his team is discussing details with House and Senate leadership. He expects there to be more virtual events, much like what was seen from the national conventions this past summer. This scaling-down of January’s presidential inauguration isn’t much of a surprise, with Biden’s team indicating that it will be a smaller affair since the election. Under normal circumstances, D.C. would be deep into preparation for an event that can draw nearly 2 million people to the city. While the National Park Service has issued permits to the Presidential Inauguration Committee for construction of risers, stands and other needed infrastructure, much of the build-out has not yet started. On a radio show Friday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said she didn’t know exactly what activities will be happening for the inauguration but expressed doubt that circumstances in terms of the pandemic will be any different than they are now. Perhaps the most striking example of how the inauguration in D.C. will be different this year is that the Walter E. Washington Convention Center will not be hosting any inaugural balls. That is partly because it is currently an emergency COVID-19 field hospital.
D.C. plans an aggressive COVID-19 testing program of asymptomatic students and teachers, with the goal of getting them back together in classrooms safely. Starting next week, D.C. will begin the pilot testing protocol in its ongoing CARE classrooms, in which supervised students in school buildings attend virtual classes taught remotely by teachers. Under the new program announced by Mayor Muriel Bowser, students will be offered free PCR nasal-swab tests once every 10 days. A testing consent form signed by the student’s parent or guardian will be required. The tests will be administered by D.C. Health medical staff. In-school partner staff supporting the CARE classrooms, as well as teachers will receive a self-administered testing kit in the mail once a week. Staffers are not required to complete the weekly test but are encouraged to take advantage of the convenience offered with the at-home method. “There is a sense of urgency to get more students back in school with their teachers, peers and school community, and we are hopeful that these new protocols move us one step closer to reopening,” Bowser said in a press release. With the regular asymptomatic testing protocol, students and staff will continue with in-person programming while test results are pending. Results will be sent by email. According to D.C. Public Schools weekly data, one student who was a part of in-person activities has tested positive, and 16 in-person students are quarantining. The number of staff working in person who have tested positive is five, with another five pending confirmation and 34 are quarantining. “The ability for DCPS to implement an asymptomatic testing protocol for students and staff will allow us to continue to meet our commitment to prioritize the health and safety of our entire school community,” Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said. DCPS delayed bringing some students back to classrooms. Some elementary school students returned mid-November despite resistance from the teachers’ union. D.C. plans to bring in more students into these classrooms in December and January.
The Montgomery County Public Schools board voted Thursday to delay the decision to phase in in-person instruction until their next meeting on Dec. 15. The plan would begin returning several categories of students, including career and technology education students, to classrooms Jan. 12, and students in Phase One of the general population — special education students and those beginning kindergarten, middle school or high school — beginning Feb. 1. While deliberating the question, the school board heard about how students have fared grade-wise under virtual instruction, the results to date of a survey of parents on whether they want their children to return to school buildings and more. Learning, Achievement and Administration Director Peter Moran detailed the process: The parent preference survey was supposed to end Thursday but has been extended until Monday. On Monday and Tuesday, each school will get a list of all their students, with the preferences of each family. The rest of the month, administrators will design in-person instruction plans, and the week of Jan. 4-8, parents will receive a detailed description of what partial in-person classes will look like for their child. They will have the next week to opt in or out. As of Thursday, nearly 109,000 parents had returned surveys, and the results were almost equally divided: 50.5% wanted their kids to begin partial in-person classes, while 49.5% wanted to stay with virtual learning. All return to classrooms, however, is dependent on COVID-19 numbers, and right now, they aren’t not conducive: Under Maryland health guidelines, in-person instruction can begin when the case rate is under 15 per 100,000 residents and the percentage of tests that come back positive is under 5%. The current numbers are 28.1 and 5.3%, respectively. According to a presentation, some students are doing fine in some subjects — perhaps even better — with virtual learning than in previous years, many are doing worse, with the usual divides of ethnicity and wealth sharpened by the new reality. The survey compared this year’s sixth-graders with last year’s and this year’s ninth- and 12th-grade students with their own marks from the previous year, and found that in most subjects, more A grades were earned by students this year, while more E grades were also handed out. The same patterns held true for students who were affected by poverty. “We’ll be able to provide the supports” when students are back in schools, said Janet Wilson, the chief of teaching, learning and schools. Scott Murphy, the director of college and career readiness and districtwide programs, said that the administration has worked out guidance for the first marking period. “We found that for many, many students, it was too much.” There will be reductions in work assignments in the next marking period “just to relieve some of that pressure” for students and teachers alike. Supt. Jack Smith warned, “It’s not a binary.” Pointing at the areas where students are doing better than before, he said, “Let’s look at how that happened. I think we’re learning a lot in this difficult time.”
With the arrival of winter, Montgomery County health officials are working to prepare coronavirus testing sites for frigid temperatures. While many like the safety and convenience of being tested at outdoor drive-through sites, the shift towards freezing weather will end some of that. “The county-sponsored testing that had been outdoors moved inside about three weeks ago to anticipate weather changes,” said Montgomery County Health and Human Services spokesperson Mary Anderson. But some of the testing sites affiliated with the county’s Latino Health Initiative are still outdoors. “They are, right now, looking at a number of options of how to winterize their sites that may include moving some of them indoors — it may include getting heated tents for the workers,” Anderson said. While those drive-in sites are safe enough for residents — who just roll down their window for the swab — health officials have to worry about the staff being out in the elements, so they are looking at options to keep them safe and warm. In some cases, the location of the testing sites may change, but it would still be in the same area. “If we’ve got drive-through sites in Germantown, then the idea is: Let’s try to find an indoor site in Germantown,” Anderson said. “Although a specific address might shift, we try very hard to keep the options open in the same area so that we have testing available in various parts of the county.” She recommended going to the county’s website to double check the address of testing locations before making the trip. For some residents, the drive-through testing was not just a matter of convenience, but also confidence of being able to stay secure in their own car and not be around other people while testing. The idea of having to go into a building may make some uncomfortable. But Anderson said those worries are not necessary. “We’ve been doing this now for many months and the protocols that are in place are very strict,” she said. “If you’re standing in a line, you are 6 feet apart and there are markings on the floor.” Anderson said she has personally experienced the testing on multiple occasions and felt very safe. “When you go into a big room, the testing stations are at least 6 feet apart, if not more,” she said. “The person testing you, or the person handing you the self-test, they are masked, they are gloved, they have plastic shields on.” According to Anderson, they have also been keeping the lines moving, and the waits are not as long as those in other areas, at least for the test. Getting the results of the test is another story. “Not just with thanksgiving, but with more and more publicity about the need for testing and the rise in cases locally, we are seeing some longer wait times for results,” Anderson said. “The labs are working night and day, seven days a week, but the volume has just dramatically increased.” She said the best thing everyone can do is to adhere to health safety protocols, wear a mask, avoid non-essential travel, not gather in groups and wash their hands. These recommendations aren’t just to avoid COVID-19, but also the flu, because flu season traditionally ramps up this month.
Every region of Virginia is experiencing a sustained increase in COVID-19 cases, but Gov. Ralph Northam did not impose any new restrictions Wednesday. Instead, he urged residents to take “personal responsibility” and advised Virginians to trust a forthcoming vaccine. “What we all do affects other people,” he said. “Especially now, with these vaccines just around the corner, so that we can start to think about an end to this pandemic, it is foolish to take risks.” Virginia reported 20 new deaths Tuesday and 2,417 new cases, with an 8.3% positivity rate. That is above the 5% threshold epidemiologists say indicates more testing is needed to safely contain the virus. On Tuesday, 1,860 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, higher than at any point since the pandemic began. Northam said Virginia is “still doing well” compared to other states. However, even though Virginia’s rate of 27 cases per 100,000 people is among the nation’s lowest, the neighboring states of West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee all have higher rates and contribute to spread in Virginia, he said. The spread of COVID-19 has been accelerating in Virginia for weeks. On Nov. 13, Northam issued an executive order with new restrictions that include limiting outdoor gatherings to 25 people and ending alcohol service by 10 p.m. On Wednesday, Northam didn’t impose new limitations, saying “we are strengthening enforcement of existing measures” and adding that he was monitoring whether Thanksgiving would lead to a surge in infections. He also reiterated a common refrain, saying, “all options are on the table” for additional restrictions. Some jurisdictions in Virginia have moved to shake off existing pandemic restrictions. Campbell County supervisors south of Lynchburg passed a resolution Tuesday declaring a “First Amendment sanctuary” and requesting that the sheriff’s office not assist state or federal agents trying to enforce Northam’s orders. “I expect that law enforcement will be part of the solution here,” Northam said. “And I would remind everybody in Virginia that we are not the enemy. This should not be divisive, it shouldn’t pit one group of Virginians against another.” There are signs the state’s hospitals are groaning under the rising case load. Ballad Health that serves southwest Virginia said Wednesday it would halt non-emergency elective procedures for at least 30 days. Northam, a pediatrician, said hospitals are getting better at treating COVID patients and keeping them off ventilators, but they were still straining. “The largest concern for our capacity right now is not so much bed space, not so much ICU space, not so much ventilator space, it’s the staff,” he said. On a more positive note, Northam said the state stockpile of personal protective equipment was adequate, and called on hospitals experiencing shortages to request help. The increase in COVID-19 cases comes as Virginia prepares to begin distributing vaccines. Northam estimated that, pending Food and Drug Administration approval, the first 70,000 doses of vaccine could be available in mid-December. He said ultra-cold storage facilities were available, and the state has partnered with CVS and Walgreens to help distribute vaccine. The vaccines require two doses administered about three weeks apart. Northam said that when his turn comes, he would have “no hesitation” in getting vaccinated. “The vaccine news is extremely, extremely hopeful. It is the light at the end of this very long and dark tunnel,” he said. “If you want your kids back in school, our small businesses to reopen and thrive and to go to concerts and entertainment events, there’s only one way to get there: wear a mask and social distance now, and get a vaccine when the time comes.” The first doses of vaccine will be reserved for healthcare workers and long-term care residents. State epidemiologist Lilian Peake estimated some 500,000 people are included in that group, adding that a committee would decide who should be first in line. “We do have a process in place to determine, of the priority groups, the larger ones, how we divide them into smaller groups,” Peake said. “We should have a decision by the end of the week.” Northam acknowledged skepticism toward the vaccine, in particular among African American communities who mistrust federal medical initiatives because of a history of unethical medical practices. Northam said that he had enlisted faith leaders to help build trust for COVID-19 testing, and he said Virginia’s Health Equity Commission would use similar outreach to make people comfortable with a vaccine, and to ensure that distribution “is equitable and that it is fair.” He also urged Congress to pass a financial relief package before the holiday vacation, and he noted that the holidays during a pandemic and economic recession may be particularly stressful time. He said anyone experiencing anxiety, stress, trauma or grief can call or text a “warm line” operated by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities at 877-349-6428.
Amid a strengthening surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan took steps to ensure the state is prepared. “The projections say that we are not near the peak yet and that the worst part of this entire crisis is still ahead of us over the next month or two,” Hogan said during a press conference Tuesday. He announced a new recruitment website for healthcare professionals, MarylandMedNow.com, to boost the state’s capacity for screening, testing and treatment. “We’re currently in need of people with clinical backgrounds to work at our hospitals, nursing homes, testing sites and vaccination clinics across the state,” Hogan said. Also, Maryland hospitals have a week to prepare a plan for the looming surge. “We currently have 6,816 Marylanders in our state’s hospitals,” Hogan said. “If and when we reach 8,000 hospitalizations statewide, all hospitals will be required to expand their staffed bed capacity by 10% within seven days.” And as state officials contact those who signed up for its medical reserve corps, it is also encouraging colleges and universities to let some advanced healthcare students be eligible for early exit so they can add to the state’s care capacity. Available school nurses will also be deployed, Hogan said, and hospitals and nursing homes will be encouraged to let unlicensed staffers handle some less-critical tasks to free up nurses. “The current surge is not only increasing the burden on our healthcare system and filling available hospital beds, but it is also affecting our healthcare workers, who are already spread thin and operating under immense strain and stress,” Hogan said. In the last 24 hours, Maryland has seen 56 new reported hospitalizations; 1,583 Marylanders are currently hospitalized with COVID, which is the highest total since mid-May. At last count, 4,516 Marylanders have died from COVID-19. An emotional Hogan said the most recent victims include the youngest so far, a 1-year-old boy. A senior medical adviser to the governor, Dr. David Marcozzi, expressed concern that the next few months will be “challenging” due to the volume of travel that occurred around the Thanksgiving holiday. “It’s easy to just think about the impact of this virus as something abstract or inconvenient that will run its course, like a few bad weeks of winter weather,” Marcozzi said. “But let me be clear: There is no ceiling to this — or at least one we do not want to test.” Marylanders were urged to do their part to limit the spread. “What we do as individuals will stop the rising case counts and slow the spread,” Marcozzi said. “We did it before. And we can do it again.” Tuesday’s briefing came amid new hopes of another round of pandemic assistance, and Hogan urged Washington to get it approved. “We simply cannot wait until Jan. 20th for this urgently needed relief,” he said.
The D.C. Council gave first approval Tuesday to legislation that would affect pandemic-displaced workers and businesses that have moved to fully cashless operations. One bill would require businesses to rehire employees that were laid off because of the pandemic, when and if their position or a similar position opens up. The bill covers retail and hospitality businesses, such as restaurants, event spaces and hotels. Employees who were let go on or before March 1 would be eligible to get their jobs back. Hotel employees would be eligible for first rehire if they were laid off on or before Dec. 1, 2019. “There is a right for employees who have been let go since pandemic, or in the case of hotels slightly preceding the pandemic, to come back to work if there are positions that open,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. The bill would affect businesses that have 35 or more employees. If there are fewer positions available than employees that were laid off, the job would be awarded based on seniority. Employees who are offered their old position would have at least 10 days to accept. Another bill that the council approved is ending the business practice of exclusively using cashless forms of payments. In 2016, cash made up 25% of all payment transactions. During the pandemic, more and more businesses refuse cash to ensure social distancing between staff and customers. “The fact is one-third of District of Columbia residents are unbanked or underbanked and don’t have access to a card as a form of payment,” said At-Large Council member David Grosso. A recent survey suggests that around 8% of D.C. households do not use banks, and 21% are “underbanked,” said Grosso, adding that the majority of those without credit or debit cards are Black residents. “By denying patrons the ability to use cash as a form of payment, businesses are effectively telling lower-income, undocumented, young patrons that they are not welcome in their establishments,” Grosso said. One benefit of going cashless often brought up by businesses is that it often makes them less of a target for crime, especially robbery and forged bills. Parking lots that don’t accept cash would be exempt, as well as mail-, internet- and phone-based sales. Also, the bill would not affect businesses who have gone cashless for health and safety reasons during the pandemic. The council will have a final vote on the bills Dec. 15 before they go to approval to Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Prince William County Public Schools will begin basketball and cheerleading on Dec. 7 and other winter sports on Dec. 14. The district said it is following coronavirus guidance from Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 67. “Students should check their school websites for tryout information, including health and safety requirements necessary for participation,” the district said in a press release. “This will allow the VHSL ‘Championship + 1’ schedule to begin playing in December as scheduled.” Under Northam’s order, gyms are limited to 30% capacity or 25 spectators per court. But considering current local health metrics, PWCS will only have remote spectators. “We know how enthusiastic many PWCS families and fans are regarding our student activity programs and understand this decision will be disappointing to many. We believe it is in the best interests of all to start season one this way, out of an abundance of caution and to take measures to do all we can to ensure that competitive play can continue for our student athletes,” the district said. To accommodate remote spectators, PWCS has installed two unmanned cameras at every high school, which will provide live and on-demand coverage for $10.99 a month, or $69.99 annually for unlimited games on the NFHS Network. Decisions regarding spectators for fall and spring sports have not yet been made.
Faced with its worst budget projections ever, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has proposed closing weekends, cutting weekday hours, shuttering stations and tripling wait times. Metro may need to make the staggering cuts for the next fiscal year, which begins in July, to close a $495 million deficit. What remains would be a “bare-bones service network to sustain essential travel,” according to a presentation WMATA’s board will hear Friday. The plan calls for trains to run every 30 minutes, closing 19 stations, slashing bus service to a fraction of pre-pandemic levels and closing the system at 9 p.m. weekdays. If approved, Metro would eliminate 2,400 jobs. That would be in addition to 1,400 jobs already up for elimination, which represents about one-third of Metro’s employees. It would also make life exceedingly difficult for essential and off-hour workers. Many say the changes would make the system near unusable and have a devastating ripple effect on business, nightlife, sports and tourism industries that hope for some recovery in 2021. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said the cuts are the opposite of what he hoped to do for the system, but WMATA legally must have a balanced budget. “When you have limited dollars, you have to prioritize based on needs and [ridership is lowest] on the weekends,” said Wiedefeld. “Any cut is painful.” All of this could change if Congress passes a new federal coronavirus relief package that includes public transit funding. The American Public Transit Association said the industry needs $32 billion to survive. Metro has been operating with about $800 million that it got from the CARES Act in May, but that money will run out early next year. “We are leaving people behind because there just isn’t dollars to do it,” Wiedefeld said at a media briefing. WMATA board chair Paul Smedberg said management must plan for what is in front of them instead of hoping for federal funds to arrive. “We thought we put together a budget that is pragmatic and that’s [based on] the reality we have now,” Smedberg said. The proposed cuts include eliminating weekend train service completely. Commuters took about 87,000 subway trips on a recent weekend, down 80% of pre-COVID ridership levels. Weekend bus service would increase slightly to help meet demand. Also, train service would be reduced to every 30 minutes on all lines on weekdays. In the core of the system or where lines overlap, trains would run every 15 minutes. Metro currently runs trains every 8-15 minutes depending on the time of day. It would also include closing 19 stations that have had low ridership during the pandemic. The closures would be similar to stations Metro closed temporarily at the beginning of the pandemic to save money. The stations would reopen if funding improves. Rail service would end at 9 p.m. on weekdays instead of 11 p.m. And wait times would increase in the suburbs by bringing back turnbacks. Yellow Line trains would turn around at Mount Vernon Square instead of going all the way to Greenbelt. Half of Red Line trains would turn around at Grosvenor-Strathmore and Silver Spring. Silver Line trains would run only from Ashburn to Ballston. Finally, bus routes would be cut from 60 to 41. However, it would keep the plan to open the second phase of the Silver Line. Wiedefeld is also proposing $56 million in belt-tightening measures, including deferring pay increases for non-union employees and potentially union employees and cutting employee costs by $21 million through additional buyouts, layoffs and other actions. Wiedefeld said if federal funding arrives before April or May, Metro would be able to change course and make less drastic cuts. Metro is set to finalize the budget in March and the changes would go into effect in July. But it could be problematic if federal relief arrives after layoffs. “Where do we get those people? The train people, the electricians, the mechanics, people like that are very hard to find and if they land somewhere else, that’s a big issue,” he said, pointing out that it takes time to train and certify new people. Wiedefeld will present the proposed budget to the board on Friday. The board will deliberate and take public comment on the cuts from January until March when the budget will be finalized.
As at least two COVID-19 vaccines await Food and Drug Administration approval, D.C. officials push to secure enough doses in the initial distribution to cover healthcare workers. D.C. is scheduled to receive slightly less than 8,000 doses during the initial vaccine shipment, according to D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt. That would cover only about one-tenth of the city’s 80,000 healthcare workers. The allocation numbers are estimates and have not been finalized. At a press conference Monday, Nesbitt said the health department is pushing back against the federal government’s coronavirus task force, Operation Warp Speed and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decision to allocate vaccines based on population. About 75% of D.C. healthcare workers live in Maryland and Virginia. “It’s critically important to us that we receive sufficient doses of vaccine to vaccinate our workforce and not just our population,” Nesbitt said. “We have requested that they reconsider and provide the District a pro rata share based on our workforce, given our porous borders,” she said. D.C. could also be responsible for vaccinating employees of federal agencies who live outside the city. D.C. probably won’t be alone in its push to get more vaccine. A Virginia Department of Health spokesperson said it doesn’t expect to receive enough vaccines initially to cover all the state’s healthcare workers, so it will have to create priority lists. Moderna, one of the vaccine developers, is seeking emergency approval for its vaccine from the FDA on Monday. If approved, people could start getting vaccinated a few days before Christmas. Pfizer submitted its application to the FDA on Nov. 20. The first shots will be distributed to essential workers and at-risk groups, including healthcare workers, police officers and residents of nursing homes. A CDC advisory panel will meet today to discuss the allocation of initial supplies. Both Virginia and Maryland sent their preliminary vaccine plans to the CDC in early November, and D.C.’s plan is in draft form. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored in super-cold conditions, putting some jurisdictions on the hunt for freezers. Nesbitt said D.C. already has enough freezer capacity at its acute care providers and retail pharmacies to store weekly or biweekly vaccine shipments. The city has purchased just one storage freezer so far, and Nesbitt said she does not see a need to buy more at this time.
About 7,000 Loudoun County Public Schools students in third through fifth grades along with 260 seniors in the Academy of Engineering & Technology and the Academy of Science return to classrooms two days per week beginning today. On Nov. 10, the school board approved beginning the third stage of its hybrid model on Dec. 1. The returning students chose in-person instruction during the summer before the district’s last-minute decision to begin the school year with all-virtual learning. In each of LCPS’ return-to-school options, students can continue all-distance learning. After starting the school year virtually, LCPS brought roughly 7,500 kindergarten, first and second grade students back to classrooms two days a week on Oct. 27. Although the county continues to deal with isolated COVID-19 cases at county schools, the district has so far avoided larger outbreaks within schools because contact tracing has shown that many infected students and staff have adhered to pandemic mitigation strategies. LCPS recently asked parents to indicate whether they want students to do in-person learning for the second semester, which begins Jan. 21. If an overwhelming number of families favor in-person learning, the school system could weigh reducing the amount of distance between desks or limiting in-person instruction to one day per week. About 3,000 first graders in neighboring Prince William County Public Schools are returning to the classroom on a part-time basis beginning today, joining kindergarteners and pre-kindergarteners who were brought back on a staggered plan earlier last month.
Solidcore closed its eight D.C. gyms after a visit Thanksgiving day from Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs inspectors, but wants Mayor Muriel Bowser to do more for gyms and fitness centers that have to close. Solidcore CEO Anne Mahlum originally said in a tweet the gyms would stay open because the regulations don’t make sense. “DCRA did visit studios, and we have temporarily closed D.C. studios while we continue conversations with the mayor’s office, advocating for her to reconsider the closures,” Solidcore told WUSA9. An order by Bowser suspending indoor group exercise and limiting outdoor groups to 25 people or less took effect last Wednesday, Nov. 25. D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said that while some gyms have made changes and are following protocols, the large majority have not. “Having classes and shared equipment that may or may not be sanitized are often cited as some of the sources of transmission in our community,” Nesbitt said during a press conference. “People can still frequent gyms, but not do so in a group setting [will] reduce the likelihood that you’re having equipment that’s not properly disinfected between use.” The CEOs of F45 Training on U Street, Hustle D.C. and Solidcore sent a letter to Bowser insisting they are not the source of community spread and their facilities should be allowed to continue operation. F45 switched to an open gym format with circuit programs and is offering Zoom classes and noon outdoor bootcamps at Cardozo track Hustle D.C. has no classes scheduled but doesn’t indicated if it is open for other workouts. Mahlum, told the TV station, “346,561 classes and over 35,000 people come into our locations, and not one instance of community spread,” she said. “And if the city or the mayor has any evidence to show us of the contrary, we’re all ears.” Solidcore’s eight D.C. locations have been open since June with strict safety protocols, including social distancing, limiting classes to 10 participants, mandated masks, disinfecting everything in between uses and increased air filtration. Mahlum said she invites the mayor to check it out for herself. “While I sympathize and understand and have frankly appreciated the mayor’s leadership over the last eight months, shutting us down is not going to slow the spread or change the numbers because we are not the culprit,” Mahlum said. “You’re allowing bars and restaurants to be open when you cannot have a mask on when you’re eating and drinking, but you’re closing establishments that operate with masks during the entire duration of your stay within those four walls. It just doesn’t make sense.
Smoke & Barrel, a popular Adams Morgan BBQ joint at 2471 18th St. NW, has closed, although the owner hopes to reopen early next year with lower rent and less space. The restaurant opened in 2011. “Sadly, we have come to the realization that with the pandemic back on the rise and such limitations on dine-in service and our need to survive almost purely on carryout and delivery, we cannot survive the winter with our existing format,” owner John Andrade said on the restaurant’s website and social media. “Therefore, we have made the painful decision not to reopen after the Thanksgiving break but instead work towards finding a more functional and financially viable way to move forward.” He thanked the restaurant’s patrons. “We are truly grateful for all the support we have received from you all and it has definitely helped keep us in the fight up to this point.” Andrade said he is negotiating with the landlord to cut the space from two floors to one and is seeking additional funding. He said the restaurant may be able to reopen in mid- to late-January if those two things fall into place. Smoke & Barrel had a patron following for both traditional barbeque smoked in house and less traditional twists and meatless barbeque options. Andrade operates two other restaurants, Brookland Pint in Brookland and Meridian Pint in Arlington, formerly in Columbia Heights.
As COVID-19 cases surge across the DMV, Montgomery County last week imposed additional restrictions on public gatherings and implemented new mask requirements for residents and visitors. Beginning at 5 p.m. on Nov. 24, indoor gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. The limit had previously been 25 people. The new restrictions on gatherings do not apply to businesses, establishments or facilities already permitted to operate at 25% occupancy or with 25 people, whichever is less. Outdoor gatherings continue to be limited to 25 people. Face coverings are also required at all times outdoors whenever someone is likely to come in contact with others who are not members of their household; they were already required indoors in public facilities, including businesses and offices. Exceptions include when a person is actively eating or drinking; receiving details services, shaving or facial services; swimming or engaged in a physical activity when the face covering would pose a risk; when someone is unable to wear a face covering due to a medical condition or disability; at work and the required safety does not enable the person to wear a mask; or when someone is alone in their office or vehicle. “We are entering a phase of COVID-19 that is very worrisome, and we need every resident to understand what that means,” County Health Office Dr. Travis Gayles said in a press release. “It is critical that each one of us takes this directive seriously and does our part to slow the spread.” He noted that contact tracing data indicates that a significant number of cases in Maryland stem from family and group gatherings, and county officials are urging residents to stay home and limit social gatherings during the holiday. The announcement came after the county tightened restrictions earlier this month, including reducing occupancy at fitness centers, restaurants and retail businesses from 50% to 25% of listed capacity. Prince George’s County made a similar move. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties remain in Phase 2 of reopening even as Gov. Larry Hogan moved Maryland into Phase Three in September. Hogan also set new rules for restaurants earlier this month and urged counties across the state to enforce restrictions. Earlier this month, the state reported a record number of new cases, at 2,910. Jurisdictions across the region have taken similar steps to curb the spread of the virus.
The Maryland Judiciary further restricted courtroom operations and reduced the types of cases that will be heard due to the surge in coronavirus cases. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued an order last Tuesday night to return district and circuit courts to Phase II of the judiciary’s reopening plan. It will be effective beginning today. District court judges will still hear criminal, traffic, civil, domestic violence, peace orders, extreme risk protective orders and landlord-tenant cases either remotely or in person. Non-jury civil, criminal, family, child in need of assistance and juvenile matters will move forward in the circuit courts. Jury trials scheduled to begin between Nov. 16 and Feb. 12, 2021, will be postponed and rescheduled.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine last week reached a settlement with food delivery service DoorDash, requiring it to pay $2.5 million following claims that it misled D.C. consumers and pocketed tips meant for workers. “Today’s settlement rights a wrong that deceived D.C. consumers and deprived workers of monies that they should have been paid,” Racine said in a press release. “Gig economy companies provide important and necessary services, especially during the pandemic. However, the law applies to these companies, just as it does to their brick and mortar counterparts.” Following an investigation into DoorDash’s business practices, Racine’s office sued the company in November 2019 for allegedly misleading customers by collecting money for contract workers’ tips and putting it toward workers’ base pay. The practice has been used by many companies to lower labor costs, but sparked a backlash when an Instacart worker’s pay stub went viral earlier that year. It showed a payment of 80 cents for 69 minutes of work, despite a $10 tip. DoorDash changed its tipping policies later in the year, saying that all contract workers, known as “Dashers,” operated under a new payment model as of October 2019. In agreeing to the consent order, DoorDash maintained that it did nothing wrong at the time. “We’re pleased to have this issue behind us … Our focus is on continuing to support Dashers, restaurants and customers in D.C. and around the country,” DoorDash said. Racine’s office filed a similar suit against Instacart this summer, alleging that the company charged Washingtonians millions of dollars in deceptive fees and had failed to pay D.C. sales taxes. As part of the settlement, DoorDash will be required to pay $1.5 million in relief for impacted workers and $750,000 to D.C., in part to cover the cost of litigation and the investigation. In addition, DoorDash will contribute $250,000 to N Street Village, which provides services to low-income women and women experiencing homelessness; and Hook Hall Helps and Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s Worker Relief Fund, which supports workers affected by the pandemic. The company must also maintain a payment model ensuring that the entirety of consumer tips are given to workers, and that those tips do not impact the base amount workers earn, among other provisions.
Following the Thanksgiving holiday, Montgomery County officials are urging all county residents to get tested for COVID-19 and will provide free walk-in and drive-thru testing at several sites this week. County officials said testing is important for everyone so that health officials can track the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Some individuals with COVID-19 can be without symptoms and spread the disease to vulnerable groups, such as the elderly. Testing is free, no doctor’s order is required and no appointment is needed. People who are experiencing symptoms should call the testing helpline at 240-777-1755 for assistance with scheduling testing, as not all sites accept residents with symptoms. Some testing site locations have changed to accommodate weather changes. The county’s home-based testing and human services screening is also available for eligible residents. The self-administered nasal swab molecular tests provided at the clinics are from CIAN Diagnostic Laboratories in Frederick.
About 150 University of Maryland students on the College Park campus have been referred to the Office of Student Conduct because they may not have undergone all COVID-19 testing as required this semester. There were 22,000 students on the campus this fall, and most participated in regular COVID-19 testing as required by the school. UMD offers free testing to students, faculty and staff, and more than 45,000 tests were administered since the summer. The university moved all undergraduate classes online for the rest of the semester earlier this month amid rising COVID-19 rates nationwide and around the DMV. The move back to virtual classes came as pandemic-related restrictions tightened across the state and in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. The school also halted its football program more than two weeks ago after eight student-athletes tested positive for the coronavirus and canceled games against Ohio State and Michigan State. However, practice resumed Nov. 23 and the team lost to Indiana University 27-11 on Saturday. UMD monitors compliance with its testing requirements, and those who missed tests or failed to submit results by deadline received two warning letters. “I’m really proud of how our students and community have widely adopted healthy behaviors. We have witnessed countless examples of our students holding each other accountable. At the same time, it is on us to check in with our community, and in those cases where we are seeing noncompliance with testing — about 150 cases — our Office of Student Conduct is reaching out to learn more,” Patty Perillo, vice president of student affairs, said in a statement. Those students must now attend an information session about the disciplinary process and a meeting with the conduct office to determine if they violated the testing protocol and if discipline will follow.
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Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.