2,000 Ineligible Sign Up for Holy Cross Shots
COVID-19 Cases Reach 671,435 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Saturday morning, 29,509 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 792 deaths; there have been 283,171 cases in Maryland with 5,799 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 358,755 cases with 5,117 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
More than 2,000 people who aren’t eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine signed up after Holy Cross Health staff members shared a private link to sign up for vaccinations. Holy Cross is in the process of vaccinating group 1A, which includes hospital workers, medical providers, first responders and nursing home residents and employees. In an online notice Saturday, Holy Cross said that the hospital system, which includes hospitals in Silver Spring and Germantown, sent an email on Wednesday to all 6,000 “colleagues and active medical staff” with a link to PrepMed, the online system the state is using for vaccine clinic registration, to sign up for their first does of the vaccine. “That internal email, meant for staff only, was forwarded to family members and friends eager to received the vaccine,” the notice said. “We have emailed the more than 2,000 community members who have signed up for the vaccine to inform them that their appointments have been cancelled , and they are not to come to the hospital at this time.” Kristin Feliciano, Holy Cross’ chief strategy officer, said the signup emails were marked “this is intended for you” but did not explicitly say not to share it with others. She said Holy Cross officials became aware of the situation on Friday. “We didn’t realize it was as big as it was until we could get into the state’s PrepMod system. That’s how we realized that for Monday’s clinic, we had over 600 people registered, and only 158 of them were our colleagues,” Feliciano said. She added similar problems with healthcare workers who are eligible for the vaccine sharing information about signing up for it with friends and family have also been reported in Howard County. Feliciano said Holy Cross is alerting the community with emails and through social media, and is working with the state and PrepMod to cancel appointments of those not eligible. “We are encouraged that many people are eager to receive the vaccine, and we are working with the State of Maryland, Montgomery County and other local hospitals to help provide vaccinations for community-based healthcare personnel. As the county, state and nation evolve to group 2 (front line workers) and group 3 (those with comorbid medical conditions) and the general public, we will join the efforts to ensure broad distribution of vaccination. We look forward to the time when we are able to make the vaccine more broadly available, and we will share additional details here on our website.”
Virginia and two of its five health regions hit new highs Saturday for average daily COVID-19 cases reported as the commonwealth wrapped up one of its worst weeks ever in terms of deaths from the virus with test positivity rates rising rapidly. The Virginia Department of Health reported 3,989 new cases of coronavirus on Saturday, following 5,182 on Friday. That brought the state’s seven-day average to 4,168.3, surpassing the previous high set on Christmas Day. The average is up 9.7% in the past week, 19.8% in the past two weeks and 87% in the past month. Virginia’s Central and Northwest health districts also set new record highs for seven-day averages, at 705 and 744.6 cases, respectively. In Northern Virginia, the seven-day average stands at 1,084.6, just below the record of 1,124.4 set Dec. 12. The health department reported 1,241 new cases in the region on Saturday, following 1,336 on Friday. With 49 new deaths from COVID-19 reported statewide Friday and another 36 on Saturday, the total over the past week is 277, one of the worst weeks since the pandemic began. In Northern Virginia, 12 new deaths were reported over the two-day period: six in Fairfax County, two each in Loudoun and Prince William counties, and one each in Arlington County and Alexandria.
Arlington Transit (ART) buses will resume collecting fares and boarding from the front of the bus on Sunday. Since the onset of the pandemic, ART and other area bus systems have required most riders to board from the back in an effort to protect drivers’ health. Since fare boxes are located at the front of the buses, fares have been waived for months. In most cases, bus services recoup only about one-third of operating costs and no capital costs through the farebox. But the elimination of fares entirely has accentuated the already strained finances of governments that subsidize bus service. Riders will be able to pay fares by SmarTrip card, the SmartTrip app loaded on iPhones or Apple watches and cash (exact fare only). Facemasks are required to board and while aboard the buses, and riders are “asked to social-distance onboard the buses and at bus stops.” ART joins other region bus systems with similar resumptions in pre-pandemic services. Metrobus said last month that it will begin front door boarding and fare collection on Sunday too. On Monday, Prince George’s County’s TheBus will also begin its “step toward normalcy” by charging passengers and having them enter through the front of the bus. However, Montgomery County’s RideOn bus system will continue to offer its passengers free rides and have them enter through the rear.
About 13% of small businesses in Northern Virginia received Paycheck Protection Program loans – higher than the national average, according to a new report by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission. The national average is 9% of small businesses received the loans. More than 40,740 businesses received loans as the Small Business Administration prepares to give out a second round of PPP checks. The report also found that the average loan in Northern Virginia was $135,111, 34% higher than the national average of $100,729. Of Northern Virginia’s 520 census tracts, 216 or 42% were majority-minority. These same tracts contained 45% of businesses receiving loans and 46% of the total loaned amount in Northern Virginia, according to the report. It is not known how many of the loans went to minority business owners, the report said.
The Maryland Department of Health is on the lookout for a new strain of the coronavirus. A few months ago, a new COVID-19 variant was discovered in the United Kingdom. In the past few weeks, it was found in Canada also. Now there are two cases in the U.S. — one in Colorado and one in California. Those first known U.S. cases have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worried it may have already spread to other areas of the country. Late Thursday, Florida health authorities reported finding evidence of the latest U.S. case in a man with no recent travel history, though it is still being investigated. While there are no known cases in the DMV, Maryland’s health department is working with the CDC to check COVID-19 patient samples for the new strain, according to the Baltimore Sun. It is believed this new strain will still be receptive to the vaccine, and so far, the CDC said it doesn’t think the new strain will make people sicker than the original. But there are concerns the new strain could have the potential to make more people sick more quickly, as it may be more contagious.
Virginia ended the year with a bang, reporting a record number of new coronavirus cases on New Year’s Eve as its death toll topped 5,000 people. COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been rising in the DMV over the past several months, and experts warned holiday travel could only make things worse. Virginia’s new daily case count of 5,239 far passed its previous record of 4,782 cases set just a week earlier on Dec. 24. The commonwealth also reported 48 new deaths Thursday, bringing its toll to 5,032 total fatalities. Its rolling seven-day average positivity rate stands at 13.2%, a high not seen since mid-May. Coronavirus hospitalizations have been increasing in Virginia since October and have been rising particularly fast since mid-November. They passed their previous May peak last month and have continued to rise since then. Currently, 2,744 people are hospitalized for the virus. Virginia is currently under a “modified stay-at-home order” that directs people not to leave their homes between midnight and 5 a.m. with a few exceptions. It also boosted its mask mandate and added restrictions to sporting events earlier last month and is under a 10 p.m. restaurant curfew. Maryland added 2,973 new cases Thursday, for a total of 276,662 known COVID-19 cases. That is the highest daily caseload since Dec. 12. Forty-seven more people died from the virus bring total fatalities to 5,895. There are 1,773 people hospitalized in Maryland with the virus, up 17 from Wednesday. Hospitalizations peaked on Dec. 15 with 1,799 COVID patients. The state’s positivity rate stands at 8.52%. Maryland stores, gyms and houses of worship are limited to 50% capacity, and gathering and travel restrictions are also in place. Bars and restaurants can only operate at 50% capacity and must close at 10 p.m. Hard-hit Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City have temporarily banned indoor dining entirely. D.C. added 225 new known cases New Year’s Eve, for a total of 28,983 in all. Six more people died, bringing the total to 786 deaths. D.C.’s percentage of patients hospitalized for the coronavirus continues to climb, and currently stands at 12.5% of all patients. D.C. Health considers that percentage too high for its current level of reopening. It last saw levels that high in mid-June. D.C.’s rolling seven-day average daily case rate stands at 31.16 per 100,000 people, which the city also considers too high for its Phase Two level of reopening. Its positivity rate stands at 5.7%. City restaurants, libraries, and museums are closed for a three-week “holiday pause” that lasts until Jan. 15.
Beginning Sunday, Metrobus riders will resume front-door boarding and paying fares for the first time since March, when riders were ordered to board through the rear doors, away from the bus operator and fare box, as a COVID-19 precaution. The transit union representing Metrobus operators, pointing to the surge in the pandemic, objected over safety concerns for the drivers. “Let’s give it a few more months, and let’s allow the numbers to come down,” Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 First Vice President Carroll Thomas said. “We’re at the highest point — now you want to open the doors? It just doesn’t make sense. Are we about safety or are we about money?” Metro said it will be safe to board the front of the bus with the bus operator seated behind a plastic shield, everyone wearing masks and buses undergoing daily enhanced cleanings. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld also made clear that bus fare collections are necessary to keep Metro employees working and the service running. The transit union wants rear-door boarding to continue, saying all riders may not have face coverings and the plastic shields might offer insufficient protection for the bus operator. “We would like for them to keep it the way it is — at least let’s go back to a month-to-month — to make a decision month-to-month — whether or not to go to front-door boarding. I know that at some point, we’re going to have to go back to it; but let’s give the vaccine a chance to work,” Thomas said. Metro said the return to front-door boarding is consistent with the pandemic recovery plans of other transit agencies, including those in Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
The D.C. Department of Employment Services expects to begin distributing additional unemployment benefits in January as part of new federal coronavirus relief legislation. President Donald Trump signed the $900 billion relief package on Dec. 27. The legislation will extend jobless benefits for millions of unemployed workers, including gig workers and independent contractors. DOES said Thursday in a press release that it is currently reviewing the legislation’s unemployment provisions. “The extension of the CARES Act benefit programs will provide continued and, in some cases, additional funds to tens of thousands of District workers who are fighting to stay afloat,” DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes said. “While we await additional guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on how to implement the CARES Act extensions, DOES will be ready to act.” Unemployment benefits for millions of Americans expired on Dec. 26. The new legislation includes an extra $300 in jobless benefits through mid-March, and $600 stimulus payments. The latter was a point of contention for Trump, who argued that the payments should amount to $2,000, despite his staff having helped broker the provision. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has since blocked a push for the chamber to take up a bill that would increase the amount of the payments. While labor experts and local officials have warned that residents may experience a delay in receiving benefits, DOES said Thursday that the Department of Labor has indicated there will be no gap in benefit weeks. The agency advised claimants to continue filing weekly certifications, and that while the additional benefits are not yet available, payments for those eligible will be made retroactively. In an update sent to claimants and employers Thursday, the Maryland Department of Labor similarly said there would be no gap in benefit eligibility, but that there may be a delay in receipt of payment. “However, rest assured that eligible claimants will receive ALL benefits they are owed backdated to their earliest date of eligibility within the extended and additional programs,” the update said. The department is also waiting to receive complete guidance from the labor department before benefits can be paid out in Maryland, and said guidance will likely be issued early this year. The Virginia Employment Commission did not respond to a request for comment on a tentative timeline for distributing additional benefits. The DMV continues to face high unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the most recent figures available, in November, D.C.’s unemployment rate was 7.5%. It was 6.8% in Maryland and 4.9% in Virginia, a sharp increase from a year ago. This won’t be the first time locals have seen a delay in payments. As unemployment offices have struggled to process surging claims over the past year, many DMV residents have waited weeks or months to receive benefits.
As part of pared-down inaugural activities, President-elect Joe Biden’s inaugural committee will host a lighting ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 19 to honor lives lost to COVID-19. The Presidential Inaugural Committee invited towns and cities across the country to illuminate buildings and ring church bells at the same time in a national moment of unity and remembrance. “The inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris represents the beginning of a new national journey,” PIC communications director Pili Tobar said in a statement. “However, in the midst of a pandemic — when so many Americans are grieving the loss of family, friends and neighbors — is important that we honor those who have died, reflect on what has been one of the more challenging periods in the nation’s history and renew our commitment to coming together to end the pandemic and rebuild our nation.” The announcement comes after the inaugural committee urged Americans earlier in December not to travel to D.C. for the ceremony and participate from home instead. “Our goal is to create an inauguration that keeps people safe, honors the grand traditions of the Presidency and showcases the Biden-Harris Administration’s renewed American vision for an inclusive, equitable and unified citizenry,” PIC CEO Tony Allen said in a press release at the time. Biden and Harris will take their oaths of office at the U.S. Capitol in a ceremony that will feature rigorous health and safety protocols, according to the PIC, and an “extremely limited” footprint. The parade after the ceremony will also be “reimagined.” The committee said last month that it has hired a team of production experts to create a “new and innovative” program with ways for people to safely participate, as well as staff dedicated to health and safety measures. Typically, D.C. would be preparing for an event that can bring as many as two million people to the city, but since the election Biden’s team has been signaling that his inauguration would be smaller. More details about the memorial and other inaugural activities will be announced in “the coming days,” the PIC said Thursday.
Following a two-day hearing on his indoor dining ban, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said Wednesday he will allow restaurants to continue serving diners at 25% capacity inside. In a news release, Pittman said he signed a new executive order that replaces his Dec. 10 order that sought to suspend indoor dining from Dec. 16-Jan. 13. As a result, the four plaintiffs, including Titan Hospitality Group that owns the Blackwall Hitch restaurants, dismissed their case in the county’s circuit court. “We believe that as an industry, we have taken incredible measures to keep our patrons and our employees safe,” said Titan Hospitality CEO James King. “And we can do that while remaining open.” King noted that his restaurants, which include Smashing Grapes Kitchen and Wine Bar, Blackwall Barn & Lodge, The Blackwall Hitch and a Roy Rodgers all in Anne Arundel County, haven’t had a single case of COVID-19 among its employees in eight months. “I think we’ve been able to show that if you follow the safety and sanitation guidelines, and if you take them seriously, you know, you can do this in a safe manner. Our employees are comfortable coming to work; they want to come to work; they want to be there.” Before the ban went into effect, Judge William C. Mulford issued an injunction that allowed reduced capacity dining to continue indoors. Pittman said he reassessed his decision due to combination of the county’s recent progress “holding our numbers down in the last two weeks,” along with how disruptive a sudden closure would be for local restaurants. In the press release, the Anne Arundel Department of Health said cases had recently “leveled off” and dropped slightly from a peak seven-day average of 48.7 cases per 100,000 residents on Dec. 12, but health officials will continue to monitor coronavirus statistics. The release said the county is expecting a post-Christmas increase as more people get tested. Bringing back indoor dining was important, Titan’s King said, because carryout dining is not a sustainable model for many restaurants, particularly those with extensive or high-end menus. “We’ve tried it. We were there earlier on in the pandemic, and I think the vast majority of restaurants decided that it just wasn’t a business model that they could sustain and that they would lose more money by trying to be open than if they just shut the doors,” he said. The next 90 days will be crucial, King said. The prospect of warmer weather, which could allow outdoor dining, and the arrival of vaccines provide another glimmer of hope for an industry devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re just trying to hang on for dear life. We’re very optimistic between the vaccination process starting and the weather turning that if we can get into the spring and survive the next couple of months that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” The 25% capacity applies to restaurants, social clubs, bowling alleys, mall food courts and other businesses that serve food. The new executive order also caps fees for food delivery at 15% of the purchase price of an online order. Similar challenges to dining bans in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City were unsuccessful.
D.C. revenues could return to fiscal year 2019 levels by FY 2022, as vaccines are deployed and the economy recovers. Updated revenue estimates released Wednesday by D.C.’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer is a revision to the September estimate for FY 2021-2024. D.C.’s fiscal year begins in October and ends Sept. 30 the following year. “Estimated revenue is $461.8 million below budgeted revenue for the FY 2021-FY 2024 financial plan period despite upward revisions of $320.1 million when compared to the September 2020 estimate,” Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt said in a memo to Mayor Muriel Bowser and Council Chair Phil Mendelson. But before things return to normal, the economic outlook for this winter has worsened due to the resurgence of the virus and new restrictions implemented to control the spread. “As a result, the economic recovery will be slower in the last quarter of calendar 2020 and the first quarter of calendar 2021 than forecasted in September.,” DeWitt said. The memo estimated Phase 2 restrictions will remain in place until the end of March, Phase 3 during the spring and summer and Phase 4 — when most restrictions are lifted — to start in fall 2021. Mendelson called the revised estimates a relief. “While we know that a great many of our businesses — small businesses, restaurants, hotels and sports venues — are struggling to keep alive, the city’s economy is actually stronger than expected,” Mendelson said in a statement. “It is hard to celebrate that our fiscal loss is less bad that we had feared. We still have health care workers exhausted from the burdens of the pandemic; families and individuals struggling to make rent and mortgage payments as well as paying for basic necessities; and small businesses contemplating how they will weather the winter months,” Bowser said in a statement. “However, this forecast shows that because of a strong fiscal foundation and steady stewardship throughout the response and recovery, we are resilient and we will get through this together to show that we are the District of Comebacks.” City revenue tied to in-person customers, commuters or occupied offices — such as sales, deed taxes, licenses and fines — declined more than 20% in 2020 and are expected to fall more in 2021. They are not likely to fully recover before 2024. Meanwhile, city revenue that relied online or remotely — such as income, gross receipts and property taxes — grew 4% in 2020. D.C. expects residential property assessment growth to remain strong in 2021, but large office buildings are expected to decline due to reduced leases and high-vacancy rates. “Overall, the assessed value for commercial real property is expected to decline in FY 2021 and not recover fully to the FY 2020 level until FY 2025,” DeWitt said. The net job loss in D.C. from February to November was 53,700 or 6.7%. But higher-wage government and professional service sectors gained 5,400 jobs or 1.5%, and two-thirds of all losses were in the lower-wage-hospitality and business services. Hospitality tax revenue — hotels and restaurants — declined 46% in FY 2020. However, an earlier recovery than estimated is expected in the hospitality industry due to the vaccine progress. Revenue from sales tax declined by 23.5% in 2020, down $30 million more than estimated in September. While retail spending, including online sales, grew only 2% in FY 2020 and was the only major sales tax category to grow. After the pandemic, DeWitt said workers could permanently decide to work from home, which means the need and demand for office space could decline. When the public health emergency is lifted, there could be a surge in demand for entertainment, such as dining, performances and sports. However, there might be lingering discomfort about gathering together or less desire to travel for entertainment. There is also concern that employers might decide to allow for greater remote working. While this might mean more people moving to the city, there is also the possibility of people moving out of D.C. “If this becomes a reality, there is a risk to the outlook as population growth has been a major driver of District revenue growth over the last two decades,” DeWitt said.
The Virginia Department of Health expects to receive about 370,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of December, about 110,000 fewer doses than it originally expected. Christy Gray, director of VDH’s Division of Immunization, made the announcement during a teleconference Wednesday. The federal government’s Operation Warp Speed plans to distribute 300 million doses, with the first batch available for frontline workers nationwide by January. “Our understanding is that the calculation for how much vaccination would be available … was determined off of the wrong set of vaccines,” Gray said. Operation Warp Speed “used the number of total being manufactured, not necessarily the number that had completely gone through the data quality process and [were] ready to be shipped. They were using the wrong number to calculate that off of.” She added that the original estimate was just “planning numbers,” but that VDH was “not expecting the actual allocated number to be so much lower than the planning number.” The state has distributed 285,725 doses of the vaccine and administered 54,295 doses as of Dec. 30, according to VDH’s vaccine dashboard, which breaks down the data by locality and demographics. The department expects to receive another shipment to reach the total of 370,650 by Friday. Eighteen Virginia hospitals received the first batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in mid-December. The state’s estimated 500,000 healthcare professionals and long-term care facility residents remain the priority groups to receive the vaccine. The facilities are still in the process of giving staff and residents their initial doses. Over the next few weeks, Gray said Virginia is slated to distribute 100,000 doses per week to 96 sites across the state. During the call, VDH spokesperson Maria Reppas said “a lot” of the state’s doses that are scheduled to go to long-term care facilities are currently sitting at CVS and Walgreens. She clarified that those doses “aren’t necessarily sitting on a shelf somewhere,” but are part of the pharmaceutical companies’ partnerships with Virginia long-term care facilities. With three visits each, CVS and Walgreens will vaccinate staff and residents at 1,442 long-term care facilities, Reppas said. “The actual amount of the vaccine received in Virginia is a moving target and is dependent on when and how quickly vaccination doses are manufactured,” Gray said. She added that the number of doses the dashboard displays will continually lag behind the actual number administered. Virgina isn’t the only state falling behind on its initial distribution plan. The U.S. is administering an average of 200,000 doses daily, meaning health departments nationwide won’t hit Operation Warp Speed’s goal of 20 million doses administered by the end of the year. Dr. Leana Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University’s Milken School of Public Health, recently shared some sobering statistics on CNN, saying it will take 10 years at our current pace to reach 80% of Americans completely vaccinated — both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines require two doses. “To get to herd immunity by June 2021, we need to be at 3.5 million vaccinations a day,” she tweeted. “Dealing with new systems and operations at this scale, it is expected to be slower at the beginning—but we are expecting to increase our efficiency over time,” Gray said.
Montgomery County health officials are concerned about a possible surge in coronavirus cases following the holiday weekend. County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said Tuesday during a press conference he hopes people are getting tested and taking precautions after the region’s airports reported record levels of travel. “Particularly given the higher levels of community transmission we’re experiencing right now … We are concerned and on alert to continue to follow how those numbers bear out,” Gayles said. The county reported a more than 12% increase in new cases per 100,000 people on Tuesday. The state of Maryland also saw an uptick this week following the Christmas holiday with 1,750 new cases and 31 deaths, according to Maryland Department of Health data. Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s office of emergency and homeland security management, said if hospitals see a surge “there is space [for patients], but you can’t keep adding on more and more and expecting that to hold up.” Currently, about 79% of county hospital beds are in use with more than 22% occupied by COVID-19 patients, according to county health data. But Stoddard said restrictions put on restaurants, businesses and large gatherings prior to the holidays could offset a potential uptick in cases, as they may have done after the Thanksgiving holiday. “I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it does give some credence to the possibility that the actions that have been taken in Montgomery County and neighboring jurisdictions may help reduce some of the surge we’re going to see,” Stoddard said. He added that he expects to see some irregularities in testing numbers over the next week. There could be high numbers of testing before and after the New Year’s holiday and low testing during the holiday itself. During the press conference, County Executive Marc Elrich encouraged residents to continue social distancing and not hold holiday parties. “I got to say this is really hard,” Elrich said. “But it’s also really important … so please be safe and be careful over the next couple of days.”
Falls Church City Public Schools students are set to begin returning to classrooms on Jan. 5. The school district paused all in-person instruction in late November due to rising coronavirus case counts in Northern Virginia. In an update Tuesday, Supt. Peter Noonan said the goal is to have all of the city’s students back in classrooms by the end of January. FCCPS has a preschool, two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. The first wave of students back in classrooms will be “special populations,” followed by those in kindergarten through fifth grade and seniors on Jan. 12. The third wave will be students in sixth through 11th grades on Jan. 21. The school system asked parents of special needs students to hold their children out for a week if they had recently traveled or been a part of a large gathering. The “special population” group includes those students who do not speak English as a first language and those who require special education. The update laid out how the system has been monitoring three criteria for a successful return to school: health data, ability to maintain operations, and academics and instruction. In his message, Noonan said operations are currently experience issues because a number of maintenance and janitorial workers have been unable to work due to positive COVID-19 tests and subsequent quarantines. Noonan asked the parents to work to “maintain a communitywide bubble,” as students get back to classrooms, and reminded parents to not send students to school if they have virus symptoms or exposure to someone who is being tested or already tested positive.
Prince George’s County’s TheBus transit system will follow Metrobus and begin charging fares next Monday, while Montgomery County’s RideOn system will remain free, and passengers will get on and off buses through the rear door only. While RideOn said it would start charging again at some point in 2021, it don’t indicate when. “Transit operators throughout the region continue to adjust to provide the best service possible while also protecting our bus operators and passengers,” Montgomery County Department of Transportation Director Chris Conklin said in a statement. “We hope to get the word out that Ride On bus operations remain unchanged at this time, despite Metrobus adjustment to boarding and fare collection. In an ongoing response to the health crisis, passengers using Ride On, Ride On Extra and Flash buses will continue to board using the rear door and will not be asked to pay to ride.” Meanwhile, Prince George’s TheBus is set to charge passengers again and allow front-door boarding next Monday, following Metrobus’ lead. The “step toward normalcy” will begin Jan. 4, after TheBus provided months of free service and required backdoor boarding because of the coronavirus pandemic, Prince George’s County spokesperson Paulette Jones said in a press release. “These changes come after extensive safety and cleaning protocols were introduced into the system, including the installation of protective barriers on all vehicles.” She urged riders to use SmarTrip cards so they can pay swiftly, limiting bus drivers’ possible exposure to the coronavirus. If a rider doesn’t have a prepaid card, she said, passengers should have the exact $1 fare ready. Earlier this month, WMATA made a similar decision to begin collecting fares and opening front doors at the start of the new year. While TheBus passengers won’t be able to ride free next year, the county will reduce the standard one-way fare to $1 from its $1.25 before the pandemic. Senior citizens, people with disabilities and children under 2 will continue to ride free of charge after Jan. 4. Bus routes and schedules will not change.
The Hotel Harrington and Harry’s Bar and Family Restaurant, a gathering place for far-right activists including the Proud Boys, will temporarily close during a pro-Trump rally scheduled for Jan. 6, citing safety concerns. “While we cannot control what happens outside of the hotel, we are taking additional steps to protect the safety of our visitors, guests, and employees,” the hotel said in a statement announcing that it will be closed Jan. 4-6. Harry’s said on its website that it will be closed Jan. 5-6, without citing a reason. The decision comes after the bar received multiple citations for violating D.C.’s COVID-19 restrictions during weekends featuring large MAGA demonstrations, when incidents of violence occurred nearby. Stabbings near Harry’s after a pro-Trump rally on Dec. 12 led to four hospitalizations, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. And that wasn’t the first time the bar, which leases space from the hotel, has been in the spotlight. D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration fined Harry’s $2,000 for violating coronavirus reopening restrictions during a November weekend when thousands of Trump supporters rallied in downtown D.C. An ABRA investigator observed multiple violations at the bar on two separate nights, including patrons without face coverings, people standing while drinking alcohol and inadequate spacing between tables, according to ABRA. Before the election, President Donald Trump retweeted a video showing maskless patrons inside of Harry’s standing and drinking close to one another while chanting “Back the blue.” That viral video, which appeared to show a number of COVID-related safety violations, led to an ABRA investigation. The bar also received a verbal warning in July. Since Trump has been in office, Harry’s Bar has been a place for members of the far-right to congregate, especially the Proud Boys, a group that describes itself as “Western chauvinists.” On July 4, 2019, MPD escorted members of the Proud Boys to Harry’s after a clash in front of the White House. Proud Boys gatherings have been linked frequently to violence. Harry’s owner John Boyle said earlier this month that the establishment welcomes all groups. “We don’t ask people who they voted for or what kind of hat they’re wearing,” he said. “They walk in the door, we smile, and we seat them and serve them. We don’t discriminate against anybody.” Still, the bar’s link to the extremist group doesn’t sit well with some employees of Hotel Harrington and Harry’s. “It’s sad that they feel so comfortable here because obviously nobody who works here supports this stuff,” one employee told the Washington Post. The leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, said that a corner of Harry’s provided a “staging area” for demonstrations, due to its close proximity to protest locations like Freedom Plaza, the White House and the Trump Hotel. However, he said the group’s connection to the establishment is overblown and the temporary closure of Hotel Harrington and Harry’s will not impact the group’s plans on Jan. 6. The Donald, a popular website for conservatives and planned rally-goers, was filled with posts complaining about Hotel Harrington canceling their reservations. A permit application for Jan. 6 states approximately 5,000 people will attend a demonstration on the day Congress will count the electoral votes and declare Joe Biden president-elect. Women For America First, one of the conservative organizations behind the last two D.C. rallies, submitted the permit and Tarrio says the Proud Boys will be providing “as much security as we can and we’re gonna spread ourselves through all the events that are coming through D.C.” During previous demonstrations, Proud Boys were recognizable by their black and yellow attire. But during the early January rally, the group will be wearing “typical Trump stuff” and potentially black clothing instead, according to Tarrio. He claimed responsibility for destroying a Black Lives Matter banner that belonged to a downtown D.C. church during the previous MAGA rally — multiple banners were taken from historic Black churches on Dec. 12 and burned. Authorities are investigating the acts as potential hate crimes. Rev. George C. Gilbert Jr., speaking on behalf of the Center for Racial Equity and Justice, the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington D.C., the Baptist Convention of Washington, D.C. and the National Capitol Baptist Convention, commended the Hotel Harrington and Harry’s for deciding to close during the upcoming MAGA rally, although he said that “just shutting down is not enough.” He is calling for a sit-down conversation with the owners to discuss “how hurtful and detrimental it was to see a business in our community be the place of gathering for those who symbolize … the hatred of racism.”
People who are out of work in D.C., Maryland and Virginia may have to wait weeks to get unemployment benefits as new federal aid gets processed by local agencies. Local labor experts and officials say the hiccup, which is likely after President Donald Trump delayed signing the congressional stimulus bill, could add more sting to the pain of lengthy unemployment during winter while COVID-19 cases are on the rise and as government agencies and nonprofits struggle to help the needy. “I think there may be a delay of at least a week, maybe a few, while the states program their systems,” said attorney Tonya Love of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO. She said people should expect to receive a final payment of their unemployment benefits this week before entering into a period of limbo. Fallon Peare, a spokesperson with the Maryland Department of Labor, confirmed that residents could expect their regular payments to end after this week. “[The Maryland Department of] Labor is currently reviewing the legislation and awaiting guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on how the CARES Act program extensions should be implemented in Maryland,” Peare said in an email. “States cannot move forward without this guidance, and it is unlikely the guidance will be issued before the end of the month.” Joyce Fogg, a spokesperson for the Virginia Employment Commission, said in an email that her agency is working to implement the new federal law and plans to issue an update on Wednesday. A spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Employment Services said it is reviewing the new federal pandemic relief package and preparing changes to its system. “As was the case with previous federal unemployment programs, DOES must receive guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor before it can fully implement the changes and begin issuing payments,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “While we are unlikely to receive this guidance before January 2021, DOES is working to ensure our ability to act as soon as we do.” The DMV continues to suffer high unemployment due to the pandemic. In the latest figures out in November, the unemployment rate in D.C. was 7.5%, 6.8% in Maryland and 4.9% in Virginia – far higher than a year ago. Maryland’s rate is double rate from November 2019. The initial economic relief package that Congress passed in March expired on Saturday. Nevertheless, lawmakers debated a new relief bill until days before the deadline, and Trump refused to sign the bill until Sunday night. The new relief packages includes $300 a week in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, down from $600. It expired in July. The bill also extends unemployment benefits for gig workers and contractors. Further, people whose benefits ran out before the Dec. 26 sunset date may reapply now for benefits and receive an additional 11 weeks. But it may be well into January before people receive those benefits. Getting unemployment payments has been a struggle for some as hundreds of thousands of people overwhelmed the region’s unemployment agencies. Thousands of D.C. residents reported delays of weeks or months. This month, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the state to pay unemployment benefits to 70,000 people whose applications had been delayed. Maryland overhauled its software for processing unemployment claims during the pandemic, and the program crashed within hours of launch under the weight of incoming claims.
D.C. healthcare workers who have direct or indirect exposure to infectious materials and don’t have the option to telework can now schedule their COVID-19 vaccination through a new online portal. Those who meet the requirements will need to show proof at their appointment. Healthcare workers can schedule an appointment at either Bread for the City, Community of Hope, Giant, Mary’s Center, Safeway or Unity Healthcare. The portal is only to schedule appointments for the first dose of the vaccine, so those getting vaccinated will need to schedule a time to receive the second dose during the initial appointment. Those who work at places distributing vaccines internally are told at the beginning of the questionnaire not to continue and to contact their facility. “We are launching this portal as a next step in our vaccination plan to ensure that those individuals who work in our healthcare settings and are at highest risk of exposure and infection know where to go to get the vaccine,” Dr. Ankoor Shah, D.C. Health’s COVID-19 vaccine program lead, said in a news release Monday. He said that while there is a high level of interest from everyone to get the vaccine, the portal should only be used by those workers who are part of the Phase 1A population. “The sooner we get those who work in healthcare settings vaccinated, the sooner we can move through our other phases and get the rest of our community access to this safe and effective vaccine.” So far, nearly 21,000 people in Maryland and over 41,000 people in Virginia have received the coronavirus vaccine. D.C. does not publish its vaccination numbers.
After scrambling to get COVID-19 relief funds to struggling residents and businesses, Montgomery County officials have another year to distribute the rest. The county was promised a total of $183.3 million through the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) under the federal CARES Act. About half it has been earmarked for programs. The deadline to spend the rest, or risk losing it, was Dec. 30. However, under the Consolidated Appropriations Act that President Donald Trump signed into law on Sunday, the deadline to spend the CRF funds was extended to Dec. 31, 2021. The extension follows about two months of county officials clashing over the pace at which funds were being distributed through relief programs. Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who the County Council criticized in mid-October over the pace of relief spending, said the extension lets the county remain careful and deliberate in how it distributes the money. At the time, Elrich said the county was distributing the money as fast as it could but was waiting to find out what it could receive in requested reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Money spent from the CRF cannot be reimbursed by FEMA. The county was spending its own money to try to maximize the amount of federal dollars it could receive from FEMA reimbursements and the CRF. But the process dragged on longer than expected and left officials trying to figure out how to spend the rest of the federal dollars before time was up, as they waited on responses from FEMA. More than $96 million of the federal and local funds set aside for relief programs for residents and businesses affected during the pandemic remains to be spent or encumbered, according to a staff report. Some of the $96 million was expected to be partially covered by the CRF, as well as money from the county’s general funds for the programs. The report did not distinguish how much of the $96 million was federal versus local money. On Dec. 22, Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said during a media briefing that the one-year extension, which Congress approved on Dec. 21, would allow the county to seek reimbursements from FEMA for any eligible spending. “Whatever FEMA declines to cover, that’s what we bill towards the CRF funds and therefore, maximize the dollars that are brought into Montgomery County for both purposes,” Stoddard said during the briefing. As of Dec. 22, the county had submitted $64 million for reimbursements from FEMA and expected to submit another $26 million before the end of the year. “With the Congressional action, we can afford to take a little bit more time to be as precise and maximize the dollars that we can get,” Stoddard said. “We’re not going to extend this out. We’re not going to punt this till the end of next year and be facing those same timelines. But we are afforded now a few extra days and weeks to try and get as much of the dollars reimbursed as we can.” Elrich said during the briefing that the county would have spent the money before the deadline, regardless of the extension. “We have been very, very careful because our needs are not going to end on Dec. 31,” he said. “There is not a huge tranche of money coming to local governments to do the same kind of work that we did before. … Once I spend the CARES [funds] — if I spend it on something that I could have been reimbursed for by FEMA, that money is gone. Our needs are too great and far greater than our resources for us to take a chance on spending something we don’t have to spend.” The new $900 billion federal aid package does not include money for local governments. County staff members have estimated a tax revenue shortfall of $101 million for this fiscal year — an improvement from the previously anticipated $192 million shortfall. A revenue loss of $163 million is expected for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1.
Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said in a phone interview Wednesday evening that the county has learned its lessons from the struggles with fund distributions. “I am confident that there have been a number of lessons learned from the first round of federal stimulus,” he said. “I think we do have a lot more mechanics in place to get the money out more quickly. We’ve been able to build systems and enhance technology. I think all these things working together bode well for us to do a better job this time around.”
D.C. Public Schools released parent survey results on how virtual learning is going, and how they feel about returning to schools next year. More than 10,500 parents with students in pre-K through fifth grades and 4,000 parents with students in sixth through 12th grades responded to surveys about preferences for learning beginning Feb. 1 in the city. For pre-K through fifth grades, parents were almost evenly split when it came to in-person learning versus virtual learning, with 49% preferring virtual only, 36% preferring in-person instruction, 14% preferring either in-person or CARE (Canvas Academics and Real Engagement supervised educational environment program) and 2% preferring only the CARE program. In sixth through 12th grades, 58% of parents preferred virtual-only learning and 42% preferring in-person learning. In pre-K through fifth grades, more half of families in Wards 5, 7 and 8 preferred virtual-only learning, while more half of families in Wards 1, 3, 4 and 6 preferred in-person learning or the supervised CARE program. Ward 7 had the highest percentage of parents preferring virtual learning at 70%. Ward 3 had the lowest percentage of parents preferring virtual learning at 30% and the highest in-person learning percentage at 57%. In sixth through 12th grades, more than half of families in Wards 5, 7 and 8 preferred all-virtual learning, while more than half of families in Ward 3 preferred in-person learning. Wards 5 and 7 tied for the highest percentage of parents preferring virtual learning at 71%. Ward 3 had the highest percentage of parents preferring in-person learning at 62%. Parents with students in ninth grade preferred in-person learning the most at 53%. The highest percent of parents wanting virtual learning was in seventh grade at 67%. For parents with students in grades pre-K through fifth, one in five families reported that it is important to them that their child keeps their teacher and they will not send their child to school if the teacher changes depending on the subject. Information from this survey is being used to gauge feelings around learning at home, technology, health commitments, communications and engagement, according to DCPS. The school district said it will continue to gather data and share reports through January. DCPS partnered with Trendency Research, an independent research firm, to conduct the survey. Parents can login and answer the survey at any time, as there is no deadline, according to DCPS.
The nonprofit Fairfax Water is offering help to customers struggling to pay their water bills during the coronavirus pandemic. The water utility said eligible residents must apply for financial assistance via the COVID-19 Municipal Utility Relief Program by Wednesday, Dec. 30. Fairfax Water is working with Fairfax County, the City of Falls Church and the City of Fairfax to administer funds received from the state. The Prince William County Service Authority, that county’s water utility, is also offering financial aid for customers who have suffered a loss of income during the coronavirus pandemic with unpaid water bills from March 1-Dec. 30. The deadline in Prince William County is 5 p.m. on Jan. 21. Virginia had planned on ending a moratorium on utility disconnections for missed payments in October, but it has been extended indefinitely, according to Susan Miller, a spokesperson for Fairfax Water.
Gaithersburg-based Novavax on Monday started the Phase 3 trial of its COVID-19 vaccine in the United States and Mexico. It is the fifth company to launch a large-scale trial of a coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. The trial for the vaccine candidate, known as NVX-CoV2373, will evaluate safety, efficacy and immune response in up to 30,000 people age 18 and older. It builds on Phase 1/2 studies that demonstrated that the vaccine provoked an immune response and appeared to be safe. The trial is examining whether the vaccine prevents COVID-19 symptoms, as well as moderate or severe COVID-19 symptoms. All participants will be followed for 24 months following their second injection. Two-thirds of participants will be assigned to randomly receive two injections of vaccine administered 21 days apart, the remaining one-third will receive a placebo. The trials sites are in locations that currently have high transmission rates “to accelerate the accumulation of positive cases that could show efficacy,” a press release said. Novavax said it aims for at least 25% of the study population to be age 65 or older, at least 15% to be Black, at least 10%-20% Latinx and 1%-2% American Indian. “With the COVID-19 pandemic raging around the globe, this trial is a critical step in building the global portfolio of safe and effective vaccines to protect the world’s population,” Stanley C. Erck, president and CEO of Novavax, said in the press release. The trial is being funded with up to $1.6 billion from Operation Warp Speed. Novavax is also currently conducting a Phase 3 clinical study in the United Kingdom, a Phase 2b trial in South Africa and a Phase 1/2 continuation in the U.S. and Australia, data from which are expected as soon as early first quarter 2021. Two vaccines, from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, have received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Both began Phase 3 trials in the U.S. in July and enrolled more than 30,000 participants. Both are two dose vaccines and have been shown to have 95% and 94.1% efficacy respectively.
AstraZeneca began the Phase 3 U.S. trial of its coronavirus vaccine in September. Johnson & Johnson, which is testing a single-dose vaccine, expects efficacy results from its Phase 3 trial by January or February.
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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.