Local Schools Mull CDC Change to 3 Feet
COVID-19 Cases Reach 1,045,936 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Saturday morning, 43,175 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 1,049 deaths; there have been 399,016 cases in Maryland with 7,973 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 603,745 cases with 10,104 deaths. You can read last week’s updates here.
Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s change in guidance that students can sit 3 feet apart in the classroom as long as they wear masks, DMV schools are evaluating what it means for getting more students back into classrooms. The CDC’s revised recommendations are a change from the 6-foot standard that has sharply limited how many students schools can accommodate, leading to some having to remove desks, stagger schedules and take other steps to keep children apart. A D.C. Public Schools spokesman said district officials are waiting for D.C. Health to update its guidance to “evaluate how to operationalize these changes.” Community engagement and the safety of student are priorities. “It remains our firm belief that the best place for students to learn is in the classroom,” the spokesperson said. At Arlington Public Schools, Supt. Francisco Duran said Tuesday that APS will continue with its current hybrid model until the end of this school year, in accordance with current health and safety guidance. But with the CDC announcement, the Arlington Parents for Education group is calling to align with the new guidelines and “immediately apply the revised recommendations.” The group said that APS is “out of step” with the current health and safety guidance, especially since Virginia guidance had allowed 3 feet of distance even before CDC move. The group Smart Restart APS, a coalition of parents and teachers, said that both 3 feet and 6 feet guidelines are arbitrary. “Small airborne particles — that can be inhaled — travel either distance easily,” the group said. Smart Restart APS said that more distance is associated with reducing risk, and reducing capacity does reduce the probability or risk of the virus in each classroom. The group is petitioning the school district to hold lunch and breakfast outdoors every day. Arlington students will be able to return to the classroom five days a week in the fall, if they choose. Baltimore County teacher and Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost said schools have to be careful when it comes to loosening protocols surrounding social distancing. “The totality of the new social distancing guidance must be taken into consideration, as the CDC still recommends 6 feet of distancing in many different school settings and activities,” Bost said. “This is not a call to immediately abandon social distancing and thorough mitigation procedures in all schools, and we must be cautious to properly adhere to all guidance and respond to conditions on the ground in our communities.”
Virginia Commonwealth University was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament hours before its first-round game Saturday after several players tested positive for COVID-19. The NCAA announced the cancellation, officially declaring a “no contest,” about three hours before the No. 10 Rams were set to take on No. 7 Oregon in the West Region. VCU’s players got the news after their pregame meal. “It was devastating. It was heartbreaking. No dry eyes. This is what you dream of as a college player and a coach. To get it taken away like this, it’s just a heartbreaking moment in their young lives,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said. “It just stinks. There’s no way I can sugarcoat it.” VCU athletic director Ed McLaughlin declined to say which players tested positive, citing privacy concerns. There were several positive tests over two days, which is why the Rams had to forfeit, while other schools were able to play first-round games after a single COVID-19 case. “I just shake my head to think we did all the right things all the way through,” McLaughlin said. “I want to make clear that this is not something where our team broke protocol and did the wrong thing. We don’t know how this happened, but it certainly wasn’t because of bad behavior.” Richmond-based VCU is a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference and best known in men’s basketball for a surprising run to the 2011 Final Four as an 11th seed. A year after the tournament was scrapped completely last year, the NCAA was hoping to get through March Madness, reducing arena capacities to 22% or less and hosting the whole tournament in Indiana instead of hosting games around the country. Players were required to return seven negative COVID tests before arriving, then placed in downtown hotels with restricted movements. It created what it called a “controlled environment,” limiting teams to the hotel, the nearby convention center for practices and the minor league baseball stadium across the street for fresh air. All teams were declared healthy at Tuesday night’s deadline for allowing schools to be replaced in the bracket. Once that passed, however, no substitutes were allowed. The NCAA said it would allow a team to take the floor with as few as five players. In VCU’s case, NCAA spokesman David Worlock wrote in an email: “With potential risks to all involved in the game, we could not guarantee or be comfortable that five or more players would be available without risk.” The NCAA said it made the decision to drop VCU in consultation with the local health department. The Rams lost the Atlantic 10 title game but made it into the tournament as an at-large team. They were 19-7 heading into Saturday. Now their postseason is over, without the chance to actually play in the Big Dance.
Gym membership cancellations skyrocketed since the pandemic began last year, and many members don’t plan to return. About a third of gym members have no intention of ever returning, according to a survey sports company RunRepeat. The survey polled more than 11,000 gym members globally and found that 71% of respondents aren’t exercising at their gyms, whether they still have a membership or not. Of international respondents, 28% said they don’t plan on ever returning. The U.S. had the most respondents — 35% — who said they won’t ever return, even after being vaccinated. Local gym goers who answered the survey shared similar results. About 39% of Marylanders said they don’t plan on returning, while another 39% said they would return once their friends and family get vaccinated. The number of people who plan on returning unconditionally was about 22%. A majority of Virginians — 72% — said they would return after being vaccinated, but the other 28% said they will not go back. The findings show gyms still have a long way to go until they can expect to see pre-pandemic numbers. The experts over at RunRepeat said the longer the vaccination process takes, the more gyms will likely close permanently and for a new normal to take over.
Kiss Tavern, 637 T St. NW, a restaurant and hookah lounge in Shaw, is the first business to lose its liquor license for violating the city’s COVID-19 rules repeatedly and trying to evade enforcement. According to a March 17 D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration order, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board issued a notice to Kiss from D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine’s office on March 9. The notice suspends Kiss’ liquor license for violating “various emergency rules and orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic” on Jan. 27 and Jan. 29. It alleges that on those dates, the bar failed to enforce the city’s mask mandate, operated after permitted hours, failed to comply with social distancing guidelines and allowed patrons to smoke hookah, among other violations. Kiss’ owner, Eyob Asbeha, denied nearly all the allegations made by ABRA. “All of them are false,” Asbeha said of ABRA’s allegations. He said that Kiss did permit smoking hookah, but also claimed that other businesses in D.C. have also allowed hookah services during the pandemic. Under Mayor Muriel Bowser’s current executive order, hookah lounges must remain closed unless they are licensed as a food establishment by ABRA. At the time of the violations, Bowser’s order also required alcohol sales to end at 10 p.m. ABRA’s order said that on Jan. 29, an undercover investigator “observed some customers smoking hookah and did not observe any food being served.” The order also charges that, “despite being after 10 p.m., the investigator observed full shots at various tables.” The order also alleged that Kiss violated the city’s indoor dining laws by allowing more than 25 people inside the establishment on Jan. 29. According to Bowser’s order, a restaurant cannot allow more than 25% of its occupancy load inside, and Kiss has an occupancy load of 99 people. Later in the evening, after more ABRA investigators and Metropolitan Police Department officer arrived, the order said they observed a crowd of unmasked patrons standing and sitting near a bar, and tables with more than six people that were not spaced six feet apart. According to Asbeha, the investigation on Jan. 29 followed a visit from ABRA investigators two days earlier in which no violations were found. In the order, ABRA noted that it focused its case on the violations witnessed on Jan. 29. Asbeha presented his defense to the board on March 10, but the board did not “find them persuasive,” according to the order. In regard to the Jan. 27 incident, the board’s order notes Asbeha’s confrontation with an investigator. An ABRA spokesperson said that at no time during the hearing did Asbeha allege that any investigator was intoxicated. “The respondent indicates that he has experienced ongoing harassment from investigators and had an angry conversation with an investigator on January 27, 2021,” the order reads. “One unpleasant interaction with an investigator is not sufficient to demonstrate bias.” Asbeha alleges that the suspension of his liquor license is the latest in a pattern of targeted harassment by ABRA. In 2017, ABRA fined Kiss $1,250 for allowing alcohol consumption past 2 a.m., and in October 2020, Kiss temporarily lost its liquor license after a shooting occurred near the restaurant. ABRA alleged that Asbeha failed to cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation, and that D.C. police observed what appeared to be various instruments related to marijuana in the establishment. The suspension was later lifted after the board determined the evidence was insufficient to support its allegations. Kiss was also previously cited for not adhering to D.C.’s coronavirus restrictions in July. The board noted that “the respondent complains that the punishment requested by the government is too harsh when compared to other establishments. Nevertheless, the respondent cannot complain about different treatment when it has a history of serious violations, the ownership was involved in the violations at issue in the present action, the respondent intentionally violated the district’s COVID-19 rules and staff actively attempted to evade detection with the knowledge of ownership.” Asbeha said he will challenge the ruling.
Alexandria City Public Schools plans to offer in-person instruction five days a week next year. “This fall we’re absolutely looking and planning to have five days a week for our students,” Supt. Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. told the school board Thursday evening. A key aspect of how it will work – the distance between teachers and students — remains undecided. ACPS is preparing for two setups, Hutchings said, one that maintains six feet of distance, which is the current policy, and another that maintains just three feet. The superintendent and his staff said they are watching closely to see whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues updated guidance on that front. The CDC maintained for months that six feet is best, but on Friday updated it guidance to three feet, as growing scientific evidence suggests it is sufficient to keep students and teachers safe. Hutchings also said the school district will accommodate families who wish to keep their children learning remotely next year. He said the district is working to develop a different virtual curriculum that is more robust than its current offerings. It will be “a true virtual curriculum,” Hutchings said, “so we can still provide a rigorous and engaging learning experience” for students who remain remote.” Roughly 66% of ACPS’ 16,000 students chose online learning this semester. The remainder — a little more than 5,300 students — returned to classrooms for two days of in-person instruction each week over the past month. The district finished the transition this week when it sent roughly 3,600 students from pre-K through 12th grade into school buildings. Hutchings called the move successful during the board meeting. It has gone so smoothly, he said, that many families who originally selected remote learning are now asking to switch into the hybrid program. Whether they can do so depends in large part on the CDC: If the agency switches to recommending three feet of distance, Hutchings said, ACPS will have a much easier time sending additional students into reopened classrooms. Over the next two weeks, the district will begin planning how these additions might go, Hutchings said. The school system will have to figure out a “prioritization” mechanism, he said, because “capacity constraints” mean that there will not be enough space to return everyone who is interested in learning in-person, even using three feet of space. He also said that ACPS is determined to keep students with the same teachers, which further complicates the return. “We are going to have to look at students that are having significant social, emotional and learning needs first,” Hutchings said, as well as children with disabilities and English language learners. The decision to plan for five days a week in the fall came after all other major Northern Virginia school districts said they will do the same. This week, neighboring Loudoun County Public Schools accelerated its reopening, announcing it will begin offering in-person instruction four days a week beginning April 20. On Thursday, Hutchings also announced the district’s plans for summer school. It will be a continuation of a program the district offered last summer. Like last year, it will be free and students will be required to opt out if they do not wish to participate. Classes will run from July 6-Aug. 13. The first four weeks will be in-person for English language learners, students with disabilities, high-schoolers who failed some of their classes and those struggling socially and emotionally from pre-K through fifth grade. Other students will attend virtually, and everyone will learn remotely during the last two weeks. Last summer, the program cost $1.7 million, required three dozen new hires and involved nearly 500 teachers. Hutchings say how much this year’s program will cost, but said he is concerned that teachers may be too tired, after an exhausting year, to participate fully and well in summer school for the second summer in a row. “I think that’s the biggest thing, the exhaustion and the morale,” he said. Hutchings said he is trying to balance teachers’ weariness with the need to help students make up for the pandemic-driven learning loss.
The Montgomery County Council approved new COVID-19 rules that loosened restrictions on youth sports previously deemed high-risk as of 5 p.m. yesterday. The council approved the new rules by a 9-0 vote Friday morning. The new rules require organizers to submit COVID-19 safety plans for approval to the county health officer and require players to wear face coverings. The loosening of restrictions allows Montgomery County Public Schools’ three-game football season to move forward, with the first games scheduled for next week. In addition to MCPS, the new measures apply to organized sports leagues throughout the county. The new rules come one week after the county council approved new COVID-19 regulations that mostly kept tighter restrictions on sports such as high school football, cheerleading and pompons that were classified as high-risk in place. That drew a protest from players and parents last weekend. Under the newly-approved rules, all organized sports played indoors or outdoors can fully resume if they submit a COVID-19 protocol plan for approval by the county health officer. The plan must require all participants to wear face coverings, including while playing, under guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Participants must also maintain 6 feet of social distancing, where possible. The rules also require the use of a student attestation form or COVID-19 monitoring form for coaches and athletes for all activities and a plan for contact tracing with an attendance tracking sheet. Sports events must continue to follow capacity limits on gatherings: 50 people at outdoor events and 25 people for indoor events. For tournaments, championships or other events that are expected to exceed those limits, organizers must obtain a separate letter of approval from the county before proceeding. Spectators at events are still generally barred, according to the rules. Sports that are not played in organized leagues still need to comply with the gathering limits.
hD.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s latest executive order allows some low-contact high school sports to return to competition April 1. The order issued Thursday allows sports including baseball, softball, track and field and tennis. The order allowed the D.C. State Athletic Association to apply for a “return to play” through D.C. Health, DCSAA executive director Clark Ray said. Working with D.C. Health and the mayor’s office, DCSAA, which oversees high school sports in the city, issued new guidelines for spring play. Moderate- and high-contact sports are still prohibited in D.C., and Bowser has said she will reevaluate the health metrics in early April to decide whether that will change. Meanwhile, Ray said, any return to sports is a good thing for children who have not had the chance to play for a year. “I think the reaction is relief,” he said. “I think it’s been really devastating for our student-athletes.” He added that it was partially a matter of equity. “It has really been a divide between those who have and those who have not. If you can afford to pay, you can play — you can play AAU; you can play club sports. If you have talent, you get asked to play on these teams. And then there was a certain subset of our students who didn’t have the financial means, or hadn’t been recognized yet, who were not getting to play,” Ray said. Children are playing in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, which Ray said makes the restrictions on D.C. teen athletics harder to stomach. “We are back not on equal footing yet. But we have re-entered the playing fields, so to speak,” he said.
D.C. officials granted the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception permission to open at 25% capacity from March 29-April 5 for Holy Week services. Easter is April 4. D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Christopher Rodriguez approved the basilica’s request on March 11. It has the capacity to hold 10,000 people, which means roughly 2,500 can attend each service that week.
The section of Little Falls Parkway between Arlington and River roads in Bethesda will be closed to vehicular traffic on weekends beginning March 27. Montgomery Parks said in a press release Monday that road will be restricted to bicyclists and pedestrians from 7 a.m. Saturday to 6 p.m. Sunday. Shortly after the beginning of the pandemic last April, the parkway was closed Fridays through Sundays between Arlington Road and Massachusetts Avenue. That allowed bicyclists and pedestrians more room to exercise while ensuring social distancing. After Labor Day, the county reopened the stretch to vehicles on Fridays, and it was reopened to vehicles seven days a week in December. More than 1,000 people signed a petition opposing the decision to reopen the road to vehicles. “Over the winter, we temporarily returned Little Falls Parkway to vehicular use due to certain operational challenges. Since then, we have heard the many requests from the public to reopen it for pedestrians and bicyclists on the weekends,” said Montgomery Parks director Mike Riley.
Howard University is planning to hold a virtual commencement in May as it waits for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to issue guidance on holding in-person ceremonies. University President Wayne A.I. Frederick said that when the Bowser does issue the guidelines under which in-person graduation could take place, there will certainly be capacity limitations and other restrictions. Graduation is set for May 8, and the university had tentatively planned to hold in-person commencement that weekend for the classes of 2020 and 2021. “However, we must continue to follow the recommendations of our local health officials, whatever those recommendations might be at the time of commencement, and act in the best interest of our community’s health and safety,” Frederick said in statement. Howard held a virtual graduation last year, where college presidents, celebrities and former President Barack Obama spoke.
Maryland will move into Phase 2A of its vaccination plan next Tuesday, opening eligibility to all residents over 60. Residents 60 and older could pre-register for their appointment online starting yesterday, Gov. Larry Hogan announced during a press conference Thursday. The state will move into Phase 2B on March 30, expanding vaccine eligibility to residents 16 and older with underlying medical conditions. On April 13, the state will move into its final Phase 2 stage, vaccinating all residents 55 and older, and essential workers in industries like construction, food services, utilities, transportation and financial services. All Marylanders over 16 will be eligible no later than April 27, Hogan said, adding the state’s vaccine allotment from the federal government will increase over the coming weeks and months. Still, he reminded residents that becoming eligible for a vaccine does not guarantee an immediate appointment. “Supply will be ramping up to meet all of the demand, but to be clear, we do expect that demand will continue to outpace the supply for at least the next several weeks,” Hogan said. Regionally, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties are still working to vaccinate residents in Phases 1A, 1B, and 1C, which includes residents 65 and older, and essential workers like grocery store workers, postal service workers and teachers. According to the Maryland Department of Health’s vaccine data, about 14% of Prince Georgians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 22% of Montgomery County residents have received their first dose. Neither county indicated whether it planned to follow Hogan’s statewide directive. One year after the state reported its first death from COVID-19, Hogan said Thursday the state has administered 2 million vaccine doses — 1 million of those in the past 27 days — reaching 25% of the state’s total population and 65% of residents 65 and older. But despite making up 30% of Maryland’s population, Black residents account for only 15% of first doses, while Hispanic residents have received just 6% of Maryland’s total doses, yet make up 11% of the population. In an effort to correct the large disparities, Hogan announced several initiatives aimed at vaccinating more residents in underserved areas. In partnership with the state’s Vaccine Equity Task Force, Maryland is dedicating $12 million to bolster vaccine distribution and collaboration between hospitals and local health departments, including investing in more mobile vaccination vans and community-based vaccination clinics. The state has also selected 37 primary care practices that will begin administering vaccines to patients in underserved areas, but did not say where they would be.
As Prince George’s County Schools teachers were preparing classrooms for students to return in phases next month, the district’s CEO on Thursday laid out what the return of students will look like for county leaders. When elementary, special education and 12th grade students return to classrooms on April 8, followed by grades 7-11 on April 15, CEO Monica Goldson told the county council they will be in a hybrid learning model. “We are offering the hybrid model for students and families that literally says ‘If your last name begins with A through J, you report to school on Monday/Tuesday. And then Wednesday through Friday, you are on virtual learning. And if your last name is K through Z, you report to school on Thursday/Friday and your virtual learning experience is Monday/Wednesday,’” she said Thursday. With each school expecting 32% of its students to return to in-person learning on average, Goldson said the hybrid model will limit the number of students in classrooms to allow distancing in schools. Goldson outlined PGCPS’ starting dates that departed from the deadline the state board of education set for all students to return to some form of in-person learning by March 1. Goldson said she spoke with the state superintendent about the county’s back-to-school plan. When students return, each building will have a COVID-19 compliance committee to ensure it is adhering to safety guidelines. Each school will also have a “care room” where students and staff who are exposed to coronavirus or exhibit symptoms can go for isolation and to rest. “We have implemented a frontline education mobile app that allows our staff daily to answer very strategic questions around whether they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, what their temperature is, and if they’ve been around others who’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or they received a recent positive test around COVID,” Goldson said. HVAC operations have increased, and schools will turn on their air conditioning systems hours before the students arrive to get air circulating, she said. The district also purchased 3,000 air filtration machines that will be placed in classrooms and early childhood centers. “We have already installed barriers at our point of sale locations in our cafeterias and that point of sale is where our students who are getting their lunches would punch in, when we were in normal situations, their PIN number,” she said.
The Prince William Health District opened up COVID-19 vaccinations to everyone in Phase 1B in advance of a mass vaccination site opening in the county next week. The health district had previously made food and agriculture workers, manufacturing workers and grocery store employees eligible for vaccinations. Public transit workers and rideshare drivers, USPS and private mail carriers, officials necessary to maintain the continuity of government, clergy and faith leaders, and janitorial and cleaning employees are also now eligible. Everyone aged 65 and older and those between ages 16 and 64 with underlying health conditions also remain eligible. All vaccinations are by appointment only. To register visit vaccinate.virginia.gov or call 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-829-4682). Several smaller health districts in the commonwealth moved out of Phase 1B and into Phase 1C, which includes additional essential employees in other professions, such as energy, construction and the media. Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, said last week he expects all Virginia health districts to be in Phase 1C by mid-April with a goal of making all Virginians eligible for vaccines before President Joe Biden’s May 1 deadline. The new vaccination clinic is expected open in the former Gander Mountain store near Potomac Mills Mall. The high-volume clinics are organized by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and Virginia Department of Health working with local health districts. They are funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and operated by a contractor. The Prince William clinic is expected to administer up to 3,000 vaccine doses a day.
Serology tests Northern Virginia children to determine whether they have ever been infected with the coronavirus show positivity rates twice that of adults. The study was conducted by the Virginia Department of Health, Inova Health System and George Mason University from July-October 2020 with more than 1,000 children ages 19 and younger. “The pediatric serology project unexpectedly found more children were seropositive than we had anticipated,” said Dr. Rebecca Levorson, division director for Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Inova Children’s Hospital, in a press release Thursday. The overall antibody positivity rate in children was 8.5%, while a study of Virginia adults revealed a COVID-19 antibody positivity rate of 4.4%. The study found children who identify as Hispanic were disproportionally impacted. Antibody positivity rates by race were Hispanic children, 26.6%; children with multiple racial origins, 16.2%; Asian children, 5.7%; Black children, 5.3%; and white children, 8.2%. Antibody positivity rate by age were 5 and younger, 13.7%; 6-10 years old, 7.5%; 11-15 years old, 5.1%; and 16-19 years old, 10.8%. Levorson is concerned about children silently spreading the virus to others, because 66% of those with antibodies were asymptomatic. “Most of these children did not have symptoms, which makes it difficult to know who may be infectious and who is not at a specific time. Nearly a quarter of the U.S. population is children, and as they may represent a larger proportion of [COVID-19] than we previously thought, we need to recognize that children will continue to be infected with and possibly asymptomatically spread this disease,” Levorson said. “As we continue to fight this pandemic, we need to consider ways to protect [children] and others by using the tools we have available to us, including masking, social distancing and vaccination.”
The University of Maryland School of Medicine will host one of the national trials of the Moderna vaccine to determine the efficacy and effects in children from 6 months to 11 years old. The Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have not yet been tested on children. The trial will consist of two stages. First, researchers will test the dosage to determine if children need the same amount or less vaccine than adults. Once the best dosage has been found, a double-blind study will be held to determine the efficacy and potential side effects of administering the vaccine to children. Before the university could advertise the study, it began to receive calls from parents hoping to get their children enrolled. “Until you get approval from your review board or ethics committee to start, you can’t do any advertising or recruiting, and so we’ve not started telling people that we are recruiting for the study. But despite that it’s been out there that we will be one of the sites. So we’ve gotten quite a number of families that have put their names on … a contact list being as to be called once we are activated,” said Dr. James Campbell, a professor of pediatrics. About 90 sites in the U.S. and Canada will participate in the study, with more than 6,000 kids expected to take part. Campbell said that not all families who have reached out so far will participate, as many may rethink enrolling their childen once they learn the amount of responsibility that participation entails. “It’s a commitment … it’s six in-person visits, and it’s multiple telephone calls, and it’s filling out diaries, and when children are sick throughout the whole year, you have to be evaluated to make sure that they don’t have COVID; they have to get their blood drawn multiple times,” Campbell said. “I think until parents get to hear what enrollment entails, that’s when they’ll be able to make the decision.” While early data suggests children do not get COVID-19 as severely as adults, Campbell said it is still a very serious illness in children. “I think it is true that if you compare the caseload and the severity of disease of COVID in children to COVID in adults, that it’s more mild … but if you compare COVID in children to other infectious diseases in children, it’s a very severe disease,” he said. About 3 million cases have been reported in children in the U.S., with more than 12,000 hospitalizations and more than 260 deaths.
“That surpasses — by far — the year with the highest number of deaths due to influenza virus in children,” Campbell said. There have also been several cases where children develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) after contracting COVID-19. Campbell said the vaccine would protect children from that and decrease the likelihood that children pass the virus to others. He said trials are important because without vaccinating children, America will fall well short of the estimated 80% vaccination rate needed to achieve herd immunity. “If every single adult said that they were gonna get the COVID vaccine, you could still — at maximum — hit 76% of the U.S. population,” he said. “So when people in the past have said ‘Every American,’ — children are Americans too.” A study by manufacturers Moderna and Pfizer is currently underway on the vaccine’s effectiveness on children between 12-16 years old. While no timeline has been established yet, Campbell said his hope is for kids in that age range to be able to get vaccinated before the next school year begins. “I think it’s possible that we could have those two vaccines available outside of research and to the public … by the summer time or some time before next school year,” he said. The study that the University of Maryland is participating in will take longer than that because of the age of the participants. Campbell expects kids in their age range likely won’t be vaccinated until the start of the 2022 school year or later.
Some jurisdictions in Virginia will move to the next phase of the commonwealth’s vaccination plan this week, expanding eligibility to more essential workers, but most Northern Virginia jurisdictions will remain in their current phases. The Virginia Department of Health issued a statement Tuesday announcing that some local health districts could begin Phase 1C, opening appointments to essential workers like restaurant employees and members of the media. Northern Virginia won’t make the move, as local health districts continue to work through the thousands of eligible Phase 1B residents and essential employees still waiting for vaccines. Phase 1A included health care workers and nursing home residents, while Phase 1B includes residents over 65, residents age 16-64 with underlying medical conditions and essential workers like grocery store employees, teachers and public transportation workers, among others. Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties, and the city of Alexandria are among the Norther Virginia jurisdictions still working through Phase 1B, and not moving to Phase 1C this week. On Wednesday morning, Fairfax County announced that Phase 1B cohorts that were not yet eligible in the county can now register for vaccinations. They include food and agricultural workers, manufacturing employees and grocery stores workers. Prince William County expanded eligibility to those groups last week, and Arlington County opened eligibility to them in a phased approach throughout February and mid-March. Alexandria did the same. “We’ll move into 1C after those already eligible are notified to schedule – I can’t really speculate on a timeline,” said Cara O’Donnell, Arlington’s action public information officer. “Of course, it’s all dependent on the vaccine supply we receive.” Following the VDH’s announcement, Alexandria issued a press release on the city’s move to Phase 1C. “Alexandria continues to make strides in vaccinating residents and essential workers, but [the Alexandria Health Department] has nearly 20,000 pre-registrants in Phase 1B on the waitlist who have not yet been contacted or vaccinated,” the press release said. “ADH anticipates moving into Phase 1C in the next 3-4 weeks depending on an adequate supply of vaccine.” VDH’s statement called for all localities to move into Phase 1C of rollout by mid-April, and the department expects all residents over age 16 to be eligible for a vaccination by May 1 in line with
All adult D.C. residents can pre-register for a vaccination appointment, even if they aren’t currently eligible for a shot in the city’s phased plan. During a call with D.C. council members on Wednesday, D.C. Health officials said that any adult resident should sign-up through the city’s pre-registration system — a reverse from D.C. Health’s original request that only eligible residents register so the website wasn’t overwhelmed. However, pre-registering won’t guarantee an appointment any time soon. Eligibility for all residents ages 16 and older will begin May 1, according an announcement from D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt on Monday. Launched last week, the pre-registration website came after weeks of technical glitches in the city’s first-come, first-served sign-up portal. As of March 14, 114,815 residents had pre-registered on the new site, with nearly 20,000 appointments booked through the new system last week. More than 33,000 non-eligible residents pre-registered on the portal on the first day it launched. Currently, residents 65 and older, residents ages 16-64 with chronic medical conditions and certain essential workers are eligible for vaccination appointments. Starting this week, the city expanded its essential worker eligibility to include court and legal services staff, frontline mass transit workers, U.S. Portal Services employees and food service workers.
There have been conflicting messages about a proposed COVID-19 mass vaccination site in Montgomery County with county officials insisting a new site will open on Montgomery College’s Germantown campus by the end of the month and Gov. Larry Hogan calling the announcement premature. “It’s going to happen,” said Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, during a press conference Wednesday. But county officials are depending on the state to supply the vaccine required to give thousands of vaccinations a day. When Stoddard discussed the plans for the site during a council meeting Tuesday morning, he billed it as a partnership between the county, Holy Cross Health and the Maryland Department of Health. He said the initial goal is for the county to get the site up and running by April 1 and to work out all the logistical kinks by April 15, when the site would be capable of administering up to 3,000 vaccinations per day if the state commits enough vaccine. “We’re going to get the initial site set up before April 1 and then expand on to it with additional capacity,” Stoddard said. The county set an April 1 deadline in part because it has to relocate existing vaccine clinics at Richard Montgomery High School and Quince Orchard High School as students return to classrooms. While Hogan and acting Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader maintain that no final decisions have been made about the state’s commitment to the site, Stoddard said Wednesday the MDH and the Maryland National Guard have been assisting with designing and building the site. That includes plans to boost wifi on the campus and helping to set up the Salesforce platform the state uses to schedule appointments at its other mass vaccination sites. “I just want to make it clear we’re getting great support from the state agencies across the board,” Stoddard said. County lawmakers have been pushing the state for weeks to open a mass vaccine site in the state’s largest county. Earlier Wednesday, Schrader said MDH was focused on opening the first round of the mass vaccination sites it has planned across the state before considering additional sites. In addition to the four locations that have already opened, including Six Flags America in neighboring Prince George’s County, two other large-scale vaccination sites are set to open in Salisbury on the Eastern Shore later this week and in Hagerstown next week. While thousands of Montgomery County residents have been vaccinated at one of the other mass vaccination sites, County Executive Marc Elrich said, “it’s not easy [for county residents] to get to these sites,” noting that a trip to the Regency Furniture Stadium site in Waldorf is a 114-mile round trip. Hogan said Tuesday the state is in talks with “four or five” large counties about launching additional mass vaccination sites, but said no decisions had been made and suggested the final decision was dependent on greater clarity from the federal government about the increase in vaccine supply the state will receive. Stoddard understands the governor’s hesitancy about over-promising a new mass vaccine site before having more doses in hand. “He rightfully cannot overcommit the vaccine that he does not have,” Stoddard said of the governor. But if the state doesn’t boost the county’s allocation of doses beyond the 6,600 the health department currently receives, a mass vaccination site “doesn’t make sense,” Stoddard said. “If there’s not going to be any more doses, there’s not going to be a need for a mass vaccination site.” Conversely, Elrich said, “I could stand up a mass vax site before April 15 if somebody would drop the doses on us.” County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said the county is continuing to plan for other ways besides the Germantown site to distribute the vaccine. “We are not putting all of our eggs into one basket, into Germantown,” Gayles said. “We are going to stand up vaccine opportunities at multiple other sites as well, to be able to increase contact points for our residents to be able to access.”
Virginia schools, colleges and universities will be able to hold in-person graduation ceremonies this year under tentative plans unveiled Wednesday. The plans have been reviewed with education officials, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said in a press release, and they are expected to be made official April 1, when the governor updates his executive order regarding pandemic restrictions. Outdoor events will be capped at 5,000 people or 30% of capacity, whichever is less, while indoor events will be capped at 500 people or 30%, whichever is less. Masks and social distancing will also be required. “We are releasing this guidance early to allow schools to begin planning for this year’s events,” Northam said in the press release. “While graduation and commencement ceremonies will still be different than they were in the past, this is a tremendous step forward for all of our schools, our graduates and their families.” More than two-thirds of Virginia’s teachers and school staff have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Northam’s office said. James Lane, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, said in the press release that he believes in-person instruction “will be the norm in every Virginia school division this fall.”
Almost half of D.C. teachers have considered leaving the profession because of the pandemic. More than 1,000 teachers from 185 D.C. schools took an online survey in late-January and early-February asking how they and their students have handled the pandemic. Slightly more than 43% of the teachers from every D.C. Public School and most of the city’s public charter schools said the switch to virtual learning has been so difficult, they have considered quitting. “This statistic alone is very alarming, but there is more,” D.C. State Board of Education President Zachary Parker said during a meeting Wednesday night. According to the survey, teachers found students in Wards 7 and 8 were less engaged in virtual lessons than students in other wards. More than three-quarters of the teachers said their students have internet access that is either too slow or unreliable for virtual learning. Of the more than 360 teachers who were asked how they felt about returning to in-person learning, 75.2% said they were slightly or very uncomfortable about it. “I’d also note that the survey did find some promising and bright spots,” Parker said. More than 85% of teachers said they have been collaborating regularly with others since virtual learning began, and 90% said they are comfortable using the technology needed for virtual classes. The state board voted unanimously to adopt the report, which will be used to develop ways to better support and retain teachers. On average, 25% of teachers in DCPS and public charter schools leave every year. “Since 2018, the state board has sought to better understand teacher retention and its implications for District students and schools, and what policies could be implemented to help teachers stay and improve,” Parker said. Other results include 55% of teachers said the social and emotional well-being of their students is worse in 2021 than it was in 2020. Also, 32% of teachers said they have been able to cover the same amount of content during virtual learning that they did in-person before the pandemic. And most teachers believe at least 20 more minutes of teaching time is needed in science, social studies, the arts and social-emotional learning. The state board will host an online discussion of the survey results from noon-1 p.m. today on Instagram Live and take questions from the public.
Loudoun County Public Schools students enrolled in the district’s hybrid learning model will begin attending in-person classes four days a week on April 20. Interim Supt. Scott A. Ziegler said in a video message posted Wednesday that there will be modified mitigation strategies, including social distancing of three feet instead of six feet between students. “It is important that we offer our students the best possible education in the safest environment we can create,” Ziegler said in the video. “Both our in-person and our distance learning students will continue to receive high-quality instruction to meet our mission of empowering all students to make meaningful contributions to the world. With the continued cooperation of our students and parents, I know that we will be successful as we pass this important milestone in our collective journey on April 20.” LCPS released a FAQ document on the new plan. “The past year has been difficult for us all, but I hope this step will bring us all a little closer to the normalcy that we crave,” Ziegler said in a note to parents.
The Prince William County School Board directed Supt. Steve Walts to prepare a plan to bring students back into classrooms five days a week in the fall. The board asked Walts, who will retire at the end of this school year, and his staff to prepare and present by May 5 a reopening plan for the 2021-22 school year. The plan needs to provide in-person instruction full-time five days a week for all students in all grade levels. Board members also asked that the plan provide an option for 100% virtual instruction for all students in all grade levels.
Individual taxpayers have until May 17 to file their federal taxes this year. The Internal Revenue Service announced the change late Wednesday. The IRS said the change was made to allow filers more time to navigate tax situations complicated by the coronvirus pandemic. Last year, the IRS moved the deadline to July 15, giving Americans an additional three months to file their taxes. Taxpayers in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas have until June 15 to file due to the February winter storms. Even though the IRS extended its deadline, that doesn’t mean individual states will. If they don’t, filers in those states may need to file by April 15 anyway, unless they file for an automatic extension. That is because states often use one’s federal adjusted gross income or federal taxable income as the starting point to determine a filer’s income subject to state taxes. At the moment, Maryland is the only state to have extended its filing deadline to July 15.
As the cherry blossoms near their peak bloom – expected between April 2-5 — this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, which kicks off Saturday, will be a mix of in-person and virtual events. Like last year, officials are encouraging people not to come in mass to the Tidal Basin to see the blossoms. “This year it will not be safe for thousands of people to gather, as we have in years past,” said John Falcicchio, D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, at a press conference earlier this month. But after a full year of the pandemic, people will likely flock to the Tidal Basin, particularly as the DMV’s vaccine rollout picks up steam. Last year, when the trees bloomed just days after the pandemic set in, officials pleaded with the public not to visit. “Stay home,” Mayor Muriel Bowser asked at the time, “Don’t treat this like a normal weekend.” But people still showed up in droves. Soon, access to the Tidal Basin was limited and then essentially shut down. This year, officials are admitting that the same thing may happen again. “I think what we learned from last year is that, at some point, it really gets hard to mitigate the crowds,” Falcicchio said. “If a crowd gathering cannot be thinned out, then the potential is there for the area to be closed off [again].” He isn’t the only person signaling that there is a very good possibility the Tidal Basin may be closed off. “We don’t want to have a repeat of last year,” National Park Service Supt. Jeff Reinbold said at a press conference on March 1. “Are there ways to let people in early in the morning or limiting access? Or is the prudent thing to do is just to close the entire site?” NPS spokesperson Mike Litterst said the no decision has been made as of yet about how, when or if the Tidal Basin will be open to visitors this year. NPS is currently “evaluating a full range of options and hope to make an announcement soon.” Litterst also said 2020 was less than ideal. “We want to avoid a repeat of last year, with large crowds gathering around the Tidal Basin, as the narrow walkways around [the basin] do not provide ample space for social distancing and access points create choke points,” he said. But after a year of the pandemic, it may be harder than ever to discourage people from taking a chance to get outdoors in the warmer weather, be among people and latch onto a sense of normalcy. The Cherry Blossom Festival is also a huge economic driver for the city as well as the beginning of tourism season. Normally, more than 1.5 million people come for the festival while generating more than $100 million in revenue. After a banner decade, 2020 was a disaster on both fronts. Destination D.C., the city’s tourism marketing organization, estimated that visitation to the cherry blossoms fell by 57% last year from 2019, resulting in a loss of nearly $5 billion dollars in spending and $375 million in tax revenue. Hotel revenue also fell 87%. Meanwhile, hundreds of local businesses have shut down since last March. While Destination D.C. is not actively encouraging tourists to visit D.C. during cherry blossom season, they aren’t discouraging it either. “There’s a fundamental difference between making a recommendation not to come and the realization that the city is open,” said Elliott Ferguson, Destination D.C.’s president and CEO. “There’s no padlock on the interstates prohibiting people from physically coming in … people will still choose to come.” He said metrics like hotel occupancy, average room rates and communication with Destination D.C. points towards tourism being up in 2021. “We’re anticipating that we’ll be doing far better than we did last year, but that’s still relative,” Ferguson said. Meanwhile, city officials are promoting other in-person, outdoor alternatives, such as Art in Bloom, a series of 26 five-foot-tall blossom sculptures painted by local artists that are scattered across the DMV including National Harbor and National Landing. Also, there is the Petal Porch Parade, a collection of decorated porches scattered throughout the city. Cherry blossom trees also grow at a number of other places in the city, including the National Arboretum, Hains Point and Foxhall Village. Visiting those locations instead of the Tidal Basin, Falcicchio said, will provide a more enjoyable and safer experience. “Your cherry blossom photo that you want to post on Instagram is going to look just as vibrant if you do it at Oxon Run Park than if you’re standing next to a cherry tree at the Tidal Basin,” he said. “Rest assured, the cherry blossoms will bloom again next year. Hopefully, we will be through the pandemic at that point and we can all celebrate together.”
Gov. Larry Hogan on Monday banned debt collectors from garnishing Marylanders’ latest round of federal stimulus checks. Under Hogan’s latest order, financial institutions must consider American Rescue Plan stimulus checks as “protected and cannot be subject to a court-ordered garnishment,” according to a press release. “For more than a year now, COVID-19 has caused incredible hardships for the people of our nation and our state,” Hogan said in the release. “This funding is intended to support working families and struggling Marylanders, and we are committed to doing everything possible to protect this much-needed relief for those who need it most.” Starting today, roughly 2.5 million Maryland households will see direct stimulus payments as part of the American Rescue Plan, totaling $6.25 billion, according to an outline of the plan from Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin. Individuals earning up to $75,000 and joint tax filers earning up to $150,000 will be eligible for the maximum payments of $1,400 for individuals and $2,800 for joint filers. Eligible dependents will also qualify for stimulus checks. Garnishments for child support are exempt from Hogan’s order. The executive order mirrors protections Hogan put in place during the first round of federal stimulus payments last April.
A “super-size” vaccine clinic is opening in the former Gander Mounrain store near Potomac Mills Mall in Woodbridge next week. The Virginia Department of Health did not provide a specific opening date. Walmart used the site for four days to distribute vaccine. About 3,000 people daily will be able to be vaccinated at the site when it opens, Prince William Health District director Dr. Alison Ansher said. The site will ramp up to 6,000 vaccinations each day. The Community Vaccination Centers that the health department is opening across the state are geared toward delivering COVID-19 vaccinations on a larger scale. CVC events are by appointment only. Residents who have registered for a vaccination will be contacted to make an appointment. To preregister, visit vaccinate.virginia.gov or call the COVID-19 Vaccine Hotline at 1-877-VAX-IN-VA (1-877-829-4682). VDH said people with appointments should arrive no more than 20 minutes prior to their appointment since they will not be allowed in early. No walk-ins will be accepted at this time. People should take a copy of their invitation (email, text, barcode) or proof of their name when they arrive at the site.
Fewer Marylanders are skipping their second COVID-19 vaccine dose than in just about any other state in the nation. According to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Tuesday, just 1.7% of the state’s residents failed to return for a second dose of their Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. That was the seventh lowest rate in the U.S., well below the national average of 3%. The CDC defines a missed second dose as one that hasn’t been administered within 42 days of the first. The recommended interval between doses is 21 days for Pfizer-BioNTech and 28 days for Moderna, the agency said. Up to 42 days between doses is permissible when a delay is “unavoidable.” Both vaccines have extraordinarily high rates of success in protecting people from COVID-19, well above 90%. Although the first dose offers significant protection, people need the second to receive maximum protection, public health experts have said. “We have a robust system in which we are reminding people” to return for the second shot, said Maryland Deputy Health Secretary Bryan I. Mroz. “We fully utilize all of the both print and electronic methods to remind people of their appointments, and they’ve responded.” The newly-released Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires a single dose. Although it has a slightly lower effectiveness rate, the lack of a follow-up visit is a plus, particularly for certain populations, health officials have said. Louisiana has the lowest reported number of missed second doses in the nation at 0.9%. Kentucky (5.4%), Massachusetts (6.6%) and Virginia (7.8%) have the most missed second doses in the nation. In D.C., 4% of residents missed their second dose
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan joined Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks for a tour of the latest COVID-19 vaccination site at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden. Hogan said that he had just been in touch with the White House, and starting next month, the state could expect a fairly dramatic increase in the number of vaccine doses it received. “All we need is the vaccines, and the good news is the month of April is going to look a whole lot different from the month of March,” Hogan said. He didn’t say exactly when the state would open up additional vaccination appointments but said an announcement could come soon. Hogan has warned about opening up more appointments when vaccines remain in short supply. “We made a request of the governor that he would make this site available to us, and that he would also set aside appointments at Six Flags, and he honored both of those requests,” Alsobrooks said. The county had been criticized for failing to administer vaccines it had been allotted by the state. “We were No. 23 in terms of administering the vaccine — we’re now at No. 3” statewide, she said. Vaccination rates among Black and Latino residents have trailed those of other groups in the state. During their tour, Hogan and Alsobrooks discussed the issue and thanked the church’s pastor, John K. Jenkins Sr., for encouraging people to get their vaccinations. She thanks Jenkins for making the location available. “It is a place where the community feels comfortable; it is trusted,” Alsobrooks said.
Students in Fairfax County Public Schools will return to five days of in-person instruction this fall. FCPS is the latest Northern Virginia school district to approve a pre-pandemic learning schedule. District officials also announced during a work session Tuesday the school district will bring all grade levels — more than 109,000 students and staff — back for in-person instruction this week. Students currently learning in-person must continue attending classes or return to online learning by March 26. Virtual students have the option of requesting a switch to in-person until the same day. Additional openings may be made later depending on capacity and available resources. The return to in-person classes in Fairfax County is marked by a decrease in COVID-19 transmission rates, an increase in the availability of protective equipment and additional staff vaccinations. FCPS Supt. Scott Brabrand said the school system had almost no virus transmission since reopening earlier this year. School data shows more than 99% of students and staff currently scheduled to return to in-person classes — more than 86,000 people — have tested negative for COVID-19. Only 19 cases have been reported between Jan. 26-March 15. A majority of staff and school employees who wanted a COVID-19 vaccine have been vaccinated. However, virtual learning is still popular among families. In Ocober, 56% of district families said they prefer virtual instruction and 47% said they prefer in-person instruction. Brabrand said FCPS will phase out hybrid learning by fall, with limited availability next year, but wants to be mindful of the school system’s most vulnerable students by slowly transitioning to in-person instruction. “Many of our most impacted and most vulnerable kids did worse [this year],” Brabrand said. “And we need to go back five days if we want to get them back to their educational careers.” As of March, a majority of Asian and Black families surveyed by the school district opted for virtual learning, with a near-even split among families from Hispanic, American-Indian and multiple racial backgrounds. Brabrand said hybrid learning could still play a role in the school’s learning model post-pandemic through an in-house model. Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam called for schools to offer in-person learning options by March 15, and Virginia Democrats followed suit with a bill requiring five days of in-person instruction least 15 hours a week. School officials found student stress increased from fall 2019, especially among high school students, who reported a 15% increase. FCPS plans to have in-person graduation this year, with school officials awaiting further guidance from Northam before planning more in-person events. The grading scale will also change. Students can choose a “pass” instead of a letter grade in two classes and will receive a “no mark” instead of an F. Those who fail a class can retake the class in summer school, which acts as a fifth term. Similarly, final exams will only raise a student’s grade point average. Some parents are concerned that such a change could debase grades. “Grading inflation is one thing, grading inequity is another,” Brabrand said. Summer school will be in-person this year. Brabrand said the district is allocating 10 times more funding for this year’s summer program. Elsewhere in Virginia, Loudoun and Arlington Public Schools also plan to return to five-day in-person classes this fall. In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools has approved a full week in-person learning schedule for the start of the upcoming academic year.
Beginning May 1, all D.C. residents 16 and older will be eligible to pre-register for COVID-19 vaccinations. The guidance announced Monday by D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt aligns with President Joe Biden’s goal to open vaccine eligibility to all groups by May. While everyone will be eligible, many won’t get their actual vaccinations until weeks or months later, officials cautioned, due to a lack of supply. “These individuals, depending again on our vaccine supply, may begin to receive appointments within the week of their eligibility,” Nesbitt said. “But again, that is contingent on our vaccine supply.” In the meantime, D.C. is opening eligibility to additional priority groups. As of Monday, essential workers in Phase 1B Tier 3 and Phase 1C Tier 1 can register, including court and legal services staff, frontline mass transit workers, U.S. Postal Service employees and food service staff. It also includes essential workers who cannot “execute their job functions remotely/via telework and are required to report for duty in-person during the public health emergency.” They include local government, public utility, health, human and social service, and commercial and residential property maintenance employees. Teachers and childcare workers, regardless of whether they work in person currently, are eligible too. Starting March 29, essential workers who must report in-person and cannot telework in Phase 1C Tier 2, which includes taxi, for-hire and ride-hailing drivers, logistics/delivery/courier workers and those working in media and mass communication will be eligible. Then on April 12, people in Phase 1C Tier 3 can pre-register. That tier includes all essential employees of institutions of higher education, including colleges, universities and trade schools, construction workers, IT employees, federal government workers, commercial and residential property managers. D.C. receives about 24,000 doses of vaccine per week with nearly 13,630 of those going to people who pre-registered at vaccinate.dc.gov. As of late Sunday night, 114,815 people had pre-registered for the vaccine with about 67.5% of seniors who were invited to book an appointment having done so. About 83.4% of everyone else has booked an appointment. Nearly 14.2% of D.C. residents have gotten one shot while about 6.8% are fully vaccinated.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser extended the city’s public health emergency until May 20, but will ease several of her pandemic restrictions on businesses and outdoor gatherings beginning March 22. Bowser announced Monday that outdoor gatherings will be able to include up to 50 people at a safe distance. The city’s updated guidance also means Nationals Park can host up to 5,000 fans and Audi Field can seat up to 2,000 fans. Restaurants will also be able to increase their capacity to 25% or up to 250 people with social distancing measures in place. While D.C. is loosening restrictions on activities as more residents get vaccinated, Bowser continued to urge caution. “We have not crushed the virus in this city or this nation and we have to be mindful of that,” Bowser said during a press conference. “We can’t go back to normal because this virus is still circulating in our city, people are still getting sick and going to the hospital and people are still dying.” She added there is “reason to be optimistic,” but told residents to remain vigilant to help curb the spread of the virus. “There are more and more things that we can do today and there will be even more things that we can do as spring evolves … assuming that our numbers continue to go down,” she said. Starting next Monday, other changes include allowing alcohol to be sold until midnight. Also, D.C. Health and the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency will resume reviewing and approving live entertainment waivers and Movie theaters may reopen with no more than 25 people or 25% capacity in each auditorium, whichever is less. Additionally, museums and galleries will remain open with capacity limited to 250 people per floor and 25 people per room with guided tours allowed once again. Indoor group fitness classes can resume with up to 10 people and 50 people at outdoor classes with 25% capacity or up to 250 people, whichever is lower, at gyms, with 6 feet physical distancing. Low- to moderate-contact sports may resume on a casual basis, playgrounds will reopen and some indoor recreation centers with reopen for programs and reservation-only activity. City fields will be limited to 250 people. Also on March 22, grocery store may operate buffets if staff serves the food. Self-service continues to be prohibited. Restrictions on sports for middle and high school students have been removed. Face masks should be worn and physical distance of 6 feet should be maintained when possible during sports activities. Low-contact sports training, practices and games are permitted. Games should occur outdoors. For moderate to high contact sports, only organized drills and skill-building activities are permitted. High-risk activities, such as theater, choir or band are no longer prohibited but are recommended to be canceled or modified to allow 10 feet of space between participants. Starting yesterday, some high school and middle school sports could resume and field permits for spring will resume. Beginning March 22, applications will open for spring sports drills and practices. D.C. will re-evaluate its reopening process, including guidelines on childcare, higher education, personal services, rec centers, travel and places of worship on April 5.
Prince Georgians 65 and older can begin getting COVID-19 vaccinations at county-run clinics as Maryland’s second most populous county expanded eligibility. Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks announced Monday that the county is entering Phase 1C of its vaccine rollout. The phase includes residents 65 and older, people receiving hospital-based treatment for serious medical conditions and essential workers at a high risk of exposure, such as restaurant and grocery store workers, U.S. Postal Service employees and public transit workers. “I am pleased to announce that we will be moving forward with offering everyone eligible in Phase 1C the opportunity to get vaccinated against COVID-19 through our county health department,” Alsobrooks said. “Our vaccination rates have increased significantly over the past several weeks, and I’m encouraging everyone who is in Phase 1C to make sure you’re pre-registered so you can join the growing number of Prince Georgians who are proud to be protected from COVID-19.” The county said that even with the expansion, county-run vaccination clinics will continue to prioritize residents 75 and older. There are an estimated 80,000 people between the ages of 65 and 74 in the county, according to census data. People who live or work in the county are eligible for vaccine appointments in the county, but they must pre-register with the county. Health department officials then use the list to offer appointments. There are no walk-in opportunities at health department vaccine clinics. Overall, nearly 120,000 county residents have received at least one dose of vaccine – 12% of the county’s population, the lowest in the state. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan moved the state to Phase 1C at the end of January. However, given limited supplies of the vaccine, many clinics run by local health departments moved more slowly in expanding eligibility. Neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, moved to Phase 1C earlier this month.
Beginning this week, some Marylanders have a better chance of getting an appointment at one of the state’s COVID-19 mass vaccination sites. Gov. Larry Hogan said Monday in a press release that the state will set aside at least 2,100 “community-based priority appointments” weekly at the sites to focus on ensuring equitable access. Priority appointments are being booked through text-based and call center outreach, using both state and local preregistration lists. Baltimore City residents will get the extra appointments each week at the M&T Bank Stadium site. That is in addition to the extra slots available at the Baltimore Convention Center Field Hospital for residents in underserved ZIP codes. Residents of Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties will be eligible for the priority appointments at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf. The Wicomico Youth and Civic Center site on the Eastern Shore, which will open Thursday, will offer priority appointments to people who live in Wicomico, Worcester, Somerset and Dorchester counties. The Hagerstown Premium Outlets site, which will open March 25, will offer priority appointments to residents of Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties. Prince Georgian’s began receiving priority appointments at the Six Flags American site last week. Elsewhere, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce said in a press release Monday that the most populous county in Maryland needs “convenient access to a mass vaccination site.” The chamber is asking the state to allow the establishment of a site in Montgomery County and said county vaccine providers should be getting regular and sustainable allocations of doses. “We were distressed to hear about trusted providers who received fewer doses in the last week despite a record of efficiently administering the vaccine to eligible populations, including workers essential to the operation of the economy,” the chamber said. Last week, Earl Stoddard, director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said state health officials agreed to hold a walk-through for potential mass vaccination site at Montgomery College’s Germantown campus.
The Washington Nationals will welcome 5,000 fans to Nats Park when the regular season begins against the New York Mets at 7:09 p.m. on April 1. Christopher Rodriguez, director of D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, approved the team’s waiver request on Monday. The Nationals were one of the few Major League Baseball teams that did not have permission to allow fans this season. “We are happy to welcome a limited number of the best fans in baseball back home to National Park on Opening Day,” said Mark Lerner, the team’s managing principal owner, in a press release. “We look forward to increasing our capacity in the coming weeks. Tickets will be sold in “pods” of up to six seats and suites will have reduced capacities. Printed tickets won’t be available. All tickets will be delivered digitally through the MLB Ballpark app. Because of the capacity limits, priority ticket access will be given to Nats Plus members based on tenure and ticket package size, according to the release. Nats Plus members will receive an email with details. Single-game tickets for the general public will be announced later based on availability. On game days, fans must enter and exist through their assigned color-coded gate. Bags are not allowed inside the park, except for medically necessary bags, diaper bags and clutch purses no bigger than 5 inches by 7 inches by ¾ inch. Binbox lockers will be available outside the right field and home plate gates. Face coverings that cover the mouth and nose will be required for everyone 2 and older. No cash will be accepted for food or drink purchases, parking or in team stores. “To me, it seems obvious we can have fans. If we can have indoor dining, I think we can have fans in an outdoor stadium,” National’s pitcher Max Scherzer said Monday. “We definitely want to see as many Nats fans out there as we safely can.” The Nationals said they will begin talks this week with city officials about increasing the number of fans permitted to attend games starting with the home series that begins April 15 against Arizona. “Long time coming,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “So excited to see our fans. They’re our 27th man. Looking forward to seeing them.” Nats Park’s capacity is slightly more than 41,000, so 5,000 represents a little more than 12% of capacity. Crowds were banned entirely from all stadiums for the 2020 MLB regular season because of the pandemic, although some people did attend postseason games. Rodriguez also approved a waiver Monday for D.C. United to have 2,000 fans at Audi Field — 10% of capacity – when it opens on April 17 against the New York City F.C. The club said it would have details on the protocols and ticketing procedures for fans in advance of the game.
Exactly one year to the day after Virginia reported its first coronavirus-related death, the commonwealth surpassed more than 10,000 deaths from COVID-19. The grim milestone came on the day that Gov. Ralph Northam declared a day of prayer ad remembrance for COVID-19 victims. The Virginia Department of Health reported 34 new deaths Sunday, bringing the state’s total to 10,019. That represents 1 in every 858 Virginians, or about 0.12% of the state’s 8.6 million population. More than half the deaths were reported in 2021, as the state passed 5,000 reported deaths on Dec. 31. Deaths peaked in mid-January following the post-holiday spike in cases and the single most deaths occurred on Jan. 8 — 104. Nearly half of the deaths, 4,875, were Virginians 80 or older, and almost another quarter was Virginians aged 70-79, according to VDH data. The state reported only 283 deaths of people younger than 50 and just two of people younger than 20. While cases have disproportionately affected Black and Latino residents, deaths are generally more in line with Virginia’s overall population. Whites account for 64% of deaths, Blacks for 24% and Latinos for about 7%. The 10 jurisdictions with the most COVID-19 deaths include four from Northern Virginia: Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Arlington counties. However, all have death rates below the state average of 116.5 per 100,000 residents. Northern Virginia had 2,212 deaths, slightly less than the region’s share of the state’s population. Northern Virginia deaths peaked last spring, when they accounted for more than half of the deaths statewide, largely due to high death tolls at some of the region’s long-term care facilities. Fairfax County, the commonwealth’s most populous jurisdiction with 1.1 million residents, has the most deaths with 1,029. Meanwhile, despite Sunday’s grim milestone, the number of new cases and hospitalizations continue to fall, both statewide and in Northern Virginia, although they are not declining as quickly as several weeks ago. Plus, 20% of Virginia residents have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. VDH reported 363 new cases in Northern Virginia Sunday. The region’s seven-day average of new cases stands at 321.4. That is up slightly from Saturday’s average, which was the lowest since Nov. 6. Statewide, 1,173 new cases were reported Sunday. The state’s seven-day average is at 1,290.7, also up slightly from Saturday, which was its lowest since Nov. 5. Virginia’s cases are down 6% in the past week, 24% in the past two weeks and 60% in the past month. In Northern Virginia, 20 new deaths were reported over the past four days, with 10 in Prince William County, four in Loudoun County, two each in Arlington and Fairfax counties, and one each in Alexandria and Manassas. Seven-day average positivity rates continue to fall, although testing is down overall. The Fairfax Health District has joined Arlington and Alexandria with rates at or below 5%, a level at which experts believe the spread of the virus is under control. The state is averaging slightly less than 20,000 diagnostic tests a day, down from 35,000 during the peak of the pandemic.
Maryland could lose $200 million of its American Rescue Plan funding as the result of a provision in the federal law meant to limit the use of the stimulus to fund tax breaks. The U.S. Senate added language to the COVID-19 relief package prohibiting states and local governments from using the $350 billion in direct federal assistance “to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue” or delay the imposition of any tax or tax increase. The state is set to receive $3.9 billion in direct federal funds. But until the U.S. Treasury Department offers more detailed guidance on how it will interpret the law, the provision is causing uncertainty in several states, including Maryland, where tax changes are under consideration. If states accept stimulus money and push through tax cuts, the federal government could claw back funding, Maryland fiscal leaders said. So far this session, lawmakers have passed two pieces of tax legislation – a state stimulus program that includes individual and business tax relief that was effective Feb. 15 and an extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit to those who file taxes with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers. That passed the General Assembly in February but was not signed by Gov. Larry Hogan and automatically took effect without his signature on March 5. The federal stimulus bill established a March 3 deadline for tax legislation that would be exempt from the prohibition. Some of Maryland’s top officials hope forthcoming Treasury guidelines will exempt that cut from the clawback provision. If not, it could mean a double-whammy for the state’s coffers. The bill would forgo about $203 million in state revenues from the extension of the tax credit; and the federal government could decide to cut the state’s stimulus by the same amount. The provision in the federal stimulus bill doesn’t entirely prevent state officials from cutting taxes. Some scenarios, such as slashing one tax but offsetting it with a tax increase, wouldn’t be a problem. State and federal lawmakers could not immediately comment on the full extent of the provision’s impact, or whether Maryland would lobby for an exception through the regulatory process. The Maryland Senate earlier this week put off consideration of several tax bills until there is better guidance from the federal government. The House Appropriations Committee, which is tasked with the first round of amendments to the state budget this year, delayed final budget decisions by a few days until next week to learn more. “I think it’s a little bit too early to know, we want to see how the Treasury interprets some of these provisions. And, you know, we want to make smart decisions with as much information as possible,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said Friday. “We’ll probably be more cautious than not when it comes to ongoing questions around tax credits or cuts, because we don’t want to jeopardize some of this federal support.”
One year after the coronavirus pandemic began, many office buildings in the DMV are still far from pre-pandemic occupancy. Falls Church-based Kastle Systems, whose security systems are used by hundreds of buildings in the DMV, has been tracking building entries based on security key card and fob access, and its weekly Back to Work Barometer report said the average occupancy rate in buildings it secures in the DMV was just 22.1% as of the week of March 8. The DMV was one of four metropolitan areas Kastle tracks where office occupancy slightly declined from the previous week. The same happened in Philadelphia, San Jose and New York metro areas. The DMV office building occupancy rate has never risen above 30% since the pandemic began. Office occupancy in the DMV fell as low as 10% in March of 2020. Average office occupancy in the 10 largest cities Kastle tracks was 24.8% as of March 8. The Houston metro has the highest share of workers back in the office, with an average building occupancy of 36.1%. San Francisco has the lowest, at 13.2%. “For American workers to return sales back into office buildings, there must be a comprehensive system in place that integrates technology and new safety protocols, both for the building and for tenant spaces. We’re keeping a close eye on this data as part of our Kastle Safe Spaces framework, which we designed to help office buildings safely reopen,” Kastle Systems said in its latest weekly report. Kastle’s office occupancy barometer is based on access data from 3,600 buildings housing 41,000 individual businesses in 47 states. Kastle Systems services about 1,200 buildings in the DMV, its largest area for coverage.
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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.