D.C. Schools to Require Face Masks This Fall
COVID-19 Cases Reach 1,202,518 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Thursday morning, 49,930 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 1,146 deaths; there have been 465,038 cases in Maryland with 9,579 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 687,550 cases with 11,493 deaths. You can read last week’s updates here. Editors note: Because D.C. Health and the Virginia Department of Health are not reporting metrics on weekends, DC on Heels will only update these numbers Monday through Friday beginning July 19.
D.C. Public Schools will require face masks for all students and staff when classes resume in-person next month. It was one of few details DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee provided Thursday about safety protocols for the 2021-22 school year during a D.C. Council hearing. The 50,000-student school district will provide more detailed health guidance for teachers and families early next month after it receives more guidance from D.C. Health officials, he said. “We’re not intentionally withholding any information,” Ferebee said. “We’re in a very fluid environment. The guidelines and protocols shift as things evolve.” Face masks have been required in D.C. schools since they reopened during the pandemic while other school districts have lifted mask mandates recently. Charter schools, which educate about half of the city’s public schoolchildren, will also continue to require face masks, according to Michelle Walker-Davis, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. In Virginia, the Virginia Department of Health issued guidance Tuesday recommending, — but not requiring — face masks for students and staff in all elementary schools and some middle and high schools. School districts are using that guidance to develop their own mask policies. During Thursday’s hearing, Ferebee faced scrutiny from councilmembers over the lack of safety information available to families with just more than a month before the academic year begins. Students will be required to attend in-person classes unless they have a medical exemption, but key questions remain as DCPs prepares to reopen fully for the first time since March 2020. It isn’t clear whether students and staff will be subject to the same rigorous quarantine requirements as last year, when far fewer students were in classrooms. The school district will likely still offer COVID-19 testing to people who are asymptomatic, but Ferebee said health officials are still determining how that testing will happen. Some protocols will likely differ from those issued last year, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its recommendations for schools earlier this month. “The CDC guidance has shifted in a number of areas that impact quarantining and reactions to positive cases,” Ferebee said. “We will have to adjust.” The latest CDC recommendations say masks should be worn indoors by everyone 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Coronavirus vaccines are available to everyone 12 and older. Schools should maintain 3 feet of space between students inside classrooms, according to the CDC. If physical distancing cannot be maintained, in-person learning should continue with other measures, including masking and keeping children in cohorts. DCPS and the Washington Teachers’ Union are in the middle of negotiating an agreement for how the school system will reopen campuses in the upcoming academic year. The current reopening agreement between the school system and union, which was reached after months of discord and legal challenges, expires at the end of August. WTU President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons has endorsed in-person learning for the fall. But the labor organization wants the school system to agree to additional terms. The union wants leaders to guarantee that teachers will not have to educate students in person and virtually at the same time, if children have to quarantine at home. It also wants the district to provide detailed information about the air quality inside classrooms. Lyons said she is worried the delta variant could pose more danger for students and staff. Research shows coronavirus vaccines are effective against the delta variant. Nearly 63% of D.C. residents have received at one dose of a coronavirus vaccine but rates vary across neighborhoods, with wide disparities between the wealthiest and poorest parts of the city. “My worst fear is that we fail to protect our youths and our community from the still-deadly coronavirus,” Lyons said. “We must ensure protections are in place to prevent students from being exposed and potentially carrying the disease back to their family.”
Maryland Department of Health and the State Department of Education are encouraging school districts to expand COVID-19 testing when students return in the fall and are offering funding to help. “Testing for COVID-19 remains a key component in our fight against this disease and it is essential that our schools have access to the resources needed and are prepared to keep our children safe,” said Maryland Secretary of Health Dennis R. Schrader. All K-12 public and non-public schools are being encouraged to apply for funding through the eMaryland Marketplace. The money to fund routine school testing programs is being made available through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We strongly encourage K-12 schools to request these funds and put in place a robust testing program to protect students, teachers and staff during this upcoming school year,” Schrader said. “This new funding will help schools address the necessary learning and public health strategies needed to continue to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mohammed Choudhury, the new state superintendent of schools. The latest guidance from the CDC recommends a robust, school-based testing program as another important measure that can help facilitate continued safe in-person learning and catch coronavirus cases as soon as possible. Some experts have expressed concern for younger children as the vaccines have only been approved for people 12 and older. “It leaves a large proportion of our patient population unvaccinated and especially vulnerable,” said Dr. Alexandra Yonts, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Children’s National Hospital. “We are still having children who are requiring admission to the hospital for COVID-19. They represent the population that has the most risk of infection.” The World Health Organization has warned that the trifecta of easier-to-spread strains, insufficiently immunized populations and a drop in mask use and other public health measures before the virus is better contained will “delay the end of the pandemic.”
Pho, Banh Mi and Grill, 4290 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax, is requiring diners to show their completed vaccination card if they want to eat indoors. Those who aren’t vaccinated or don’t arrive with proof they received the vaccine, must dine at an outdoor table, according to owner Francis Do. He instituted his new policy after seeing President Joe Biden earlier this week express frustration over people who have not gotten vaccinated. “That’s the only way we can stop this invisible virus,” Do told WTOP. He also requires diners who aren’t vaccinated to sanitize their hands before touching a menu and call in their order from their table. “We do [it] like a prisoner,” Do said jokingly. He will also encourage unvaccinated diners to get the vaccine and provide on where shots are available. He said in the short term the policy may hurt business; but he is doing it to protect other diners, himself and his business. Among his concerns are more closures if new cases of COVID-19 and the rapidly spreading delta variant continue to rise. Do also hopes it encourages more people to get vaccinated, especially if other restaurants follow his lead. He admits the new rules are not being well received by everyone. In the four days since the vaccination requirement began, 25 potential diners decided not to eat at the restaurant, he said.
The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits rose 51,000 last week from the lowest point of the pandemic, even as the job market appears to be rebounding on the strength of a reopened economy. The Labor Department said Thursday that jobless claims increased for the week ending July 17 to 419,000 — the most in two months — from 368,000 the previous week. The number of first-time applications, which generally tracks layoffs, has fallen steadily since passing 900,000 in early January. In the DMV, there were 14,941 new jobless claims last week, up from 14,702 the week prior. Economists characterized last week’s increase as most likely a blip caused by one-time factors and the inevitable bumpiness in the week-to-week data. In D.C., first-time claims rose to 2,678 from 2,341 the week before, while Virginia’s new claims jumped to 6,764 from 5,952 the prior week. Maryland’s new claims fell to 5,499 from 6,409 a week earlier. Americans are shopping, traveling and eating out more as the pandemic wanes, boosting the economy and forcing businesses to scramble for more workers. Companies have posted the highest number of available jobs in the two decades that the data has been tracked. Hiring has picked up, although businesses say they often can’t find enough employees at the wages they are willing to pay. At the same time, analysts are becoming concerned about the potential economic consequences of a tick-up in confirmed viral infections as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, especially among the unvaccinated. The seven-day rolling U.S. average for daily new cases jumped over the past two weeks to more than 37,000 as of Tuesday, from fewer than 13,700, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Complaints by companies that they can’t find enough workers led 22 states to prematurely end a $300-a-week federal unemployment benefit, which comes on top of state jobless aid. Twenty states have ended their participation in two other federal programs — one of which provides benefits to the self-employed and gig workers and another that serves people who have been out of work for six months or longer. Officials in Maryland and Indiana had sought to end the supplemental aid programs but were blocked by court rulings. Nationally, the programs will all expire in early September. The early cut-offs of expanded unemployment aid have contributed to a steady decline in the number of people receiving unemployment benefits. That number fell to 12.6 million in the week ending July 3, the latest period for which data is available, down from 13.8 million the previous week.
Students, teachers and staff at elementary schools and some middle and high schools should wear masks for the upcoming school year, according to guidance from the Virginia Department of Health. The guidance from VDH is a recommendation to schools, but not required under law. It follows the recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on preventing outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools. VDH experts “strongly recommend” that elementary schools should require all students, teachers and staff to wear a mask indoors until vaccines are available to children younger than 12. The guidance also says that “at a minimum, middle and high schools should implement a requirement that teachers, students and staff who are not fully vaccinated wear masks indoors.” Finally, schools may want to consider a universal mask mandate if a large portion of their population isn’t vaccinated, there are increased COVID-19 transmission rates in the community or difficulties emerge in the enforcement of mask policies or the monitoring of vaccination status. Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement that the state continues to follow the science for protecting communities against COVID-19. “[This guidance] will provide necessary flexibility for school divisions while ensuring a safe, healthy and world-class learning environment for Virginia’s students,” Northam said. “Getting your shot will protect you, your family and your community — and it is the only way we can beat this pandemic once and for all.” Earlier this year, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill that requires schools to provide in-person instruction available to students during this upcoming school year. Additional updated guidance also says that physical distancing of at least three feet should be maximized to the extent possible, but “schools should not reduce in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement.” Education Secretary Atif Qarni lauded the guidance for providing schools with flexibility. “We know that students learn best in school buildings, and this guidance ensures that divisions have the flexibility and support they need to provide access to in-person learning five days a week,” Qarni said in a statement. In Virginia, 64.3% of adults 18 and older are fully vaccinated, according to VDH. But COVID-19’s Delta variant accounts for approximately 69% of the new infections as of the beginning of July, according to the CDC. COVID-19 cases are steadily rising in the DMV. In Virginia, cases reached their lowest point of about 143 a day in mid-June and are now back up to more than 400 a day last week, according to VDH data. Masks are still required on all public transportation in Virginia, including school buses.
Even though Montgomery County exceeds much of the U.S. in its efforts to vaccinate residents, County Executive Marc Elrich has asked county health officials to come up a plan if case counts begin to surge. Elrich said during a press conference Wednesday that the county, like much of the rest of the country, has seen a small uptick in cases, and even though more than 70% of the county’s residents have been fully vaccinated, those who aren’t are at risk. Without going into detail, Elrich said he had asked county Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles and Director of the Office of Emergency Management Earl Stoddard to create an action plan so the region could act quickly to stop another potential surge. “I have asked Dr. Stoddard and Dr. Gayles and our entire COVID response team to create a contingency plan in order to prepare us for next steps if these rates worsen,” he said. “I want to be clear about that: We cannot go into something different and suddenly be asking ourselves, ‘What might we do?’ We need to think in advance and plan in advance, so if we decide we have to do something different, we’re able to implement it quickly.” Gayles and Stoddard urged residents who had not yet been vaccinated to get one, citing cases in Alabama, which is currently seeing a surge among unvaccinated residents. “We know that if you are unvaccinated you don’t have any level of protection in your system. You are increasingly more likely to have a symptomatic, complicated course of illness if you contract COVID,” Gayles said. He noted that the delta variant had become the dominant strain in Maryland. The variant is believed to be more infectious and could potentially lead to a more serious infection. “For those who have not seen the articles coming out of Alabama today, they are heart-wrenching and unfortunately exemplary of some of the challenges that are faced across the country but also being faced in Montgomery County of residents who have chosen not to be vaccinated,” Stoddard said. “Certainly in the state of Alabama, they’re seeing a significant increase in hospitalization among that population and some of the stories are frankly heart-wrenching with people coming to realize this is not a hoax and people are begging for the vaccine far too late,” Stoddard added.
Unemployed Marylanders, who won a court fight earlier this month against Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to end expanded jobless benefits, were back in court Wednesday to include thousands of workers denied unemployment benefits by the state. Unemployed workers who are receiving the expanded federal benefits are receiving three months of benefits, which Hogan tried to stop, saying that the expanded benefits worsened the state’s labor shortage. The Unemployed Workers Union amended its complaint adding 10 more named individuals and encompassing an estimated 60,000 additional workers who weren’t eligible for the expanded benefits because they were either denied the initial benefits or had their benefits ended. “The people aren’t getting their money; they’re still not getting their $300. And some people haven’t been paid since 2020,” said Sharon Black, a group organizer, during a press conference outside Baltimore’s Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse. The state said it denied benefits because of fraudulent claims, but the group’s new court filing spells out individual cases where unemployed workers provided sworn affidavits in which they deny any fraud in cases where they were denied benefits. “We’re hoping to move forward quickly because people need this money. They needed it a year ago and the desperation, frankly, cannot be understated,” said Alec Summerfield, a pro-bono lawyer representing the group.
BioNTech, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine production partner, is buying a manufacturing facility in Gaithersburg where the German company will work on development of its personalized cell therapies for cancer. BioNTech is buying the facility from Kite Pharma, a subsidiary of Gilead Sciences. It is also acquiring Kite’s platform for developing T-cell receptor immunotherapies. It will retain Kite’s current lab employees in Gaithersburg and said it will hire more people. Kite also has a new facility in Frederick, which is not part of its deal with BioNTech. “The acquisition of the Kite facility and its individualized TCR platform allows us to accelerate the clinical development of our cell therapies in the U.S. and advance at the forefront of individualized cell therapies,” said BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin. Montgomery County is home to the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. BioNTech joins many other biotech and life sciences companies with operations in Montgomery County.
As the Delta variant emerges as the dominant strain of COVID-19 across the country, the Capitol attending physician warned Congress about the variant’s presence on Capitol Hill. “The Delta variant virus has been detected in Washington, DC and in the Capitol buildings,” Capitol Attending Physician Brian Monahan said in a letter House members and staff. Monahan wrote the Delta variant virus “represents a dire health risk to unvaccinated individuals” and reminded members and staff that vaccinations remain available through the Office of the Attending Physician. He also recommended vaccinated House members consider wearing masks as a way to further reduce their risk of being infected, but stopped short of making it a requirement, according to the letter. “Vaccinated individuals seeking to further reduce their risk of disease, or further reduce potential risk of transmitting disease to vulnerable household members, may consider additional protective actions such as wearing a well-fitted, medical-grade filtration mask when they are in a crowded or interior location,” he wrote. While Monahan acknowledged the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not generally require vaccinated people to wear a mask indoors, “future developments in the coronavirus Delta variant local threat may require the resumption of mask wear for all.” Monahan noted “several vaccinated Congressional staff members” have tested positive. Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan also tested positive after being fully vaccinated. It is unknown if they were infected with the Delta variant. The letter came the same day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office confirmed a fully vaccinated senior spokesperson in the speaker’s press office tested positive following contact with a group of Texas Democrats who have traveled to D.C. to break quorum in the Texas Legislature and block a restrictive new voting law. Six of the Texas lawmakers have tested positive for COVID-19 since last week. All of them say they were fully vaccinated. The group continues to test daily and, out of an abundance of caution, is now using masks and practicing social distancing beyond even what the CDC recommends, according to a source familiar with the situation. The group met with a number of high-profile Democrats last week — including Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Joe Manchin while spending a large amount of time on Capitol Hill. Most of the group’s meetings are now being held virtually, according to the source. So-called breakthrough cases of COVID-19 are rare in fully vaccinated individuals and getting vaccinated remains the best way to protect against hospitalization and death; 99.5% of deaths from COVID-19 are among the unvaccinated, according to the CDC.
The Mormon temple in Kensington will open to the public in the spring for the first time in nearly 50 years. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints announced on the temple’s website Tuesday, a public open house will take place between April 28-June 4, 2022. The temple will hold rededication ceremonies at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. on June 19. Tickets will be available online starting Nov. 1. The temple was last open to the public in 1974, its first year, when more than 750,000 visitors toured the building. The 160,000-square-foot temple closed in 2018 for renovations, which included improvements to electrical, lighting and plumbing systems. New flooring, wood finishes and art glass were also added, according to a video on the website. The temple originally planned to hold the open house in September and October 2020, followed by a rededication in December. But those plans were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Madame Tussauds wax museum, 1001 F St. NW, appears to have permanently closed. While its website continues to say the closure is temporary, Madame Tussauds Washington LLC is working with real estate broker KLNB to sublease the space that it has occupied for nearly 15 years, according to the building’s landlord, an affiliate of Douglas Development Corp. KLNB also has listed the space that Forever 21 shuttered in the Woodward & Lothrop building at the corner of 10th and F Streets NW as part of its bankruptcy. The wax museum, owned by affiliate Merlin Entertainments, is just one of many retailers and restaurants that shuttered during the pandemic. Madame Tussauds closed on March 18, 2020 and never reopened. Douglas Development sued Madame Tussauds Washington in D.C. Superior Court July 14 for $1.7 million. In that lawsuit, the landlord claimed the business further breached the terms of its lease “by abandoning the premises and ceasing to conduct business in the premises prior to the expiration date of the lease term.” Representatives for Madame Tussauds Washington and Merlin Entertainments could not be reached. Madame Tussauds opened in 2007, and over the years has hosted the likenesses of the 45 presidents that preceded Joe Biden as well as such figures as Harriet Tubman, Bob Woodward, Hillary Clinton, Marion Barry, Alex Ovechkin, Taylor Swift and Zac Efron. Matthew Jemal, senior vice president at Douglas Development, said he expects the space will next be rented by another experiential retail or entertainment concept, like Puttery, the golf-themed entertainment coming to the former International Spy Museum space nearby at 800 F St. NW. “It’s great space, very prominent and catty-corner to Ford’s Theatre,” Jemal said of the 10th and F corner.
Shortly after the DMV saw COVID-19 case counts drop to record lows, infections are on the rise again. Experts attribute the rise to several factors occurring at once: vaccination rates plateaued, mask requirements dropped, businesses reopened fully, summer gatherings picked up and the new, more transmissible Delta variant is spreading across the country. According to the Washington Post’s regional tracker, D.C. saw a 155% increase in new cases over the past seven days, while Maryland reported a 71% increase and Virginia 47%. The total seven-day average of new cases in all three jurisdictions rose from 246 on June 16 to 454 as of July 16. Still, that remains well below the number reported during the surge last January, when the regional average topped 8,000 new cases a day. “We’re encouraged that our surrounding jurisdictions in the DMV have experienced as much success with vaccination as we have so we feel pretty good about where we are in the city, yet we know that the virus is still out there in the world,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser when asked about the slight increase in infections during a press conference Thursday. “We will continue to monitor it very closely and if we have some concerns we’ll report that.” Since late May, D.C.’s average daily cases per 100,000 residents has stayed below 5 – the threshold that indicates minimal community spread. In late June, the metric dropped to its lowest ever, around 1.3. But in the first weeks of July, that rate has ticked up slightly and stands at 3.75 as of July 14. Perhaps more notable is the change in the city’s rate of transmission, which measures the size of a pandemic in an area by estimating how many people are infected by one positive case. D.C.’s rate of transmission, as of July 4, is 1.52 — the highest recorded rate since November 2020. Any rate of transmission greater than 1.2 indicates substantial community spread. COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the city have remained stable, with the latest recorded data on July 14 showing a continued decline in the percentage of hospitalizations due to the virus. Maryland has also seen an increase in its average daily case rate per 100,000 residents; in the last days of June, the metric hovered below 1, and has now crept up to 2.39. Regionally, Montgomery County’s average case rate trend looks similar to that of the state, while Prince George’s County has seen a larger increase. The county’s average daily case rate per 100,000 is now at 3.68, while it dipped below 1 in late June. In Virginia, the average daily case rate per 100,000 reached 3.62 as of July 15, the highest that metric has been since late May. While the seven-day average of new cases dipped as low as 177 on June 30, that metric increased to 336 as of July 16 – a number also not recorded since late May. More optimistically, both Virginia and Maryland have not reported increases in hospitalizations yet. While it is too early to determine whether the DMV’s slight increase in cases will sustain in the coming months, there is one thing public health officials say can definitively prevent it from continuing: vaccinations. Nationally, the Delta variant made up nearly 60% of all new COVID-19 cases reported from June 20 to July 3, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Virginia has reported 158 cases of the variant as of June 16, with 39 of those in Northern Virginia. Maryland’s Department of Health reported 90 cases of the Delta variant as of July 12, and a spokesperson said “the proportion of cases that are caused by Delta is increasing substantially, and seems likely to replace Alpha as the most common lineage in Maryland.” D.C. Health does not publish data on variant cases. But in a call with councilmembers on Friday, D.C. officials reported that Delta made up 1% of sampled positive cases over the past few weeks, but that Alpha remains the dominant strain. D.C. Health plans to update its online dashboard this week with variant cases and vaccine “breakthroughs,” where an immunized individual contracts coronavirus. Compared to other parts of the U.S. with lower vaccination rates and compared to case counts recorded during the DMV’s winter surge, the slight increase in the area’s infections still remains quite low and vaccines remain highly effective against the Delta variant.
When the pandemic began, the real estate industry worried about the emptying out of American cities. But in D.C., at least one part of the apartment market is making a comeback. According to a new report from commercial real estate advisory firm Delta Associates, relatively low rents and high demand in D.C. have led to a recent frenzy in upscale apartment leasing. Leasing of new, high-end apartments — or “Class A” units in industry speak — has been increasing in D.C. over the last several months, according to the firm. It has added up to a record year for luxury apartment rentals, despite a major slowdown in leasing during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Leasing is also high among older, less fancy apartments, known as “Class B.” Apartment vacancies have dropped throughout the DMV as a result. Demand for upscale apartments “has been on a tear in recent months,” the report says. “These metrics point to a market that is in recovery mode after an unprecedented year.” In D.C., leasing was especially enthusiastic in the Capitol Hill/Riverfront/Southwest area, where there has been a recent surge in new, high-end apartment construction. In suburban Maryland, Germantown’s low-rise apartment market fared the best and high-rise buildings in Rosslyn/Ballston saw the most new leases during the quarter. But all this demand means rents aren’t dropping as quickly as they did during the pandemic. Landlords slashed rents to lure new residents as interest in apartments in D.C. sunk during the health crisis. Today, those price cuts are slowly fading away. “Concessions are now pulling back a bit across the metro area as demand has soared in recent months,” the report said. But don’t expect prices to spiral out of control in the coming months, at least not in D.C., because the D.C. Council recently passed a law banning rent increases until the end of 2021. Officials in Montgomery County are also considering extending a law implemented during the pandemic that would cap rent hikes for one year after Maryland’s state of emergency ends. In D.C., the average effective rent (defined as actual rent minus concessions) for a new luxury apartment was $2,375 in the most recent quarter. That is down from 2016, when it was $2,604. Across the metro region, the average is now $2,076, a slight decrease over this time last year. Rents are predictably lower within the region’s older Class B apartments, where average effective rents dropped slightly over the year, to $1,676 from $1,708. In a bit of bad news for local governments that have pledged to significantly bump up housing supply by 2030, apartment construction slowed down during the worst months of the pandemic, the report noted. Building is starting to pick back up, with nearly 15,000 units expected to enter the DMV market by June 2022 — a 27% increase over the previous 12 months. But there are still many areas across the region that are considered “supply-constrained,” meaning they have less new housing than people are expected to want, according to Delta Associates. The farther-out Northern Virginia suburbs and some close-in Maryland suburbs are particularly low on new housing. “This suggests development opportunities exist in submarkets throughout the metro area post-pandemic,” the report said. That could be catnip for developers looking to break into D.C.’s suburbs. Despite the current rental boom in the city, data from the U.S. Postal Service shows that thousands of city residents swapped their D.C. addresses for locations in Maryland and Virginia during the pandemic — and many of those relocations may be permanent.