District of Columbia residents learned Wednesday they will be staying home for at least another three weeks, highlighting the difficulty of stamping out the coronavirus in the nation’s capital and raising questions about congressional activity on Capitol Hill.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced at a press conference that the stay-at-home order previously slated to lift on Friday would be extended until June 8, saying not all of the metrics needed for reopening have been met.
“We’re not there yet and not quite ready to begin that phased new opening,” she said.
The extension comes as many states around the country have started to lift pandemic restrictions and gradually reopen businesses, even if they haven’t achieved the benchmarks referenced by Bowser.
For Washington, the mayor’s move is a reminder of how the city has been relatively hard hit by the virus, and how city leaders are embracing a more cautious approach. Public health experts have warned that states prematurely lifting their orders risk setting off a new spike in infections.
The District has the sixth-highest per person rate of coronavirus cases when compared with U.S. states, according to data compiled by The New York Times. The nation’s capital has 933 cases per 100,000 residents, behind states like New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Still, there are some hopeful signs for the District. There has been a decline in the number of new cases for four consecutive days — far short of the 14-day standard for phased reopening, but a hopeful sign that cases have flattened and are starting to come down.
Jesse Goodman, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University Medical Center, said the four-day decline is “very encouraging,” but that Bowser was right to extend the stay-at-home order.
“She’s really right to be cautious about this,” he said.
The continuing spread of the virus in Washington also raises questions for the safety of lawmakers, staff and other workers on Capitol Hill.
House leaders reversed a decision to return in early May after consulting with Congress’s attending physician. But lawmakers are scheduled to return on Friday, just for one day, for votes on measures including a massive relief bill and one that would allow members to vote remotely in the future.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) this week acknowledged some risk in having the chamber back in session.
“I can’t tell you that Friday is safer than tomorrow or next Tuesday,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I don’t know that the situation is going to change dramatically. We do know that the numbers in the Washington metropolitan area continue to go up. So we want to maximize the safety of our members, our staff, the press and others who are involved in a day session. I expect this to be done in one day as the previous three bills have been done.”
The Senate, meanwhile, has already been in session.
“We feel like if people on the front lines are willing to work during the pandemic, we should be as well,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) before bringing the chamber back late last month.
Bowser said Wednesday that she has not discouraged Congress from returning.
“We know that government is essential and the work of the government is essential, especially our lawmakers,” she said.
But she added that the much larger number of federal employees, not just Congress, should work from home whenever possible to help the city.
“What I have encouraged the federal government to do is to keep as many people on telework as possible,” Bowser said.
She also noted that it is encouraging that Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs appear to be delaying reopening, despite some loosening of restrictions in other parts of those states.
The city’s role as the seat of government may have contributed to the acceleration of the virus’s spread experts said, citing travel to and from the District and its population density.
“This is a very cosmopolitan city,” Goodman, the Georgetown professor, said. “We weren’t as early as New York, [but] we are ahead of some other places in the country.”
Bowser argued that the city has reached its standards for reopening on testing and hospital capacity, and is mainly waiting for a 14-day decline in new cases.
Health care system capacity — another metric — is at 76 percent in the District, below the benchmark of 80 percent for 14 days, officials said.
Bowser highlighted how the city has the ability to test everyone who is symptomatic, has had close contact with an infected person, is an essential worker or is a health care worker.
But some experts suggested there needs to be more testing.
Goodman said there has been an “improvement” in the ability to test people with symptoms, but “I think we would need more” to be able to test a wide range of essential workers or health care workers.
“We certainly need to be able to continue to expand testing,” said Amanda Castel, a professor of epidemiology at George Washington University.
Harvard researchers last week estimated that Washington needs more than 5,000 tests per day to safely reopen, and is currently conducting about 800 a day.
LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the Health Department, pushed back somewhat when asked Wednesday about that study, arguing “there is no agreement” among health experts on the needed amount of testing.
Castel, however, noted that Washington also needs sufficient staff to conduct contact tracing before it reopens. Bowser said Wednesday that hiring effort remains a work in progress, but they are in the process of hiring 200 more people.
“I want to be clear that in deciding when to reopen we will continue to follow the advice of our health officials,” Bowser said.
She said if the data improves enough before June 8, the city could start to reopen before then. She also acknowledged the date might need to be extended beyond then “but hopefully we won’t have to.”
“We are eager to get our economy turned on, get people back to work, get kids back to school,” she said. “But we know a second outbreak could be even worse.”
VIA WWW.THEHILL.COM MAY 13, 2020