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For two months, D.C.’s gay bars have enjoyed relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, with greater numbers of patrons partaking in much-needed, in-person socializing. But that relative freedom takes a temporary step back this weekend as a new mask mandate is put into effect, in an attempt to slow the spread of a dangerous new coronavirus variant.
Mayor Muriel Bowser announced this week that, starting Saturday, July 31 at 5 a.m., the District’s residents will once again need to mask up indoors, as the city combats COVID’s aggressive new Delta variant.
The mandate applies regardless of vaccination status and comes after the CDC and President Biden also issued new warnings and guidance about the spread of coronavirus.
It also grants businesses the ability to implement more stringent measures — such as requiring proof of vaccination for entry — or requiring masks in any outdoors areas.
Mayor Bowser said she expects D.C. residents to “embrace” the new restrictions, but questions remain as to what exactly the mandate will mean for businesses — particularly gay bars.
Absent from the mandate are any instructions regarding eating and drinking — for example, such as whether patrons can only remove masks if they are actively drinking, or merely holding a drink.
“The city put out zero guidelines,” says David Perruzza, co-owner and manager of Pitchers and A League of Her Own on 18th Street in Adams Morgan, “except that people have to wear masks when they go in a bar.”
Ed Bailey, co-owner of TRADE on 14th Street NW and Number Nine, around the corner on P Street, says, “We are interpreting it based on the previous mandates of what we’ve been going through over the last 18 months. There was a mask mandate previously, and we were operating under the assumption that the rule was people had to have on a mask unless they were actively drinking or eating. So we are reverting to what that mandate was before, and we’re going to operate the same way.
“Of course, times are different now,” Bailey continues. “People are not going to be seated. They are going to be standing and milling around the bar. So we are going to have to attempt to manage people who are moving about and are potentially not following the rules with the masks.”
“We think this is going to be very hard to enforce,” says Justin Parker, co-owner of The Dirty Goose on U Street NW. “We’re going to enforce it at the door, we’re going to enforce it if you’re in line for the bathroom, if you’re standing on your phone and security walks by you. But I think it’s going to be very difficult to hold everyone accountable.”
Bailey says they expect “further guidance from ABRA [Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration] next week. So the way we’re enforcing it and the way we’re interpreting it may have to change next week based on new guidance. It would be helpful if we could understand how ABRA is defining the phrase ‘actively eating or drinking,’ but they didn’t do that previously, so I’m not expecting them to do it this time. But that would be helpful. It would give us more guidance.”
Early Friday morning, Pitchers posted an update on its Instagram page that stated, “We will require proof of a COVID vaccination until further notice…. We will accept a picture or hard copy of your vaccination card. No exceptions, no arguing, no talking to the manager.”
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Perruzza explains the hardline stance is to save time and grief for patrons and managers alike. “Everybody wants to speak to a manager,” he says. “Managers don’t have time to stop what they’re doing because you can’t follow simple instructions. We make it a point to put on Facebook or social media what we expect. We put up our hours, we put up everything about the bar.
“During this climate, you should check to see what any establishment is doing before you go out, because you don’t know. Shit changes every day. So you should really be checking social media of the bars to figure out what’s going on. What are they requiring?”
Bailey and Parker are taking a slightly different approach regarding entry to their bars.
“We are going to ask for proof of vaccination,” says Bailey. “Show us your vaccination card, show us a copy of your vaccination card, show us a digital version of your vaccination card on your phone, a photo of it, or some other way in which it is registered on your phone. There are even apps that transfer your vaccine card into your Apple Wallet.
“In addition, we are going to accept proof of a negative COVID test from within the last 72 hours. We do recognize that there are people in the world who have not been vaccinated. And while the media likes to sensationalize some of those people as being obstinate or problematic, oftentimes people who are unvaccinated are people who have not been able to get vaccinated for a number of legitimate reasons. We don’t want to disrespect anybody in that regard. But if you are getting tested and you know that you’re negative, that will suffice.”
Bailey stresses that this does not mean either TRADE or Number Nine are taking a lax view with respect to vaccines.
“We support vaccinations and believe people should be vaccinated,” he says. “But there are some who are not for medical reasons and there are some who are not for religious reasons. And there are some who are not because they haven’t been afforded the opportunity to have access directly. There are some people who have been hesitant and need more information. I hope those people will get up to speed and will get this done for themselves and for the community.
“The vaccine is a significant step forward in addressing the situation,” he continues. “It has allowed us to significantly live in a much more calm way, not worried about everything. It’s an amazing advancement and clearly works.”
Parker, in a Friday afternoon email, noted that The Dirty Goose “will be asking for vaccine cards at the door or a negative COVID test from within five days. We wanted to be cognizant of those patrons who cannot get the vaccine due to medical purposes and the five-day timeline falls in line with the new mandate President Biden imposed on unvaccinated federal employees yesterday. It allows for someone to get tested on Thursday and get through the weekend.”
Ultimately, says Bailey, the revived mask mandate points to the fact that “this is 2021 summer’s version of how we are dealing with the Coronavirus. Hopefully, we have less aggressive measures like this going forward that help us deal with it and eventually will be in a place where, as a society, we have figured out how to live with this comfortably, where people are not having to be hospitalized and potentially even die.
“This is one of those moments where it feels like, ‘Okay, there’s a little bit more of an outbreak at the moment. We need to make some adjustments to what we do and what our behaviors are.’ Hopefully, we get to a point in the not too distant future where these mandates can kind of be lifted again and we can go back to living without masks. Hopefully, we get to a point where there is some kind of herd immunity. But it feels like, even then, it’s not as though we’re going to revert back to the 2019 way of living, because the virus is here and it’s not going to be eradicated. So we’re going to have to kind of adjust.”
Bailey thinks some customers may even be relieved about the implementation of the new mask mandate.
“For our businesses, the mandate felt like a very straightforward way to try to make everybody safer and healthier,” he says. “And that’s the goal. It’s the guiding principle since all of this started for us to make all of our decisions.
“Wearing masks in the bar is not going to be fun for most people, but it’s definitely safer. And certainly, a lot of people have been feeling like they probably wanted to be wearing a mask in the bars, but felt awkward doing it because most people weren’t. Being smart and being healthy sometimes feels like a kind of responsible act that isn’t always consistent with wanting to go out and let loose and have fun at a bar. But we have to find a way to be smart and also provide spaces for people to go out and have a good time. So that’s what this step is for us.
“We’ve been asked ‘How long is this going to last?’” Bailey concludes. “Who knows? And anybody who thinks they know is just kidding themselves. We have to just follow what the virus does. It felt like the virus was going away a little bit. And so we opened up a little bit. Now it feels like the virus is coming back a little bit. And so we have to take some measures again and follow what the virus is doing. Hopefully, some of these measures help all of these numbers go down. And maybe that puts us in a better position as a society.”
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