On Tuesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the District of Columbia would, beginning on Monday, Nov. 22, relax its indoor mask mandate, allowing individual businesses to set their own COVID-19 prevention protocols, such as masking and requiring proof of vaccination to enter the premises.
The District had required residents to wear masks indoors ever since the summer, when delta variant led to an increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Despite case rates hovering above an average of 10 new cases per day for every 100,000 residents, Bowser expressed confidence that rising vaccination rates were reaching a level that was sufficient to ensure that those who do become infected with a variant of the virus do not become seriously ill, hospitalized, or die.
The mayor, along with the D.C. Department of Health, continues to encourage residents to become vaccinated if they are not already, and to receive boosters that will help increase a person’s immunity. But moving forward, Bowser said individual businesses, office buildings, and stores will be tasked with enforcing their own mask mandates, if they choose, and no private business will be penalized for imposing a mask requirement.
Bowser’s forthcoming executive order will keep some mask use in public settings in place. Masks will still be required on public transportation, in ride-share cars, and in some government buildings where there is direct interaction between employees and the public, as well as in schools, childcare facilities, libraries, and facilities such as nursing homes, shelters, dorms, and correctional facilities.
In recent weeks, some business owners had objected to keeping the mask mandate, especially those requiring proof of vaccination to enter.
For David von Storch, the president and founder and Urban Adventure Companies, Inc., the parent company of VIDA Fitness, the mask mandate was especially frustrating, as there seemed to be no official guidance from the Department of Health regarding specific metrics that would signal a willingness by the District to change its rules.
At a Nov. 4 oversight hearing held by the D.C. Council, Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, the director of the D.C. Department of Health, had mentioned she would change the mandate based on when a certain number of 5- to-11-year-olds, and a certain number of individuals who are part of “vulnerable” populations were sufficiently vaccinated, but declined to give specific numbers.
Von Storch, who testified at that hearing before the oversight committee on behalf of the D.C. Fitness Alliance, a coalition of 20 fitness centers and studios in D.C., said that the coalition’s position was that vaccination was the ultimate solution to seeing COVID-19 infections fade away, but that masks were a “temporary mitigation measure.”
In that testimony, he noted that data shows that gyms and fitness centers in states without indoor mask mandates had no greater incidence of community spread than gyms and fitness centers in states with mask mandates.
Von Storch clarified that VIDA Fitness, which has five locations throughout D.C. and one in Arlington, was requiring masks in addition to checking the vaccination status of its clients and requiring all employees — except in cases of medical accommodation — to be vaccinated as well, eliminating the need for masks.
“We announced in August as a continuation of our policy that a fully-vaccinated environment is the safest environment,” he noted. “We announced a vaccination protocol requirement for all of our members, and on August 16, and subsequent to that time, we worked with third party provider named CrowdPass to help us implement a HIPAA-compliant protocol that allows our members to submit their vaccine verification, and we receive notifications when a vaccination requirement has been accepted. So we are now in an environment where everybody from our employees to our members are fully vaccinated.”
But von Storch also noted that he — and other owners of establishments belonging to DCFA — had seen business picking up in the months after reopening earlier this year, until D.C. reimposed the mask mandate in July. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, VIDA Fitness had around 15,000 members.
That number declined during the pandemic, then picked up, then declined again following the mask mandate. Currently, he estimates they have about 11,000 members among his five gyms in the District, about 70% of the capacity he enjoyed pre-pandemic.
“Since that time our business has been going backwards. We and so we know firsthand that the mask mandate is having a negative impact on people’s willingness to engage in fitness,” von Storch said. “There are many members in our Alliance that have told me they’re not going to make it through next year if they don’t have a good January. January is our best month of the year and we are all, in the fitness industry, relying on a very strong January to help us increase our membership ranks so that we can continue to operate our businesses.”
Following Bowser’s announcement that it would relax restrictions, von Storch offered the following statement.
“We are elated that the Mayor announced today that masks will be optional in gyms beginning Monday, November 21,” he said. “This does not change our vaccination policy but rather reinforces our belief that fully-vaccinated environments are the best way to transition this city and country from a pandemic to a more manageable seasonal flu.”
Howard Hicks, the manager of the Green Lantern in D.C., noted that the bar and nightclub has been requiring people to wear masks indoors since the pandemic, but has not been requiring proof of vaccination on most nights, unless an outside group hosting a specific party or event, such as a leather club or the Stonewall Kickball league, demands that bouncers ask for proof of vaccination.
Moving forward, masks will no longer be required to enter, although people are welcome to wear them as a personal choice. The Green Lantern will continue not to ask for proof of vaccination except in cases where the host requests it, Hicks said.
He also noted that the bar does have limited outdoor space for people who would rather be outdoors, though the number of people requesting that has decreased as the weather has gotten colder.
“With some of the bigger events, like this past weekend for LOBO — a puppy-themed party — we had people who would get drinks and sit outside for a while and then come back into the party,” Hicks said. “So we do have a designated area if they want to go outside. I know they expanded or extended the permits for those through the end of February. That is what permitted for right now. What they do going forward after that, no one really knows yet.”
Ed Bailey, the co-owner of Number Nine and Trade, said his establishments would also be eliminating the mask requirement, but will continue to ask patrons to show proof of vaccination.
“People should feel totally free to wear masks if they want to, I know there will be people who do and there’ll be people who don’t,” Bailey said. “But we’re still going to ask everybody to show proof of vaccination to get inside. And maybe there’ll be a day in the future where we don’t do that. But we’ve learned, through the pandemic, to take this one step at a time.”
Bailey said he and his co-owners never reached a “boiling point” at which they were angry about the mask mandate, but simply looked forward to it eventually being lifted as a sign that things were improving.
“If people have put their heads together and come to the conclusion that maybe it’s okay that it’s time for these mask mandates to be gone, then I’m going to trust that and we’re going to move forward with that. Hopefully this is a sign that we are one step closer to the brighter new world,” he said.
“I will say I was surprised today to hear this order,” Bailey added. “It is a more aggressive decision than I feel has been made [by the city] previously. So I welcome it, I just was surprised by it. I just thought we’d probably try to make it through the cold and flu season and then maybe there would be something like this where the masks would go. But clearly some people who are smarter than me put their heads together and figured out it’s perfectly fine to do this now.”
He noted that a large number of the bars’ patrons will be enthusiastic about the mandate disappearing.
“Just working at the bars, I can tell you that a large majority of people are going to welcome this shift,” he said. “It’s certainly a relief from the standpoint of bar workers, who have been put in a position to have to manage and police the concept of wearing masks. So the relief of not having to have those confrontational moments is just so invigorating. That alone is a very welcome part of this process.”
Dan Snyder, the owner of the kink and fetish gear store TrickBox, also welcomes the end of the mask mandate, just from a policing standpoint. During the pandemic, Snyder had required masks to enter TrickBox, but never asked for proof of vaccination.
“Honestly, I think it’s probably too soon,” he said of the mayor’s decision. “But on the flip side, there’s increasingly so many places where masks aren’t required. So it’s honestly gotten to a point where you can really see folks are tired of the mandate.
“At the store, we haven’t had many problems with the masks, in terms of reminding people to put them on, through most of the pandemic,” Snyder said. “But as of late, I feel I’m constantly reminding people to wear them. Even when they come in with them, they’ll take them off, they’ll pull them down. The focus has waned significantly. So there’s a part of me that feels it will make my life a lot easier. But personally, I feel like I will continue to wear masks for myself, but I will not make it a requirement for others.”
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