Lifting DC’s Strict Indoor Mask Mandate Triggers Mix of Confusion, Anxiety and Relief

A mile northeast of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., along what’s known as the H Street corridor, about half the people crowding the sidewalks are wearing masks. Perhaps it’s because they know that when they step into any business or establishment here, they will have to put one on anyway. The capital, after all, is one of the few remaining cities or states nationwide that mandate masks for public indoor spaces — at least it has, until today.

“We have a bunch of rule followers,” said Claire Bengur, the owner of Atlas Salon, which has been in the neighborhood since 2018. “I am so thankful that my salon is in D.C.” She’s been glad to have a mask requirement, she said, because it’s impossible to do clients’ hair without standing close to them.

Bengur is unsure how to feel about Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decision to roll back the mandate. As the covid-19 pandemic has worn on, many Washingtonians have come to view masking as something between a habit and a security blanket. Even when the rule was lifted for about two months starting in May, many people continued to use masks in places like grocery stores. While face coverings will still be required in select spaces, such as public transit and schools, the District of Columbia will no longer require them in private businesses like Atlas Salon. And that has triggered mixed feelings.

Claire Bengur, owner of Atlas Salon on the H Street corridor in Washington, D.C., has operated here since 2018. She is unsure how she feels about the rollback of the city’s mask mandate. (Krishna Sharma / KHN)

Bengur had been debating whether to continue to ask clients to wear masks because the district gives businesses that option. But at the same time, “there is a certain level of excitement … like I don’t want to wear masks forever.” She ultimately decided to let clients choose for themselves. Bengur and her staff feel more at ease than they did earlier in the pandemic because her salon requires proof of vaccination.

A block away at the H Street Northeast location of Solidcore, a boutique fitness chain that started in the district, CEO Bryan Myers had an it’s-about-time take. “This will be game-changing for our clients’ comfort while working out and the health of our industry,” he said.

H Street in northeast Washington, D.C., is a bustling corridor of small local businesses, from live music venues and pie shops to salons and fitness clubs. (Krishna Sharma / KHN)

On the whole, Washington has been especially cautious when it comes to covid, which has helped the city avoid the worst of the pandemic. Now, the mayor is moving away from ordering protective measures and instead offering recommendations based on vaccination status.

This change can partly be explained by adjustments in the district health department’s goal, which no longer is to reach zero cases. Viewing covid as more of an “endemic” disease — one regularly found in particular populations — Bowser explained her decision this way: “This does not mean that everyone needs to stop wearing their masks. But it does mean that we are shifting the government’s response to providing you risk-based information.” While she’s reserved the right to reinstate the mandate, Bowser has doubled down on her decision. “Quite frankly, I don’t expect many D.C. residents will change their current behavior,” she said Friday during an interview on a local radio show.

The shift has some residents feeling perplexed, if not nervous, especially given the timing.

Children ages 5 to 11 just became eligible for vaccination, so they are not fully immunized yet, and infections are likely to climb with the holidays coming. Cases have already increased in half the states. That neighboring Montgomery County reinstated its mask mandate over the weekend leaves some people all the more baffled. A majority of district council members are already pushing the mayor to reconsider. Meanwhile, the White House, just steps from the mayor’s office, is not lifting its mask requirement, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends one given the substantial level of community transmission.

“I’m a little bit iffy about the whole thing,” said Sandra Basanti, co-owner of Pie Shop, which offers fresh pies and live music on H Street.

Basanti has two young children who are not yet fully vaccinated. She’s unsure whether she’ll require customers to wear masks but expects to — at least at first. She’s hesitant because staffers received pushback when Pie Shop became one of the first venues in town to impose a vaccine requirement. She would like to see Washington follow New York City’s example and require proof of vaccination to enter public spaces such as shopping centers, sports arenas and theaters.

Sandra Basanti co-owns Pie Shop, which offers fresh pies and live music on H Street in Washington, D.C. She is unsure whether she’ll require patrons to wear masks. (Krishna Sharma/KHN)

“We were just kind of waiting for the city to make that call for us so that we wouldn’t have to fight people on it, and they never did,” said Basanti. “I just don’t want to make the staff feel like they now also have to be the mask police again.”

“Being the mask police sucks,” she added.

The owner of the dive bar across the street agrees. “I’m very exhausted with arguing with people about masks and all the different things,” said Tony Tomelden of the Pug, which will not require patrons to wear masks but will insist that they be vaccinated. “Once a week, at least, there’s some kind of argument with some customer.”

Tomelden worries that talk of endemic covid means leaders are moving on without addressing all the pandemic-induced needs of small businesses beyond masking. “I’m so tired of begging for a break on bills and for grants and that kind of thing, but we’re still not fully recovered,” he said.

Like residents, public health experts are not in agreement on whether the district is acting prematurely.

“It makes sense,” Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, said of the mayor’s decision. She reasoned that, thanks to vaccination, the district has few covid hospitalizations and deaths. “At the same time … we don’t really know how it’s going to go.”

About half the people walking along H Street in northeast Washington, D.C., are wearing masks.(Krishna Sharma / KHN)

Meanwhile, Dr. David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he generally recommends against easing restrictions at a time like this. “My expectation is that we’re likely to see something of an increase in cases over the winter,” he said, “and then this probably is going to become after that point in time something of an endemic disease.”

“We’ve come this far. It probably is not too difficult to keep our guard up for a couple more months,” he added. “But the flip side of that is we’ve been doing this for a really long time and people are very tired.”

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, sees Washington’s experience as emblematic of what can happen when leaders do not clearly explain their response to covid or why mask mandates are imposed or withdrawn.

Part of the challenge, Osterholm said, is that the explanations are unsatisfying. “We do not understand why surges start or stop,” he said. “Why they start and stop surely can’t be tied to human mitigation strategies. What can be tied to those is how big those surges get.”