To Mask or Not in D.C.? It’s Confusing

Saturday, May 1, was a stupendously beautiful day in Washington, D.C.: 70-plus degrees, a blue cloudless sky, clear air, no cicadas yet. And not only that, the CDC had just declared that “fully vaccinated people can go without masks outdoors when walking, jogging or biking or dining with friends at outdoor restaurants.”   

“The relaxation of restrictions is another reason for people to get vaccinated,” President Biden said on Friday. He urged everyone to move forward — not just to protect themselves and those around them, but so they can live more normally — by “getting together with friends, going to the park for a picnic without needing a mask.” 

It was a perfect day to visit Hillwood, Marjorie Merriweather Post’s 13-acre hilltop estate. The grounds, tucked away on Linnean Avenue NW, feature several garden “rooms,” a greenhouse open to visitors, a large outdoor café and picnics areas. A stunning new exhibition of dozens of intricate glass and porcelain flower arrangements by Vladimir Kanevsky was open to preregistered visitors in the mansion, with social distancing in effect.  

Yet, on May 1, a strict mask-wearing policy was being enforced for everyone. In the increasingly hot sun — by 2 p.m., the temperature had topped 80 degrees — Hillwood’s gardeners, working alone in the flower beds, were sweating under their masks. Fully vaccinated visitors in their 80s who were not wearing masks were chastised by employees, even in the outdoor dining area (when they were not eating).   

Hillwood officials who did not wish to be identified explained to this reporter that Mayor Bowser had not yet lifted the outdoor mask-wearing order in line with the CDC declaration.  

In fact, the day before, on Friday, April 30, the mayor had issued six pages of new regulations. These provided for some loosening of mask requirements, specifying about a dozen situations where masks did not have to be worn outdoors — such as while doing vigorous exercise, passing people momentarily or swimming. The order stated that fully vaccinated persons can go maskless indoors while social distancing. It also allows eateries to ask to see a vaccination card to determine if a customer will be permitted to go maskless.   

“We are very confused as to what we can do and what we can’t do,” Mark Bucher, co-founder of Medium Rare, a restaurant with D.C., Maryland and Virginia locations, told the Washington Post. “That can be a case of the right hand not talking to the left hand, but it isn’t easy for us to distill the tea leaves.”

“I think that the law is pretty clear that folks can ask about vaccination,” Bowser told reporters on Saturday morning. The mayor was preparing to join hundreds of volunteers to canvas some D.C. neighborhoods, urging residents to get free vaccine shots and giving out masks printed with “Get Vaccinated” and similar messages. “The mask mandate applies to private businesses,” she tried to clarify. “If businesses are a public-serving facility, however, then they have to be open to the public.” 

By 6:45 p.m. that day, an updated order on the city’s website referred to the CDC guidelines, adding: “Businesses and other institutions are authorized to request to see someone’s vaccine card or other adequate proof of vaccination, consistent with any applicable federal or local law.” 

“Stricter ‘house rules’ of course will lead to more confrontations between staff and customers,” Ian Hilton, owner of V Street NW bar American Ice Co., tweeted. “Should have focused on increasing capacity rather than drawing the battle lines between the vaxxed and unvaxxed. A further divided world awaits.” 




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