Nation’s capital aims to start reopening May 29

Ashraf Khalil
Associated Press

Washington – After weeks of insisting the Washington, D.C., area is not ready to end its pandemic-induced lockdown, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser now says the numbers are pointing to the start of a gradual reopening process at the end of the month.

Bowser on Thursday penciled in Friday, May 29 as a potential start date for phase 1 of the District of Columbia’s proposed three-phase reopening plan. That includes restaurants allowing outdoor patio seating, non-essential businesses offering curbside pickup and hair salons and barbers operating by appointment at limited capacity.

A man wears a face mask to protect against the spread of the new coronavirus on his forehead as he walks past a closed store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, Thursday, May 21, 2020.

Bowser emphasized the gradual nature of the process and warned residents not to expect the lives they had in February to return in full any time soon.

“Let’s be clear on what this is and what this isn’t,” Bowser said. “This is not an on-off switch.”

Bowser had previously set the nation’s capital on a timeline that would have it beginning to reopen on June 8 at the earliest. That’s later than most jurisdictions around the country and a stark contrast to the sense of urgency to reopen coming from the White House.

“The mayor’s more conservative approach … is the right way to go,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington DC’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.

Although there have been one or two small protests to reopen DC faster, Norton said, “there was not an overwhelming desire on the part of District of Columbia residents to open up.”

The number of newly identified infections has fluctuated from day to day. But Bowser and Health Department Chief Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt say they put more faith in indicators that track the exact onset of symptoms as a better metric for determining the state of community transmission. Those numbers, they said, have been trending positive for 11 days now. If that trend continues through the weekend, Bowser said she would probably revise her current executive stay-home order, which is currently set to expire June 8.

Bowser has generally been working in coordination with neighboring counties in northern Virginia and southern Maryland. Although the rest of the state of Virginia, began reopening in mid-May, the northern counties balked and requested a delay. Now they’re on the same May 29 schedule as Washington.

The shift should be welcomed by Washington’s many restaurant owners, who have been hit hard by the forced closure. Andy Shallal, owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurant chain, said he wanted the city to move more quickly.

“If you leave it up to the health professionals, they’ll tell you to close for two years,” Shallal said. “I’m of the mindset that we need to open as soon as possible.”

Shallal serves on the Reopen DC committee as part of the restaurant subcommittee. He said the committee didn’t recommend any particular dates to Bowser, merely laying out a proposed framework and letting her decide on timing. “This is also a political decision. It’s not just based on the health statistics.”

Although he has been a public critic of Bowser in the past and ran against her for mayor in 2014, Shallal expressed sympathy for her position amid the pandemic.

Governors and defacto governors like Bowser “are getting it from all sides,” he said. “She’s a good politician but this is a really tough one.”