May 12 Newsletter - D.C. Reopening, Unemployment, the Comprehensive Plan, Vaccines, and Q & A

Only half of District residents have gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control. Even if you take out all the kids who have not been eligible for the vaccine (emergency approval of the Pfizer vaccine happened earlier this week for 12 to 15-year-olds), that still leaves nearly 40 percent of District adult residents unvaccinated. 

Does that percentage surprise you? 

I ask, because a number of residents who email me or who have requested meetings with me say they don’t know anyone who hasn’t gotten at least one vaccination shot. And I believe them. But the data shows that nearly four out of ten District adults have not gotten even one shot, even though the supply of vaccine is plentiful, there are walk-in clinics, and many opportunities day and night to get protected against this virus.

The pandemic has put a bright spotlight on how in a city of less than 69 square miles, we can live vastly different lives and often not realize it. And this puts us in a predicament in crafting public policy for the greater good of all District residents, if we consider the District of Columbia a community as a whole. Because in some parts of our city, almost everyone is partially or fully vaccinated. Residents are eager to take off masks, get a cocktail at a bar, and see a show at the Kennedy Center or 9:30 Club -- and those businesses are eager to have them do it. In other parts of our city, residents are eager to get back to pre-pandemic life as well, but not everyone in their neighborhood or social circle has gotten vaccinated. So taking off a mask, going to a bar, and seeing a show can have deadly consequences.

On Monday, Mayor Bowser announced that almost all public-health-related restrictions will be lifted in less than two weeks. By June 11, pre-pandemic life will return: Bars will be open, Capital One Arena can be sold out for (hopefully) playoff hockey and basketball, and we can stand awkwardly close to random people once again. I have more information and infographics explaining the new rules below. But I will admit that the complete lifting of public health restrictions is worrisome to me. 

Perhaps it comes down to the term “community spread”: What community are we referring to? If COVID-19 remains a threat to the health and safety of residents in certain parts of our city but not other parts, is that a successful approach to stemming the virus? Data has shown that Black residents in our city have died at a much higher rate from COVID than white residents, and I am concerned this trend will exacerbate if we let down our guard and take a community posture that the threat of COVID to health and safety is over. As well, I am concerned that very rosy data showing the virus curbing has since been shown to have errors: Numbers are still trending downward, but not as robustly as the erroneous data led us to believe.

These are not easy decisions, and we need to take them on thoughtfully and judiciously.

Other big decisions are on the horizon: In two weeks, Mayor Bowser will present her budget to the Council, which will set off a two-month review process. This will be a pivotal budget for our city: We have the opportunity with this budget to move in a different direction and become a more just and equitable city. It is up to us.

More information below.

Top Questions of the Week

D.C. Reopening

Is it true that bars will be open soon?

Mayor Bowser announced a number of big changes earlier this week: She is lifting capacity restrictions on restaurants, retail, schools, and childcare facilities on May 21. And on June 11, D.C. Health will remove capacity limitations even on bars. The D.C. government is opening up as well -- by July 12, D.C. government employees will be required to be working in new in-office work schedules. 


My neighbor still hasn’t gotten vaccinated. Where can I tell her to go?

Even though our city is opening up, only about half of our residents are partially or fully vaccinated. This is worrisome for me -- if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated! It is now much easier than it was at the beginning of the year.

As I mentioned in my last newsletter, as of Saturday, May 1, the District transitioned to the use of 12 high-capacity, walk-up, no appointment needed vaccination sites. When you receive your first dose, you will make an appointment to get your second dose. If you have already received your first dose outside of  the District, the clinics are now providing second doses too -- just make sure that the site you go to is giving out the vaccine that you received initially (i.e., Pfizer or Moderna). The walk-up sites are operating in addition to the pharmacies, clinics, and healthcare providers that are also administering the vaccines citywide. 

If you can’t leave your home, call 1-855-363-0333 to arrange a vaccine to come to you. For any questions regarding the vaccine program, you can email [email protected]. And there’s more information at https://coronavirus.dc.gov/vaccinatedc, including how to schedule vaccine appointments at pharmacies and health centers.

I heard Pfizer approved vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds. Where can they get a shot in DC?

The city is preparing to offer walk-up vaccinations to 12 to 15-year-olds soon and is working to determine which sites will open to them. Shots could begin very soon, after a federal vaccine advisory committee issues recommendations on using the Pfizer vaccine for this age group. An announcement is expected this week. In the meantime, you can pre-register children 12 or older at Children's National Hospital. Click here to sign up on the invitation waitlist and Children’s will reach out when they’re eligible.  

16 and 17-year-olds can now get vaccinated at walk-up sites and pharmacies across DC that are administering the Pfizer vaccine. The six walk-up sites that are administering Pfizer are: Arena Stage, Fort Stanton Recreation Center, Lamond Recreation Center, Langdon Park Community Center, Rosedale Recreation Center, and RISE Demonstration Center. 

Do I still have to wear a mask if I am vaccinated?

Here’s a helpful graphic to answer this question.

What help is available to our restaurants?

You might have seen the news that President Joe Biden visited Las Gemelas at Union Market on May 5 to pick up quesadillas and tacos. Along with picking up food, he was there to highlight the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. This is a new federal Small Business Administration program that will provide emergency assistance for eligible restaurants, bars, and other qualifying businesses impacted by COVID-19. 

Qualifying businesses include: food trucks, caterers, bakeries, brewpubs and breweries, wineries, inns, and licensed facilities where the public can taste or sample products. For more information and to apply, click here for English or here for Spanish. You may also call 1-844-279-8898, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.


Unemployment Compensation

What about help for those still not working? Why is DC’s unemployment system so messed up? 

Many of our workers collecting unemployment benefits -- or trying to collect unemployment benefits -- are frustrated, confused, and angry. So am I.

Today I am co-chairing a hearing with my at-large colleague Robert White, who heads the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities, on Unemployment Insurance During the COVID-19 Pandemic. It is a mess, and unless I am persuaded otherwise, I’ll be using whatever legislative tools I have to work on a complete overhaul of the UI system.

Last week, nearly 40 people took time out of their day to describe their experiences with the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES). I appreciate all of the witnesses who provided very candid accounts of this difficult time in their lives. The point of the hearing was to identify patterns of problems with the unemployment system so that we can show DOES that these are not individual problems, but systemic. Several people brought up snags they’d had when they claimed out-of-state wages; many people encountered problems when the system had to be updated to account for additional federal benefits; and almost everyone said that communication from DOES was sorely lacking – both in advance of anticipated changes and after obvious problems. 

I have repeatedly pressed the administration to provide DOES with whatever resources it needs to quickly move through unemployment claims, and have been told by DOES that it doesn’t need anything else. But clearly, the system isn’t working, and our workers deserve better. People shouldn’t have to contact councilmembers to get their cases resolved. I agree with those who testified that a major part of the problem is communication between claimants and DOES as well as inadequate training for call-center staff.

Several people testified that they want to see DOES audited, so I’m pleased that the DC Office of the Inspector General announced that it will be doing an audit of DOES’ unemployment compensation program.

The hearing on May 5 was for public witnesses, and today, May 12, we heard from DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes. I will go into what happened at the second part of the roundtable in my next newsletter.


Comprehensive Plan

What the heck is the Comprehensive Plan and why do people on my neighborhood email group care so much about it?

The Comprehensive Plan is the land-use roadmap for the city. More broadly, it is a 20-year framework that guides future growth and development in D.C. Originally adopted in 2006, it was first amended in 2011. In 2020, Chapter 2, the Framework Element, was amended again. The Comprehensive Plan addresses a range of topics that affect how we grow and live in our city. As well as land use, these topics include economic development, housing, environmental protection, historic preservation, transportation, and more. Given how our city has changed since 2006, it’s important to amend the Comprehensive Plan to reflect today’s city from the perspective of housing, equity, resilience, and public resources -- especially as we recover from the pandemic. The D.C. Office of Planning uses the Comprehensive Plan to evaluate projects, developers use the Comprehensive Plan to guide their proposals, and community groups use the Comprehensive Plan to hold the D.C. government accountable. The Office of Planning has pulled together more information about the Comprehensive Plan here

OK, so why did you end up voting for the Comprehensive Plan during the legislative meeting on May 4 -- when it came up before, you voted "present"?

At the Committee of the Whole two weeks ago, I voted present on the Comprehensive Plan because I wasn’t confident I could vote yes. Among the reasons I was reluctant is that I had a 1,500-page document before me that I hadn’t had time to even skim; what I did thoroughly read was an assessment from the Council’s Office on Racial Equity that said the version before us would do little more than maintain the status quo. 

We know what happens if we continue the status quo: We will remain on the course of being a racially inequitable and divided city. That is unacceptable.

The Comprehensive Plan can be a powerful tool to make our city more equitable and fair, and even an amendment change can’t be a missed opportunity to do better. Along with other councilmembers, and informed by various voices from around the District, my office pushed to make the Comp Plan more specific about how our land-use will enable racial equity, by intentionally incentivizing affordability in high-cost neighborhoods and putting anti-displacement protections in place for low-income residents who will see their low-density communities redevelop. I was also glad to see language strengthened and become more intentional about affordable housing, acknowledging that 80% of what’s known as Median Family Income or MFI is not affordable for many Black families in our city, given the wealth gap between Black and white households. 

We started with a Comprehensive Plan update that mainly focused on meeting the Mayor’s housing goals. But we now have a Comprehensive Plan that helps us avoid the mistakes of the past that have displaced many Black and Latino families who like all of us want affordable, safe housing but don’t want to leave their neighborhood to achieve that. I hope with this land-use approach they can stay and thrive, but it’ll take much more work over the years ahead to make that a reality.