Newsletter: A Year of Difficult Decisions, Including Thanksgiving
I wish you a happy and COVID-safe Thanksgiving celebration! For me, that means not hosting my extended family’s annual get-together given advice from our public health professionals to be indoors only with those in your immediate household. I will also miss my tradition of getting pre-turkey exercise with friends at one of the area’s charity turkey trots! I’ve decided instead to create my own 5K run (walk) to benefit some local nonprofits; I encourage other annual turkey trotters to consider doing the same for local groups of your choice, which are helping fill major safety net gaps at this time.
Colder weather has brought on the predicted uptick in COVID+ cases in the District. Yesterday, Mayor Bowser announced additional restrictions (visual presentation here) to halt community spread of the virus, including reducing indoor restaurant seating capacity to 25 percent by Dec. 14; shutting down all live music venues and indoor gym classes immediately; limiting indoor worship services to 50 people; and keeping all indoor gatherings at 10 people or less.
I agree with the Mayor that data needs to drive our COVID-19 decision-making, and that is why I am struggling to understand the choices made in this latest announcement. Like many of you, I want to know what contact tracing interviews reveal about the activities of COVID+ people in DC, and where our residents and workers face the highest risk of transmission. DC Health has been applauded by the DC Auditor and others for its data collection, but some key pieces of information have been missing or infrequently included in public presentations. I have asked DC Health to release to the Council what they call “cluster data,” which shows in what settings we are seeing groups of cases (daycare centers, restaurants, gyms, etc.), so that we can understand and explain why certain restrictions are put in place. I am also asking for a consistent public release of what they call “exposure data,” which shows activities reported by COVID+ interviewees during their likely infectious period.
Other states publicly report this information. It helps build public support and compliance with restrictions put in place, which is critical to flattening the curve and stopping community spread. More explanation and thoughts on the latest adjustments to Phase 2 appear below.
As a community and as a local government, we face many difficult decisions right now, and included at the top of that list is how we safely return our students, educators, and staff back to school buildings and in-person learning. This needs to be a top priority of our government. As chair of the Council’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, I have multiple concerns about the education of our future workforce; the ability of working parents to earn a living and stay sane; and the health and safety of not only our students but adults who serve meals, drive buses, provide health services, teach and perform all other duties essential to the operations of our public schools.
I heard from many in the DC Public Schools (DCPS) community that though they share an urgency to resume in-person learning, they need more transparency and notice to understand the plans, as well as opportunities for collaboration and feedback to build confidence and trust moving forward. I agree, and as a way to promote more public conversation on this important area of public policy, I introduced emergency legislation last week and engaged in conversations with Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and the public sector unions who represent staff in our public schools.
Last week’s legislative session was an additional meeting of the Council, and Chairman Mendelson used his prerogative to exclude the legislation from consideration on the agenda. My response last week to that announcement is here, and I decided to use the extra time as an opportunity to respond to feedback, revise the legislation, and to focus on how to build meaningful collaboration and on what transparency and metrics are needed.
I am continuing that work this week. I am talking to the Chancellor and the Executive, our public sector unions that are critical to reopening, parents, Chairman Mendelson and my colleagues on the Council. Our plan for reopening is not something we can create in a vacuum or roll out last-minute, creating more chaos for parents and everyone involved. I remain committed to increasing engagement, transparency, and equity as we move forward with our plans for educating DC students.
Stay safe, enjoy Thanksgiving, and please wear your masks in public and if you are going to be indoors with any family and friends outside your immediate household. I encourage you to look at this El Pais visualization on how COVID-19 spreads indoors in various settings.
In This Issue:
- Unemployment Benefits + Committee Updates
- District Bridge Fund
- Legislative Updates
- Resource Roundup
Q. When I applied for extended unemployment benefits, I received a message that I had wages in other states, which meant my claim would be delayed while those wages were investigated. I have had no out of state wages in the last year, so why am I receiving this message?
A. All workers receiving unemployment benefits in DC can extend the length of their benefits under one of two programs, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) or Extended Benefits (EB). Traditional unemployment Insurance claimants need to first apply for PEUC, then EB. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claimants will soon be able to apply for EB. When you apply for either, the system triggers a review for out of state wages, which delays the claim process. I am working closely with my committee staff and DOES to find fast solutions to these issues and eliminate the long delays this review is causing.
The long-predicted cold weather COVID-19 spike has begun. Our community spread indicator and several other metrics are very worrisome, and the number of positive cases in DC is now as high as it was in May – when we were under a strict stay at home order. In response, the Mayor has announced additional restrictions as we remain in Phase 2. Highlights are below (all but one go into effect this Wednesday), and the full details can be found in the Mayor’s Monday Situational Update.
- Indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people and outdoor gatherings to 25 (restaurants and houses of worship have their own, different restrictions)
- Restaurants: Alcohol sales must end at 10 p.m. and establishments must close by midnight. Starting 12/14, indoor restaurant capacity will be reduced to 25 percent from 50 percent.
- Indoor gym *group* classes are suspended, and outdoor classes limited to 25 persons. Individual workouts (ex., using a treadmill) will still be allowed.
- Indoor worship services capped at 50 people or 25 percent capacity, whichever is less.
- DC’s live entertainment pilot suspended.
As I mentioned above, I am struggling to understand how these decisions were made. Why, for example, are all other restrictions are going into effect immediately while the reduction of restaurant capacity will take effect in three weeks? As Labor Chair and as someone who gets at least a dozen emails from unemployed workers a day, I understand how these public health measures have clobbered our restaurant industry. That is why I think we should explore using our emergency contingency funds to compensate our restaurants for shutting down temporarily to stop the spread. We know from the little exposure data released in DC and from national and other states' data that restaurants are high-risk for workers and patrons because they are one of the only public spaces where masks are off.
In yesterday’s announcement, the Mayor emphasized that data guided these decisions. All I’m asking is that you and I see some of the data that led to these important decisions and decisions to come. I have been one of several Councilmembers who have asked that a short question be added to contact tracing about indoor dining. I will continue asking the Executive and DC Health to provide information (such as cluster data) to help the Council and the public more safely operate during this pandemic.
The District has expanded public testing availability. Nationals Park is now open as a new testing site, and firehouse hours have been extended to operate from 2:30pm-7:30pm (firehouse testing on weekends will remain from 12:00pm-4:00pm). Daytime sites at F Street, UDC, and Anacostia will also have extended hours from 8:30am-1pm.
New procedure at testing sites: You will be asked for your insurance information when you sign up for a public testing point. However, nobody will be turned away for a lack of insurance. A full list of testing site locations and availability can be found here.
Holiday Travel and High-Risk States
DC Health is changing how it presents information on hot-spot states. We will now get bi-weekly updates listing states that are not considered high risk and don’t require additional testing or quarantine measures if you travel to or from them. Currently, Hawaii is the only non-high risk state listed, while Virginia and Maryland are exempt. Travel is strongly discouraged this holiday season, as are gatherings with those outside your household.
If you haven’t already, please be sure to install the DC COVID Alert Notice (“DC CAN”) on your smartphone or mobile device. DC CAN can be enabled for iPhone users directly through your settings (no app required), or by downloading an app in the Google Play store for Android users. The system only works if the user decides to opt-in. You control whether you receive Exposure Notifications and you can turn it off any time. Click here to learn more about DC CAN and how to activate it on your device.
As I mentioned up top, returning our students to in-person learning safely needs to be a top priority. The process so far has been chaotic and confusing, and I don’t think that is in the best interests of any members of the DCPS community.
Here is where we are with Term 2, which began November 9: Right now, almost all DCPS students are continuing distance learning. Starting last Wednesday (11/17), DCPS opened 29 schools for CARE classrooms, which brought a prioritized group of students back to the classroom setting to continue distance learning. The CARE classrooms are staffed not by teachers, but paraprofessionals and other school staff. Though DCPS expected about 400 students to come back to the classroom last week through this model, at least one news outlet reported that only about 200 students ended up in the classrooms.
I have many questions about how the CARE classroom model has worked so far, and what the plans are to make decisions either scaling up or down based on the uptick in COVID numbers. Again, I think this speaks to a much greater need for transparency and collaboration with the DCPS community.
The Washington Teachers Union (WTU) is continuing its negotiations with DCPS around returning teachers to classrooms for Terms 2 and the rest of the school year. I have been in touch with WTU as well as with the other unions representing workers in the DCPS community. There is a shared urgency to return to the classroom safely and a desire to do it collaboratively with DCPS and the Executive. I am continuing to monitor this issue closely and look for ways to ensure that DCPS families, teachers, and staff are given seats at the decision-making table as we continue to educate our students through a pandemic. As always, I welcome hearing from any of you who have questions or concerns about our school reopening plans.
I remain focused on putting money in the pockets of our unemployed and underemployed workers. I am also frustrated by the bureaucratic delays that have kept money out of the pockets of workers. I have received some updates from the Department of Employment Services (DOES) about why many workers may be receiving error notices or why delays on extended benefits may be occurring, but I am more interested right now in solutions for how we can troubleshoot errors and expedite claims.
To try and get those answers, I am holding another Public Oversight Roundtable on UI issues – with a focus on extended benefits – on December 9, 2020. Live witnesses should sign up to testify by December 7 at 5:00pm. Written and voicemail testimony will be accepted until 5:00pm on December 23. I hope that DOES will see fit to join us and to come prepared with answers to the many questions I have, and the many more questions I have received from all of you. It is beyond time we got this right.
I would also like to share this video with tips for troubleshooting UI claims made for us by DC resident and longtime business owner, Mr. Taalib-Din Uqdah. Please feel free to share this video widely with anyone who might benefit from Mr. Uqdah’s excellent tips: 1) Be ready, have all your documents at hand 2) Keep detailed notes 3) Use screenshots to keep a record of submissions and updates 4) Don’t give up! 5) Know your rights.
The District has recently launched a new grant program for our local businesses. The District Bridge Fund will provide $100 million in COVID-relief grants to hotels, restaurants, retail, and entertainment businesses. Hotel funds will be available first (applications are open) because a large portion of those funds are from the CARES Act and will expire soon. The remaining funds will be provided through the District’s contingency reserves. Grant applications for the remaining categories are set to open by December 22, 2020.
- Hotels: $30 million, up to 140 grants ranging from $10,000 – $270,750. 80% of grant funds will have to go to payroll expenses.
- Restaurants: $35 million, up to 700 grants ranging from $10,000 – $50,000
- Entertainment: $20 million, up to 400 grants ranging from $4,000 –$100,000
- Retail: $15 million, up to 575 grants ranging from $5,000 – $25,000
In line with the District’s commitment to equity, a minimum of 15% of the grant funds must go to businesses owned by DC residents who are people of color or women.
Several important bills have been moving in the Council recently, including bills discussed during last Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole and legislative meeting. I am including a few highlights from those sessions below:
Protections for Workers Using Medical Marijuana
The Council unanimously passed a bill from my committee, the Medical Marijuana Program Patient Employment Protection Amendment Act. The bill protects District of Columbia government workers who are participants in a medical marijuana program. DC has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana, but there are no employment protections for our government workers. That means workers can be disciplined or even fired for legally using marijuana, even if it is medically necessary. This bill stops the District government from punishing its workers for using marijuana, as long as the workers aren’t impaired or using marijuana at work. The bill also excludes workers in “safety sensitive” positions, like a front-line police officer or firefighter. Thanks to Councilmember David Grosso for originally introducing this bill, which will make sure that we are treating our public servants fairly.
Strengthening Renter Protections
Over the last several months, the Council has been working diligently to strengthen renter protections and ensure DC residents can stay housed during the pandemic. In September, the Council unanimously passed my Eviction Notice Moratorium Act, and since then we have seen new protections introduced by several other Members. The Council passed legislation introduced by Councilmember Mary Cheh to seal eviction records after 30 days if the court does not find in favor of the landlord as well as an amendment by Councilmember Charles Allen requiring servers to send photographic proof of the delivery of the filings to the court. You can find a detailed summary of these bills and the issues that inspired them on Councilmember Cheh’s website.
The Council unanimously approved The Racial Equity Achieves Results Act of 2020 (aka “The REACH Act”) on our second and final vote on the bill. The Act, sponsored by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, will help to improve racial equity in the District by requiring the Office of Human Rights and the Department of Human Resources to develop and provide racial equity training for District employees; amending the D.C. code to require the Office of Budget and Planning to design and implement a racial equity tool to aid in eliminating disparities among D.C. employees; and requiring the Mayor to include racial equity-related performance measures in the development of an agency’s annual performance plans.
There are several important updates for residents in this newsletter, so please take a look!
Senior appointments available at the DMV!
As of November 10, the DMV has started holding appointment slots specifically to serve seniors who need or desire in-person appointments. Residents 65+ can schedule in-person appointments over the phone or use the DMV’s 65+ portal online.
Fall Leaf Collection
After initially piloting a different collection approach for this year, the Department of Public Works (DPW) has decided to return to business as usual and resumed their usual leaf collection program this week. Please gather leaves at your nearest tree box or curbside area for collection – leaves should not be swept into the street! If you have already received paper bags from DPW for collection, feel free to use or recycle them as you see fit. Click here for the full schedule for collection.
Compost your pumpkins
Don’t dump those pumpkins, give your jack-o-lanterns a second life in November as compost! DPW is accepting pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns for compost at food waste drop-off sites located at residential farmers markets: Pumpkin Rescue 2020.
Winter Ready DC Assistance Program
DC’s annual Winter Ready DC campaign to encourage residents to prepare their homes for winter and avoid high utility bills kicks off this month. Residents who sign up for the program can receive a free weatherization kit and learn about resources and assistance programs to help manage their utility bills.
Health Insurance Open Enrollment
Open Enrollment is here! Individuals and families can now renew or enroll in affordable, quality health insurance coverage. If you would like your insurance coverage to be effective January 1, 2021, you will need to enroll by December 15, 2020. Open enrollment ends January 31, 2020. For more information, visit http://DCHealthLink.com.
Updated list of school meal sites
Don’t forget, students can get their school meals from any school! Click here to find meal sites based on bus lines.
- DC Medical Reserve Corps
- DC Public Schools: Volunteer needed for meal sites.
- Capital Area Food Bank: Sort and pack food in their warehouse and assist in offsite food distribution.
- Food and Friends DC: Food preparation and packaging and meal and grocery delivery.
- Grace’s Table: Homeless meal services on Saturdays.
- Martha’s Table: Prepare and bag food for their emergency food sites across the city.
- Food for All DC: Drive groceries to seniors, immunocompromised, and homebound residents.