News & Politics

DC Will Reinstate Indoor Mask Mandate, Ramp Up Covid Testing

DC has ordered over one million rapid antigen tests.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia user, NurseTogether.

A month after loosening DC’s mask rules, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced today that the city will reinstate its indoor mask mandate beginning December 21 at 6 a.m. through at least the end of January. The reversal comes as Covid cases are surging amid the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. On Friday, DC reported 844 new Covid cases, the highest number in a single day since the pandemic began.

Bowser also announced plans to expand DC’s Covid testing after a weekend marked by long lines at testing sites and sold-out kits at many pharmacies. In addition, the DC government will expand its vaccine requirement for all city employees, contractors, and grantees to include a booster shot. There will be no test-out option. Lastly, DC Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced that all schools will be closed for instruction on January 3 and 4 to distribute Covid tests to students, teachers, and staff. 

Bowser got rid of DC’s indoor mask mandate on November 22—with some exceptions, including schools and public transportation. (Private business could set their own policies.) The move immediately faced backlash from the majority of DC councilmembers, who penned an open letter urging the mayor to reverse her decision. Asked if she regretted dropping the indoor mask mandate in the first place, Bowser said, “I don’t regret evolving with the virus, which is exactly what we’ve done throughout the virus. As conditions warranted, we’ve changed our interventions, and we’re changing them again.”

As of noon today, DC has added nine additional public libraries and rec centers where residents can pick up and drop off free at-home PCR testing kits, bringing the total number of sites to 36. The at-home kits and those administered at DC’s testing sites are identical and go to the same labs on the same day. Current turnaround time for results averages around a day and a half.

“We have enough tests available in the community to serve everyone who wants a test,” says Patrick Ashley of DC Health. He says DC has ordered over 1 million rapid antigen tests, the majority of which are BinaxNOW tests. So far, 42,000 of those tests are on-hand and 200,000 are in transit. The rest are expected in the next three to four weeks.

Beginning Wednesday, December 22, rapid antigen tests will be available at eight DC libraries (one in each ward), six days a week. About 1,000 of those kits will be available at each library per day to start. Residents can get two free rapid test kits (with two tests per kit) per day and must show proof of residency. DC encourages people to report their at-home results, no matter where the tests came from, here.

DC Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced that all classes have been cancelled on Monday, January 3, and Tuesday, January 4 to allow for students, teachers, and staff to get tested. The school system will distribute 100,000 rapid antigen test-yourself kits to every public and charter school on those days. While the tests are “highly encouraged,” students will not be required to show a negative test to return to school.

So far, at least three DCPS schools have gone virtual through the start of the winter break because of an increase in reported Covid cases. At the same time, city and school officials say there are no current plans to halt in-person instruction across the city.

“At this time, our health officials have not indicated that there’s a need to discontinue operations at our schools, but we will do assessments case by case at each school,” Ferebee said.

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Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.