Comment: Inconsisten mask policies aren’t helping anyone

Some in the nation’s capital say a confusing policy has shifted the policing burden to employees.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

Sam the Barista is not pleased that his mayor gave him a new task at work, one that’s a lot harder than getting the foam just right on a cardamom latte.

“Service is hard,” said Sam, who will no longer have the might of the law behind him when he asks combative customers to do like the rest of Washington, D.C., does and put their darn masks on. “It’s even harder when you have to play the mask police.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, is ending the city’s indoor mask mandate on Monday; and it makes little sense in a dynamic city that hasn’t been freaking out, Florida-style, about mask-wearing.

Bowser’s move seems to placate a specific criticism. It allows bars and restaurants to drop what some have called “mask theater”; wearing your mask for the 20-second walk to your table, then taking it off to chow or sip. But there are plenty of small-business owners furious that the masking onus is now on them.

“I fear there will not only be more maskless customers,” said Sam the Barista — who spoke on the condition that his last name and the name of his coffee shop not be used, because he’s in a fragile stage of changing jobs (who blames him) — “but that there will be more frequent and defensive confrontations.”

And Sam has a point. Remember the dad who attacked his child’s teacher in California, the customer who killed a cashier in a Georgia grocery store and the 44 percent of McDonald’s employees who have been verbally or physically assaulted, all while trying to enforce mask-wearing?

Bowser got blasted by other city leaders, who were again stung by the lack of collaboration with the mayor.

“We urge you to reverse your decision to drop the mask mandate,” said a letter signed by 10 of D.C.’s 13 council members rebuking the call and pointing out that “even the White House” is keeping its indoor mandate in place.

The council members said Bowser put the District “ahead of the science” and said she’s ignoring vulnerable children who cannot be vaccinated, as well as children over age 5 who became eligible for the vaccine only two weeks ago.

“Our businesses also crave consistency,” the letter said.

This move is confusing. Besides places like the White House, here’s where you still must wear a mask indoors in D.C., according to the mayor’s office:

• Any private business that wants a mask requirement can ask, but their ask will not be enforced by police.

• On buses and trains, inside train stations, in airports and while in ride-hail vehicles.

• Inside schools, child-care facilities and libraries.

• Nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, shelters, dorms, residences and correctional facilities.

• In D.C. government facilities where there is direct interaction between employees and the public, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Confused yet?

Business owners I talked to said explaining all the caveats will muddle their cases, especially because a lot of our neighboring jurisdictions do not have similar mandates. And Montgomery County in Maryland keeps flip-flopping on theirs, switching back to Mask On this week. The council letter called it “whiplash-like.”

D.C. has had one of the strictest indoor mask mandates in the nation; and it’s been working pretty well. Why mess with it?

Our infection rate is low and, culturally, we’re not the place of anti-mask marches, fistfights or fury over government overreach.

As of this week, D.C. reported 81 new cases for every 100,000 residents. That’s enough to put the city in the “substantial” spread zone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means refusing to wear a mask in D.C. is a little like sitting in the splash zone at Sea World and assuming you’re going to stay dry.

Sure, D.C. can be pleased with its vaccination rate higher than the national average (58.9 percent); health officials say 63 percent of D.C.’s adults are completely vaccinated. But there are also thousands of nonresidents who enter D.C. every day, some from places like Maryland (66.8 percent fully vaccinated) and some from places like the Anti-Vax Republic of West Virginia (41.5 percent vaccinated).

In before-times, the city swelled by as much as 800,000 nonresident commuters every day. The commuter rate has been much lower during the pandemic, but we’re still a regional hub that gets plenty of visitors who don’t care much for doing as the Washingtonians do. Example No. 1 is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (the Republican representing Georgia – 49 percent fully vaccinated), who refuses to get vaccinated and has racked up $63,000 in fines for refusing to wear a mask while working in the House.

Indeed, the out-of-towners have been the worst mask violators at Capitol Hill Books, a tiny townhouse of a store packed floor to ceiling in books with no chance for social distancing.

One customer recently came in “wearing a wire, mesh mask, flouting the spirit of the law,” said Kyle Burk, co-owner of the bookstore. “They did note that they were not from D.C.”

The store is going to keep the mask mandate, even though that sets workers up for a conflict when they don’t have city law backing them up.

“Nobody likes being told what to do,” Burk said. “But we were very relieved when we had to cover of it being an official city policy.”

Like Sam’s coffee shop, the bookstore has an employee with a compromised immune system. With the holidays approaching, the store is sure to be packed with visitors wandering in while touring Capitol Hill. And now, workers will be forced to police them with what feels like a government outsourcing of responsibility, Burk said.

The timing miffed the council, too.

“We are concerned that changing course entering the winter months, not to mention the week before a major travel holiday, is not a prudent course of action,” the D.C. Council letter said. “It sends a signal that public health concerns are back to normal when they are not.”

There will be no normal for a while. And doing anything different is normalcy theater. The longer we insist on pretending, the longer the real return to normal will take.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team.

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