As Other Big Cities Tighten Mask and Vaccine Mandates, D.C. Becomes a Surprising Island of Relative Sanity

The nation's capital has perhaps the least intrusive pandemic policies of any big, blue American city.


America's Democratic governors and mayors are once again tightening their pandemic rules, this time in reaction to the new omicron variant.

Starting today, New Yorkers statewide will have to wear masks at any indoor public place that doesn't require proof of vaccination as a condition of entry. The affected places include not just bars and restaurants, but also offices, houses of worship, and the common areas of residential buildings.

That new mandate, announced Friday by Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, follows New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's tightening of the city's vaccine requirements. De Blasio's order requires all private-sector employees in the city to be vaccinated beginning December 27. People will also need at least two doses of the vaccine to dine out or to visit gyms, bowling alleys, or other public venues. Children 5 and up will need to be vaccinated to participate in school sports or a school band.

Not to be outdone, Philadelphia announced today that anyone entering an establishment that sells food or drink will need to be vaccinated. The new rules apply to convention centers, but only if food is being served.

The new policy doesn't cover children under 5. It also allows people to claim medical and religious exemptions. But all those exempted groups will still have to show a negative COVID test taken with 24 hours to enter public venues that have a capacity for 1,000 or more people.

It's a similar story in the bluest parts of America. Oregon still requires masks in indoor settings, and health authorities there are drafting a permanent mask rule to replace a temporary mandate that's set to expire in February. Washington state likewise requires masks in most indoor settings. (It includes exemptions for children under 5, people who are deaf or have another disability that makes it difficult to wear a mask, and people who are literally unconscious.) Both San Francisco and Los Angeles have adopted indoor mask mandates and requirements that people be vaccinated to enter indoor venues. And while Massachusetts' Republican governor, Charlie Baker, ended his state's mask mandate months ago, the city government of Boston is keeping its requirement in place. It even applies to Santa Claus:

Standing athwart all these late pandemic mandates shouting "eh, not right now" is, improbably, Washington, D.C.

In the nation's capital, the city government has chosen not to reimpose a mask mandate it repealed last month. Nor has it tried to impose the general vaccine requirements for public venues or private-sector workers that other cities have adopted.

Instead, city officials have offered a surprisingly sane message that COVID-19 is not going to disappear anytime soon and that the city's residents need to start moving on with their lives.

"This does not mean that everyone needs to stop wearing their mask," said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at a November press conference announcing the mask mandate's repeal. "But it does mean we're shifting the government's response to providing you this risk-based information."

LaQuandra Nesbitt, the direct of D.C. Health, sounded a similar note at the same press conference, saying that the district expected COVID-19 to become endemic, similar to the flu, and that government's strategy would involve fewer mandates and more provision of data to help people assess their own risk for engaging in certain activities.

"We want to be able to help people understand sort of the long-term strategies for monitoring infectious disease that we [expect] will likely be endemic, always present in our community sort of the same way that influenza is," said Nesbitt, according to the New York Post.

To be clear, D.C. is hardly a libertarian paradise when it comes to COVID-19 policy—or any other kind of policy. Masks are still required on public transportation and in rideshare vehicles. You also have to wear them at schools, libraries, child care facilities, and government buildings where city employees interact directly with the public (i.e., the DMV). Vaccines are required for city workers, health care workers, and staff and frequent visitors to schools (including private schools). And Bowser has endorsed the Biden administration's order that private-sector employers with 100 or more employees must require them to be vaccinated or test negative for COVID-19.

These lingering requirements aren't great. But compared to the rest of blue America, they're not nearly as bad as they could be.

It's worth noting that the city's stance that businesses can adopt their own voluntary mask and vaccine mandates is also more respectful of private property and freedom of association than the policies in Florida and Texas that prohibit private vaccine requirements.

I have no special insight into why D.C. has somehow managed to clear the (admittedly very low) bar to earn the title of best big liberal city on COVID-19 policy.

It's one of the most liberal places in the country, with 92 percent of city voters supporting Joe Biden in the last presidential election. And it's not as though the place was particularly good on such issues previously in the pandemic: It was quick to reimpose a mask mandate in late July after the delta variant sparked a rise in COVID cases, even though COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations remained low and basically flat during that time.

Bowser's administration has also been pretty indifferent to businesses' pleas for flexibility throughout the pandemic. Earlier in the year, it ignored requests from some music venues that they be allowed to restart live performances if they required patrons and performers to be vaccinated. The city also rejected gyms' request that they be exempted from the (now repealed) mask mandate if they required vaccination for entry.

Yet for whatever reason, the city now seems wedded to a policy of merely encouraging, not requiring, residents to mask, vaccinate, and generally be cautious about COVID. It is sticking to this approach even as most other urban areas embrace wider and wider vaccine passport systems and mask mandates. It's not ideal, but it sure beats living in L.A.