D.C. is requiring vaccines to enter restaurants and gyms. In most of its suburbs, it's a very different story.

·7 min read

At El Rey, a buzzing Mexican taqueria and bar in Northwest Washington, D.C., a bouncer planted outside on Saturday night asked the line of customers on U Street to show their vaccination cards. It was the first time staff had asked for the cards, meant to comply with a new vaccination rule in the District.

But eight miles away, at a sister El Rey location in Ballston, the door was open for anyone 21 and older to walk in and order a margarita or birria tacos - regardless of whether they had proof of vaccination or whether they were vaccinated at all.

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The very different scenes on either side of the Potomac River over the weekend reflect the increasingly uneven patchwork of local laws on vaccines and public-facing businesses: As some parts of the D.C. region move ahead with these requirements, their intended objectives may be hampered by a lack of regional cooperation, health experts say.

"Infectious diseases, pathogens, microbes - they don't respect any borders," said Amira Roess, a epidemiology and global health professor at George Mason University. "Realistically, given the fact that omicron is so transmissible and that there are so many breakthrough infections, the usefulness of the [measure] might be very difficult to assess."

And for those living, working or passing through D.C. who are most staunchly opposed to vaccination requirements, the mandate could also serve as an added incentive to head into the suburbs.

"My office will not comply. We will not show papers," Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., wrote on Twitter on Friday. "We will get our food from Virginia or we will bring it to work. Shame has befallen our nation's capital."

Late last month, D.C.'s Democratic Mayor Muriel E. Bowser had announced plans to begin implementing a vaccination mandate for businesses, which requires that customers entering restaurants, bars, nightclubs or gyms show proof they have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Bowser said the effort was meant to boost vaccination rates as the omicron variant continues to drive a sharp surge in new cases and hospitalizations across the region.

In Montgomery County, lawmakers are set this week to discuss rolling out a similar effort, potentially introducing a "vaccine passport" that could include standardized software showing someone's vaccination status. County officials have said their rules would closely mirror the District's to foster a regional approach between the two jurisdictions.

But without similar rules elsewhere in the D.C. region - including Prince George's County in Maryland and all of Northern Virginia - some infectious-disease scientists say there's a major hole in the plan: Securing a vaccination-free meal, drink or workout is as easy as riding a few stops on the Metro.

"The more comprehensive and ubiquitous the system, the more effective it will be," said Sabrina McCormick, an environmental and occupational health professor at George Washington University. "It is only by working together as a community in this region - and across the country - that we can protect each others' health."

In Baltimore, Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott has proposed the idea of a regional vaccine passport to the leaders of Maryland's eight most populous jurisdictions, including Prince George's County. County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said in a statement that she "will continue to look at this and other options to keep Prince Georgians safe."

In Virginia, however, there may be less of a path forward. Katie Cristol, a Democrat who was selected earlier this month by her colleagues to serve as chair of the Arlington County Board, said in an interview that independently choosing to implement a vaccine passport "is not an option for Virginia localities, period."

Arlington and other counties and cities in Virginia are limited by the Dillon Rule, which requires the county to seek permission from Richmond for any powers they are not already expressly granted. Virginia's Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who was inaugurated on Saturday, campaigned on his opposition to vaccination requirements and has already signed an executive order rescinding vaccine mandates for public employees.

"Regional alignment and regional collaboration is a self-evident good when it comes to responding to the virus," Cristol said. But she was a bit more skeptical, she added, that implementing a mandate in Arlington to follow D.C. and Montgomery would "change the direction of the pandemic in our region."

The county has one of the highest vaccination rates in Virginia, with about 72 percent of residents fully vaccinated, according to federal data. And, she noted, the lack of a vaccination requirement in Arlington has not stopped some businesses from taking matters into their own hands.

Galaxy Hut, the popular vegan-friendly drive-in Arlington's Clarendon neighborhood, has been requiring proof of vaccination since last fall. The Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes Rustico in the Ballston neighborhood, started asking for vaccination cards as of Jan. 1, a policy enforced at its 18 locations around the D.C. area.

Many others, however, have continued to let customers in without checking vaccination cards - and under local and state rules, they don't need to.

Mark Bucher, the owner of Medium Rare, a steakhouse with locations in Arlington, Bethesda, Md., and D.C., said that although he has required vaccination and booster shots for staffers at all three locations, they will check customers' vaccination status only where it is mandated by law.

Bucher said he thought that D.C.'s vaccine business requirement might drive some customers across the river, noting that Medium Rare's Arlington location has already seen a 5 percent to 10 percent sales increase in recent months.

He also said different policies were creating confusion for customers and his staff, who have shifted among the three locations because of coronavirus-related staffing shortages.

"It's chaos," he said. "Just come up with one method and just agree on it, and we'll do it."

Mykl Wu, a spokesperson for El Rey, said the restaurant had no plans to check vaccination cards at its Virginia location, even as it begins to do so in D.C. "Our standpoint is we will follow whatever the government dictates us to do," he said.

Tom Gates, the deputy director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said coordinating a regional response on the matter is a unique - but in some sense, familiar - challenge for the D.C. metro area, with eight major localities that can differ wildly on policies and governance structures.

"This is not novel for a region like ours," he said. "The ability of a local jurisdiction in Virginia is different than a local jurisdiction in Maryland or the District, and that does impact the ability of the region to act as one in this regard."

Bowser, for example, reimposed the District's mask mandate in late December after lifting it for about a month. Northern Virginia localities have not had such a measure since May.

Gates also said that vaccination passports could in some sense be even harder to coordinate than an issue like face masks. While masks have also been the subject of endless political debate in recent months, mayors and county leaders could at least point to federal guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For now, the lack of vaccination requirements in Northern Virginia appears to be a draw for the most vocal critics of such measures.

Organizers for the "Defeat the Mandates DC" demonstrations Sunday, which are meant to protest vaccine mandates at all levels of government, said on their website that they specifically reserved hotel blocks for protesters in Arlington because of Bowser's vaccine passport requirement.

The mandate does not directly apply to hotels, but some attendees indicated on a Facebook page for organizers that they were canceling reservations in D.C. and instead booking rooms across the Potomac.

Still, McCormick, the GWU professor, said they're in the minority.

"I would not expect that we are going to see vaccine status and the need to prove that driving hordes of people away," she said. "If people are publicly declaring they're not going to go to a restaurant [because of such a rule], I wouldn't believe them for a second."

Fritz Hahn contributed to this story.

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