D.C. vaccine mandate garners mixed reactions and awkward searches for proof of doses

·5 min read

Restaurants, fitness centers and other indoor businesses in the District on Saturday began requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination, the first day of a mandate in the nation's capital that is geared toward curbing the latest surge of the coronavirus.

"Can I see your vaccination card and photo ID?" workers across the city asked customers over and over, receiving warm smiles from some who readily complied while others unaware of the new rule awkwardly searched their wallets and phones.

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The new rule applies to anyone 12 or older entering sit-down restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters and most other public places where people spend long periods sitting inside. Grocery stores, retail stores and houses of worship are among the exempt locations.

With the mandate, the District of Columbia joined other major cities that have implemented similar requirements - including New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Philadelphia - in hopes of reversing a dramatic spike in coronavirus infections brought on by the highly transmissible omicron variant.

The seven-day average for new cases in the Washington region was 31,333 entering into the holiday weekend, a record high for the pandemic and more than 10 times higher than the weekly average in early December. The District's seven-day average has trickled down during the past week to 1,690.

Amid pandemic fatigue in the District, some felt relieved, while others were irritated by the new mandate.

That was on display inside the Old Ebbitt Grill restaurant, a popular tourist destination a short walk from the White House whose regal dining rooms are frequently packed.

Mary Mikuria, who lives in the District, said she was reluctant to get vaccinated because of her Orthodox Christian faith but finally did. Mikuria, 28, said she's exhausted by the politics over the pandemic.

"If that's what it takes for it to be over, I support it," she said about the mandate while sitting at the bar before a plate of poached eggs. "I just want it all to be over."

Erin Claire, an assistant general manager at Old Ebbitt Grill, said she is worried about how hard it will be to enforce the requirement, particularly during the start of the Metropolitan Washington Restaurant Week, when the pandemic-ravaged industry is seeking to attract more customers. At crowded eateries that tend to cater to foreign tourists, some of those customers may have not had easy access to vaccines, Claire said.

"Here, the logic is anyone can get a vaccine," she said, while pitching in at the host stand to check patrons' status as more people arrived. "What if that's not the case for them?"

Eui Yang and Hee Lee were caught off guard when they wheeled their 3-month-old baby's stroller into Old Ebbitt in time to make their 11 a.m. reservation. The couple was happy to get out of the frigid January weather and didn't notice the sign posted outside announcing the new requirement.

"Vaccination card?" Yang replied when they were asked for theirs. They fruitlessly searched their smartphones for proof of the two doses they each received.

"I have a reservation to get a booster shot in my email; will that work?" Yang said.

The answer was no - at least a photo of the card is required - and the couple pushed the stroller back outside toward their car so they could drive back to Virginia to retrieve theirs, a 30-minute round trip.

Inside the Barbers of St. James London barbershop a few blocks away, co-owner Rick Ricci said he wasn't sure how effective the mandate will be.

"There should really be an app, given how easy it is to manipulate a vaccine card," he said, while snipping one customer's hair.

Jamie Nicholas, 52, another customer, said he welcomed any effort to bring down the District's rate of infections.

"It's just not a big deal for me to show it," he said about his vaccination card.

But it is a big deal for others.

A group of about 50 demonstrators marched through downtown D.C. to protest the mandate, their chants of "vaccine mandates have to go" echoing through the streets as bystanders - many wearing masks - watched.

Katie Kortepeter, who lives in Northern Virginia but works on Capitol Hill as a media relations specialist for an education nonprofit, was part of that group.

Though she encouraged her elderly parents to get vaccinated, Kortepeter, 26, said she hasn't done so because of a severe allergic reaction she had as a child to the pertussis vaccine, which guards against whooping cough and tetanus.

Now, she's effectively barred by the mandate from joining her friends for drinks after work, she said.

"I fully support people's choice to get vaccinated," she said. "But I don't think that should prevent someone from being able to fully able to participate in society."

Several businesses worked to avoid confusion or negative reactions by alerting their customers about the requirement in advance. Capital One Arena, where the Washington Wizards and Capitals play, had encouraged fans to use a free app that allowed them to upload their ID and vaccination status.

As the 7 p.m. tipoff approached for the Wizards game against the Portland Trail Blazers, lines of fans ebbed and flowed on the sidewalk outside the arena. Alongside the percussion of the Potomac Garden All Stars Drum Corp, two arena staffers armed with bullhorns instructed people to prepare their proof of vaccination and identification.

Arena officials posted sandwich board signs that read "vaccine status resolution" near the box office entrance to assist anyone who had difficulty gaining entry. There appeared to be no widespread issues for access into the game.

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The Washington Post's Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

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