This post extrapolates and discusses findings from an excellent article written by Erin Bromage, an immunologist, capturing what we know thus far about the transmission of the virus from person to person.  This can inform what the most risky and least risky common situations are likely to be, and how Washington D.C. can reopen in the safest manner possible. I am not a medical professional and I would want to see all the claims in the original article confirmed beforehand, but I believe the information provided clears a pathway to making more informed decisions. Here’s my original tweethread:


Grocery shopping and outdoor activities are (relatively) safe. Homes can be dangerous if you’re around someone who was exposed to someone else. High density office working is fairly dangerous, and should be avoided where possible. This is where public policy can be most impactful on a number of fronts:

  1. Stores should be allowed to open quickly. Small retailers have been devastated by the quarantine. I know, I’m part owner of one. Meanwhile, Target, Home Depot, and Lowe’s are open and doing booming business. By mandating social distance within stores, requiring masks, and limiting the number of people in a store at the same time, I believe we can allow local entrepreneurs to keep their lights on while providing a similar risk profile to stores that are already open. Additionally, as most stores in DC are street-facing vs. indoor mall setups, and transmission in outdoor areas is low, the increased density on sidewalks likely presents a manageable risk.
  2. Provide alternatives to high density living situations. All the social distancing in the world dense mean much if essential workers are getting infected and then spreading within their home environments. Where possible, DC should find ways to work with short term rental hosts and hotels to provide additional quarantine-safe living options for those that are infected or are particularly high risk. While it would be expensive, the long term value of reducing transmission at home would save millions of dollars down the road. Preference should go to the elderly and those with high comorbidity risk.
  3. Close High Streets to vehicular traffic and allow restaurants to serve outside. Bars and restaurants indoors are still unacceptably high transmission risks. However, we know that because transmission is a function of viral particles and time, the air flow of the outdoors makes it the safest place to be. As people aren’t driving to offices, the need for major streets as thoroughfares has been highly reduced. H Street, 14th street, U Street, and Downtown/Dupont would all work, as would Upshur and Kennedy Streets and Barracks Row. Most of NOMA and Mt. Vernon Triangle streets could be closed to vehicular traffic for a significant portion of the day as they’re heavily indexed with office properties that aren’t hosting employees right now. This would create a traffic nightmare on surrounding residential streets, but we’re already in a health and economic nightmare, so frankly what’s one more? Several cities in Europe are already doing this, most notably Vilnius in Lithuania. DC should expedite permitting and approvals to allow restaurants that have shuttered to reopen and new operators to take over restaurants that have already shut down.  A few weeks ago, large crowds at the Wharf’s fish market sent everyone aghast at the lack of social distancing. It’s high time to review whether or not there were actually any substantive numbers of new cases that arose from that weekend. It may very well be that we were relying on an unscientific idea of the dangers of relative proximity while outside and have destroyed a great deal of economic value in good faith but bad science.
  4. Expedite permitting and approvals for Accessory Dwelling Units. As the article mentions, at-home transmission is one of the stickiest and most difficult transmission methods to curb, because social distancing from your family/roommates is next to impossible. While unlikely to be extremely impactful for COVID-19, Accessory Dwelling Units built in alleys or basements with separate entrances provide additional capacity for people to quarantine, whether their own family/friends, or provided to outsiders. While an update to DC’s zoning code in 2018 made ADU’s a matter of right in many residential zones, permitting and approvals are still painfully slow. DC should encourage and incentivize the construction of these units wherever possible in anticipation of the next pandemic. The spillover positive effect, of course, would be more housing supply to combat rising costs.
  5. Engage the Office of the Chief Technology Officer to drive workplace safety protocols. With transmission a function of exposure and time, office work remains extremely risky, especially in high density office towers. This provides a cataclysmic situation for DC’s office buildings, whose taxes undergird a substantial portion of the city’s budget. The faster the city can roll out uniform safety protocols and resources, the faster some office workers can return. Make no mistake, this will look substantially different than the pre-COVID office environment, but easing the adoption of technology such as no-touch doors, voice activated elevators, density counters, and thermal cameras, as well as cleaning and disinfecting criteria can help reduce both the rate of transmission and increase public confidence once a wider reopening occurs. As more people work from home, upgrades to DC’s cable and wiring infrastructure will be necessary. We’ll all need to find ways to get hardware in the form of tablets and laptops to underserved communities, as well as expand broadband access for those who may have difficulty affording it.
  6. Stabilize DC Jail:  Prisons are one of the highest transmission risk facilities. We need to engage every avenue to help both inmates and staff socially distance and provide accommodation for staff to prevent at-home spread. I have no experience with prisons and am not in a position to make recommendations, but expertise from all areas needs to be called in to divert a catastrophic situation.

While it’s easy to write bullet points and make suggestions, I acknowledge it is extremely complex to actually execute a reopening strategy in the face of constantly shifting data and facts on the ground. I tip my hat to Mayor Bowser and the ReOpenDC Committee. The ideas presented here are merely my own, and I expect there are many better and more thought out plans. I would encourage you to contact the Mayor’s Office and engage the committee if you have implementable strategies that can work. Stay Safe. Below are my screenshots with highlights.