Note: D.C. updates on the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19 are available at coronavirus.dc.gov.

This page will be updated as needed with new information about the implementation of the emergency legislation. For more, see our frequently updated timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic and the District’s response.


On Tuesday, March 17, the D.C. Council unanimously passed the COVID-19 Response Emergency Amendment Act of 2020 (B23-0718 or Act 23-247). The legislation provides a framework for the District of Columbia’s governmental response to the pandemic on many fronts. The text of the bill is available here, and the fiscal impact statement is available here.

As with all emergency legislation, there will not be a second hearing or congressional review on the COVID-19 Response Emergency Amendment Act; the emergency measures became law as soon as they were signed by the Mayor later that day. As emergency legislation, the measures are set to expire after 90 days (in this case, on June 15, 2020). During this time, the Council will consider parallel “temporary” legislation, which will be subject to a second reading and congressional review (along with mayoral approval), though it will not be assigned to a committee. For more on the D.C. legislative process for emergency and temporary legislation, please see the D.C. Council website, “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” under the section “Special Legislation.”

Read further for detailed summaries of the law’s provisions, grouped by topic.

For more, see our frequently updated timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic and the District’s response.


D.C. Council in session to pass COVID-19 legislation on March 17. Photo by D.C. Council

D.C. Council in session to pass COVID-19 legislation on March 17. Photo / D.C. Council

 

D.C. COUNCIL AND GOVERNMENT ACTIVITIES

Budget delayed to May 6

The Mayor’s budget for fiscal year 2021 was originally expected to be released on March 19, but the Council’s emergency legislation allows for it to be delayed until May 6. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) will put out a new revenue estimate in April to reflect the expected impact of COVID-19 on the D.C. economy.

Duration of public health emergency 

The Mayor is now authorized to extend the public health emergency for an additional 30-day period (currently, through late April), and to continue to extend emergency orders in 15-day increments after that.

Council and others can meet virtually

In order to facilitate social distancing, the Council will now meet virtually, offsite. ANCs, boards, and commissions can also suspend meetings or meet remotely. However, no board, commission, or other public body is required to meet during the public health emergency, or until the Mayor deems it is necessary or appropriate for them to meet.

Government operations

The measures give the Mayor the authority to mandate telework for D.C. government employees, and generally gives the Mayor greater flexibility in how employees are deployed, hired, and scheduled. As of March 24, D.C. government workers are on an agency-specific telework schedule until April 27.

FOIA and Open Meetings requirements

The time during the public health emergency does not count toward the time period during which public records requests, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and requests for recordings from police officers’ body-worn cameras must be met.


BUSINESSES AND WORKERS

For more on the potential impacts of COVID-19 on the District’s finances and economy, please see COVID-19 pandemic and the District of Columbia: What to expect?

FMLA and declaration-of-emergency leave

The legislation extends protections and expands eligibility for medical leave under the District’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by creating a new type of medical leave, “declaration-of-emergency” leave. Employees who are ordered or recommended to quarantine or isolate by D.C. Health are now eligible for up to two weeks of unpaid declaration-of-emergency leave without fear of losing their job.

Declaration-of-emergency leave is available to all employees during the period of the public health emergency, regardless of the size of the business. (FMLA normally only applies to employers with 20 or more employees.)

The extension to FMLA is in addition to the new federal paid medical leave provided through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which grants extended paid leave for employees who work for certain public employers, or who work for private employers with fewer than 500 employees.

Unemployment compensation

The emergency legislation extends availability of unemployment compensation to employees affected by COVID-19 and the public health emergency. Between March 13 and March 23, 2020, the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) reports that 19,460 new unemployment insurance claims were filed.

The Council’s COVID-19 measures also allow eligible workers to receive their unemployment benefits more quickly—as soon as they apply for them, without the usual one-week waiting period. Workers also are not required to be actively looking for work in order to receive unemployment benefits.

Affected employees who can access the extended unemployment compensation benefits include:

More information on who is covered—and how unemployment insurance coverage intersects with paid sick leave and workers’ compensation during the COVID-19 crisis—is shown in the chart from the District Department of Employment Services (DOES) below.

 

COVID-19 scenario and benefits available for workers. Image source: https://coronavirus.dc.gov

Image / DOES, coronavirus.dc.gov

 

While the emergency changes generally apply to workers who are normally eligible for unemployment insurance (unemployment insurance does not apply to independent contractors), the legislation does remove several requirements and limits on when unemployment compensation can be received. For example, affected employees can receive compensation regardless of whether their employer expects or plans to rehire them at a later date. These changes apply to the duration of the public health emergency, as declared by the Mayor.

DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes has advised that the fastest way for eligible residents to file for District unemployment compensation is to do so online.

For businesses, unemployment benefits tied to this change will not be included in the calculation of business experience rates, meaning that businesses will not see their unemployment tax obligations increase dramatically in the future as a consequence of the COVID-19 emergency.

Grant program for nonprofits and small businesses

The legislation allows for the creation of a program to issue grants and loans to affected small businesses and nonprofits. The program is already being implemented by Mayor Bowser as the Small Business Recovery Microgrant Program, with $25 million in funding; it will be housed in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

The program will provide grants of up to $25,000 not only to nonprofit organizations and small businesses, but also to independent contractors and self-employed individuals who are ineligible for unemployment insurance. (More information about eligibility is included in the table below.) Grants can be used to cover employee wages and benefits, inventory, rent, utilities, and other operating costs. To ensure that these grants are distributed quickly, the legislation allows them to be administered by a third party.

Applications for the small business grant program are open as of March 24, and will close at midnight on March 31. For more information about eligibility and application instructions, please visit the DC Small Business Recovery Microgrant Program information page from the D.C. government.

 

Small business grants eligibility table from DOES.

Image / coronavirus.dc.gov

 

D.C.’s small business grants program described above is in addition to the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) COVID-19 disaster recovery loans of up to $2 million, which are also now available to D.C. businesses and nonprofits.

 

Restaurant operations

Restaurants and taverns can now offer beer, wine, and spirits for carry-out and for delivery within D.C., if sold along with prepared food. Approval from the alcohol control board is not required, but businesses must obtain written authorization from ABRA before making alcohol deliveries.

Previously, the Mayor had issued an order closing all restaurants and bars for sit-down service on March 16, and closed all other non-essential businesses on March 24; however, restaurants and other food service locations can stay open for delivery, “grab-and-go,” and carryout, even under the newest closure order.

Protections for commercial tenants

Prevents landlords from evicting commercial tenants for nonpayment. Landlords also cannot charge late fees for late rent payments during the public health emergency.


TAXES, BANKING, LICENSING, AND CONSUMER PROTECTIONS

Taxes

The deadline for taxpayers to file and pay their 2019 District of Columbia individual and fiduciary income tax returns, partnership tax returns, and franchise tax returns has been extended to July 15, 2020, in line with the extended federal filing and payment deadline.

The legislation delays hotels’ first real property tax installment until the end of June without penalty. For other businesses, the emergency legislation allows them to postpone their February and March sales tax filing until July 20, although all sales taxes still must be paid in full by the end of the year.

Banking services

In general, the legislation gives the Mayor the ability to “waive application of any law administered by the Department of Insurance, Securities, and Banking if doing so is reasonably calculated to protect the health, safety, or welfare of District residents.”

The Insurance, Securities, and Banking Commissioner can issue emergency rulemaking during the declared public health emergency order. The Commissioner can also temporarily waive existing laws and requirements to ensure that banking services can continue uninterrupted, such as opening temporary banking locations or mobile branches.

These changes “may not apply for longer than the duration of the effects of a declared public health emergency.”

Licenses, permits, and registrations

During the public health emergency, and for 45 days after, the Mayor can extend the validity of various types of licenses, permits, registrations, and certifications, including  drivers licenses, vehicle registrations, and professional licenses. The Mayor can also waive deadlines and any late fees or fines. There will also not be a late fee for a business or nonprofit’s first biennial report for 2020 if it is filed by June 1, 2020.

However, the mayor can “revoke, suspend, or limit the license, permit, or certificate of occupancy of a person or entity that violates an emergency executive order.”


HOUSING AND CONSUMER PROTECTIONS

Protections for residential tenants

Landlords cannot evict residents or carry forward with existing evictions, or charge tenants late fees, for the duration of the public health emergency. Utility companies likewise cannot shut off gas, water, or electric service for nonpayment. The emergency measures also extend deadlines for tenants and tenant associations for rental housing conversion processes during the emergency. Some of these changes may require additional rulemaking to take full effect.

Services for residents experiencing homelessness

The Council’s emergency legislation allows the Mayor to place families experiencing homelessness in interim housing for up to 60 days, with the ability to extend for the duration of the public health emergency. Housing providers can also transfer residents to new housing for public health purposes, as part of the District’s continuum of care for individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness.

The emergency measures also allow housing providers to communicate by email (rather than by mail or in-person) during the emergency.

Price gouging and stockpiling

The legislation places limits on price gouging and stockpiling, and increases the existing penalties for doing so. More information is available from the Office of the Attorney General.


HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES

Extend eligibility for public benefit programs. 

For public benefit programs such as TANF, SNAP, and the DC Healthcare Alliance and Immigrant Children’s program, the Mayor now has the authority to extend eligibility and access to these programs, up until 60 days after the end of the public health emergency period. Some of these changes may require additional rulemaking to take effect.

Health insurance, prescriptions, and telemedicine

The legislation allows the Insurance, Securities, and Banking Commissioner to issue emergency rulemaking to address the crisis, which for health insurance could include grace periods for premium payments, postponing premium increases or non renewals, and allowing modifications to existing insurance policies.

The Commissioner can issue rulemaking regarding refilling or filling prescriptions; separately, the legislation also allows pharmacists to refill prescriptions before the end of the refill waiting period. The Commissioner can also issue rulemaking regarding the procedures for obtaining nonelective health care services.

Department of Corrections

Jails and prisons are particularly dangerous places for coronavirus to spread, especially for incarcerated people who are older or have chronic conditions. During the public health emergency, the Department of Corrections can award additional “good time” credits beyond what is currently allowed so people who are incarcerated for misdemeanors can be released early. (“Good time” credits—essentially, “time off for good behavior”—can be earned for good behavior, education, and meritorious service, among other reasons, and can be applied for early release.)

United Medical Center

An approved amendment by Councilmember Vincent Gray removes the Fiscal Management Board trigger for United Medical Center (UMC) for fiscal year 2020.

Prior to this emergency legislation, if UMC were to require an annual subsidy of more than $22.14 million in fiscal year 2020, the Board of DIrectors would be removed and a financial control board would take over operations. The amendment therefore allows for the possibility of greater funding in response to the COVID-19 pandemic without triggering the financial control board, but does not require the Mayor to appropriate any additional funds to UMC beyond what is currently budgeted.


EDUCATION

Related: Resources for the D.C. student and education community to stay informed and safe as COVID-19 spreads

Absences and promotion

Absences due to school closures won’t affect grade promotion. D.C.’s traditional public schools (DCPS) and public charter schools are now closed until April 27, during which time students will learn remotely. With classes moved online, the legislation amends promotion procedures so student absences if the student does not have access to the necessary equipment (e.g., computer, software, or internet connection) for distance learning do not prohibit promotion to the next grade.

Research-Practice Partnership

The emergency legislation allows the review of proposals for the District’s new Research-Practice Partnership to be delayed until seven days after the public health emergency.


Future impacts are unknown

The emergency legislation is only the first step in the city’s response to the COVID-19 crisis; it will take time for the full effects of the crisis to become known, but they are expected to be severe.

At the hearing for the emergency measures, CFO Jeffrey DeWitt told the Council that if the crisis continues into June, D.C. would also need to cut $500 million from its 2020 spending (the current fiscal year), in addition to making significant reduction in the FY 2021 budget.

As the Washington Post reports, the current crisis is unlikely to be resolved quickly:

“Whatever numbers we are seeing today reflect the transmission that was occurring one to two weeks ago,” said Lucy Wilson, an infectious disease specialist and faculty member at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “We shouldn’t be surprised by numbers continuing to increase, and we also shouldn’t discredit the effect of social distancing until we’ve given it time to take effect.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Thursday that “it’s certainly possible” that the public health emergency and the closure of restaurants, schools and events in the nation’s capital would stretch into April.

While the economic effects of the crisis are impossible to forecast completely, DeWitt told the Council that D.C.’s unemployment rate could reach almost 20 percent. For more on the potential impacts of COVID-19 on the District’s finances and economy, please see COVID-19 pandemic and the District of Columbia: What to expect?


This page will be updated as needed with new information about the implementation of the emergency legislation. For more, see our frequently updated timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic and the District’s response.


If you have questions, comments, or updates regarding any of the information in this article, please email Kathryn Zickuhr at kathryn@dcpolicycenter.org.

 

Feature photo: Ted Eytan, 2017.03.15 #ProtectTransWomen Day of Action, Washington, DC (Source)

D.C. Policy Center Fellows are independent writers, and we gladly encourage the expression of a variety of perspectives. The views of our Fellows, published here or elsewhere, do not reflect the views of the D.C. Policy Center.

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