WASHINGTON — In recent months, as coronavirus cases rose around the country, the nation’s capital and most of its surrounding suburbs managed to bring infection rates down, through strict preventive laws and a largely compliant population.
But the recent outbreak at the White House and on Capitol Hill underscored how difficult it is for a city with almost no control over the federal government — and where senior officials have sometimes worked at counter purposes on containing the virus — to sustain progress.
An event on Sept. 26 in the Rose Garden, after which a number of officials including President Trump tested positive for the virus, violated the city’s mandates limiting the size of gatherings and requiring masks. Because the White House is on federal property, however, it is exempt from such rules. Guests at the event may well have ventured into the city, but the White House has refused to comply with a municipal request for help with contact tracing. The city had its highest number of positive cases on Monday — 105 — since June, though city officials say it would take several days to determine any trend.
At least one testing site in Washington reported that those seeking a test doubled to 600 on Monday as residents responded with concern to the cases stemming from the White House and Capitol Hill.
The federal government’s disconnect from the city in which it operates, and where many of its staff members live, was perhaps best demonstrated last weekend when a number of White House officials, some of them senior, frantically called officials at the office of Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland for help getting tested. Mr. Hogan has been lauded for his management of the crisis. But the White House officials apparently were unaware of the city’s numerous and rapid testing sites.
More than 40 senators, about evenly divided between the two parties, and numerous Capitol staff members have sought coronavirus tests since late last week, when it became clear the White House was a hot spot for transmission and three Republican senators — Mike Lee of Utah, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — tested positive for the virus. Nearly half of all senators are 65 or older, and the House is not much younger.
The cases stemming from the White House will not increase the official number of positive cases, city officials said, because the White House has not shared positive test results with state or local health agencies. City officials said they would be closely monitoring infection trends for several days to see if the Capitol and White House cases affected the city’s overall infection rate.
“The District of Columbia takes seriously its role as the seat of the federal government and would not infringe on the essential functions of government,” said John Falcicchio, the chief of staff to Muriel E. Bowser, Washington’s mayor. “However, better coordination would allow for a more robust response in this public health emergency.”
Even more concerning than events at the White House or in Congress, city officials said, is that the National Park Service has been issuing permits for large events on the National Mall, including a prayer march in September and a Women’s March group event planned for Oct. 17. A Park Service spokeswoman could not explain why the permits were issued against the prohibition on groups over 50 or if any local park departments were offering permits against local guidelines.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers, some of whom are lax about mask wearing and social distancing, do not comply with the city’s rules on quarantining after traveling from certain states.
“I have become increasingly uncomfortable going there,” said Representative Donald S. Beyer Jr., Democrat of Virginia. Early practices of having members vote in groups and immediately leave the House floor have waned, he said, and mask usage is inconsistent. “There are too many people on the floor too close together for too long,” said Mr. Beyer, who represents a close-in suburb.
“Nancy did her rule that you have to wear a mask on the floor, and the sergeant-at-arms is trying to enforce it,” Mr. Beyer said, referring to a mask order by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in July. He added, “I have not brought my staff back because so many Republican staffers won’t wear masks in their offices.” (The Senate has no analogous mask guidelines.) Ms. Pelosi has also urged most congressional staff members to telework.
Both Ms. Pelosi and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, have declined to require members to get tested, although the office of the Capitol’s attending physician does offer same-day testing for anyone who works there.
When asked about testing at a recent news conference, Mr. McConnell said, “What we are doing in the Senate is following the C.D.C. guidelines,” referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though he did not specify which ones. He also noted, “If you watch us, we’ve got our masks on, we practice social distancing.”
David Popp, a spokesman for Mr. McConnell, said in an email that any rule that prohibited federal officials from executing their constitutional duties was unconstitutional.
Trump Tests Positive
“We settled that in the early 19th century,” he wrote. “Therefore, they are not in ‘technical violation’ of anything. Also, the mayor’s various orders exempt federal officials who are performing their duties from their coverage.”
The Washington metropolitan area, home to 6.3 million people, is among the most interconnected regions in the nation, with a shared public transportation system and entwined economies.
The Bowser and Hogan administrations, along with officials in Virginia, have largely tried to work in concert with policies designed to keep infection rates low.
The District of Columbia has fared particularly well, with a positivity rate well below 2 percent on tests for weeks.
The city has had about five new daily cases per 100,000 residents, leading Ms. Bowser to ponder partially reopening the city’s 51,000-student public school system next month. But the number of elected officials, staff members, reporters and others who have come down with the virus in recent weeks appears to outpace the weekly infection rate in the region, and may be worse than any single event in the district this year, health experts said.
“There’s nothing to my knowledge that replicates this other than those outbreaks in congregate settings, like the nursing homes that we saw, or the shelters,” said Amanda D. Castel, a professor of epidemiology at George Washington University who has long worked with the D.C. health department.
There was concern earlier in the summer of outbreaks that might arise from the large-scale protests in downtown Washington, she said, but no major occurrences appeared in the data.
Mr. Beyer said he thought the recent outbreak in Washington might provoke officials and others who have taken coronavirus precautions less seriously to change their practices.
“My deep hope is that the president’s illness could be a pivot point for my Republican friends to say this is serious and we need to follow the best advice from C.D.C. and others,” he said, especially when it comes to mask wearing. “This is not the same as smoking a cigarette or not wearing a helmet, and I am hoping that the sergeant-at-arms will get ever stricter.”
Emily Badger and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.