In First-Ever Virtual/Online Legislative Meeting, Council Unanimously Approves Broad Second COVID Emergency Response Bill

In the 45 years since the District achieved Home Rule, the Council has met in the Wilson Building’s Council Chamber (with the dais in a couple of different places), and in the One Judiciary Square (soon to be the Marion S. Barry Building, pending mayoral signature and Congressional layover) Old Council Chamber. But the Council had never met virtually, or online, until its most recent Legislative Meeting.

The circumstances of the meeting were therefore already historic, but history was also made by the legislation passed at the meeting. After unanimously passing an initial omnibus COVID emergency relief bill at its March 17 Legislative Meeting, the Council reinforced that action with unanimous passage of a second such measure.

Included in the bill were provisions to:

  • Freeze residential rent amounts throughout the public health emergency, and 30 days beyond its end [Note: a rent freeze is not a rent holiday. A freeze freezes rent amounts, preventing rent increases, but is not a rent holiday, which would allow non-payment or forgiveness of rent.]
  • Create a mandatory 90-day mortgage deferment program for residential and commercial mortgage holders who request one. No late fees or penalties would accrue and repayment of the deferred amount could be done via payment plan, not through a required balloon lump payment. This program requires landlords to pass along proportionate savings to their tenants if they receive a deferment.
  • Add basic cable television and internet service to the list of utilities that cannot be cut off for non-payment during the public health emergency
  • Forbid debt collectors from communicating with debt holders during the emergency, and forbids repossession of vehicles during the public health emergency
  • Provide early compassionate release of some incarcerated individuals based on retroactive good time credits, as well as to elderly and seriously ill individuals who no longer pose a threat to society, under specific conditions
  • Provide COVID response grants to hospitals (expected to be reimbursed later via federal aid)
  • Waive mandatory community service hour requirements on graduating high school seniors
  • Authorize the District’s first short-term borrowing for the first time in five years
  • Facilitate drafting and filing of electronic wills
  • Authorize the Mayor to extend the current public health emergency by 90 days, with subsequent 15-day extensions if needed
  • Require that all government contracts signed during the public health emergency, but not providing a service related to the public health emergency, subcontracts at least 50% of the value of the contract to Certified Business Enterprises
  • Enhance penalties for unfair trade practices related to the public health emergency, and provide enforcement authority to the Attorney General for certain consumer protection infractions related to the emergency
  • Require the Board of Elections to mail every District resident an absentee ballot application with a postage-paid reply envelope, to encourage people to vote by mail

Other measures approved at the meeting (largely via the consent agenda), receiving the second of two required votes, would:

  • require employers who provide a parking benefit to either compensate those who do not accept such a benefit, pay into a clean air fund, or create a transportation management plan
  • provide those who work in the District with two hours of paid leave to vote in DC elections
  • require new leases and mortgages to be accompanied by a voter registration form
  • rename the One Judiciary Square building as the “Marion S. Barry Building”
  • prohibit the import or sale of ivory products in the District

The Council is next scheduled to meet as the Committee of the Whole on April 21, with the next Legislative Meeting scheduled to occur on May 5.