Increase in coronavirus cases feared as Americans celebrate Memorial Day Weekend outdoors

U.S. & World

A member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment also known as The Old Guard, wears a face mask as he places flags in front of each headstone for “Flags-In” at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, May 21, 2020, to honor the Nation’s fallen military heroes ahead of Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

As lockdowns ease across the United States, millions of Americans are set to take tentative steps outdoors to celebrate Memorial Day. But public health officials are still concerned that if people congregate in crowds or engage in other risky behavior, the long weekend could cause the coronavirus to come roaring back.

Medical experts warn that the virus won’t take a holiday for the traditional start of summer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that people stay home, avoid crowds and connect with family and friends by phone or video chat.

Dr. Seth Cohen, an infectious disease expert at the University of Washington Medical Center-Northwest in Seattle, advised that people who do celebrate keep their distance from one another, wear masks and avoid sharing food and drinks.

“Punch bowls. Nachos. These things are a no-no,” Cohen said.

Many long-running Memorial Day commemorations of the nation’s fallen military heroes have been canceled or downsized, including concerts and fireworks shows. Parks, beaches, campgrounds and swimming pools remain closed in much of the country.

But plenty of popular public spaces will be open — with restrictions.

In Virginia Beach, Virginia, the famed 40-block boardwalk and sandy shoreline open beginning Friday, but people must stay 6 feet (2 meters) from non-family members, with groups limited to 10 or fewer. Group sports such as volleyball will be prohibited, along with tents and alcohol consumption.

Mayor Bobby Dyer said about 150 “beach ambassadors” in red shirts will be deployed to “diplomatically” ask people to follow the rules.

  • Virginia Beach reopens beaches today with signs, ambassadors and more
  • Virginia Beach reopens beaches today with signs, ambassadors and more
  • Two women listen to music as they sit through their sunroof in a beach parking lot Thursday, May 21, 2020, in San Diego, CA. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
  • A member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment also known as The Old Guard, wears a face mask as he places flags in front of each headstone for "Flags-In" at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, May 21, 2020, to honor the Nation's fallen military heroes ahead of Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • American flags are placed by members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, in front of each headstone for "Flags-In" at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, May 21, 2020, to honor the Nation's fallen military heroes. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • A rollerblader skates on the Hollywood Beach Boardwalk, Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Hollywood, Fla. Broward County started a phased reopening Monday. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • Shoppers wear masks to protect against the new coronavirus as they walk on Miami Beach, Florida's famed Lincoln Road, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • A woman rides a bike down the boardwalk, Thursday, May 21, 2020 in Wildwood, N.J. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
  • Every other sink in the restroom is covered by sheets of plastic to prevent overcrowding amid the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday, May 21, 2020, at Jones Beach in Wantagh, N.Y. As pandemic lockdowns ease across the United States, millions of Americans are set to take tentative steps outdoors to celebrate Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Kaylee Wilmer, 9, of Lindenhurst, N.Y., gets help from her father, Stephen Wilmer, as they fly a kite, Thursday, May 21, 2020, at Jones Beach in Wantagh, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • A woman wears a protective face mask during the current coronavirus outbreak, Thursday, May 21, 2020, as she walks on Jones Beach in Wantagh, New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

In the absence of clear federal guidance, it’s largely been left to state and local officials to figure out how to celebrate the holiday safely. Social-distancing rules and bans on mass gatherings remain in place throughout much of the country.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, warned that being on holiday can lead some people to drop their guard and “just relax into their pre-COVID behaviors.”

“They forget to wear masks” Schaffner said. “They’re not so keen on 6-foot distancing.”

On the Jersey Shore, beaches will be open but with social distancing mandatory. There will be no volleyball, fireworks, Ferris wheel rides, roller coasters, go-karts or boardwalk arcade games. Atlantic City’s casinos remain closed.

Some locals plan to sit this summer out, fearful that visitors from harder-hit areas such as New York City might bring the virus with them.

“The unfortunate thing is that all the out-of-town people have been cooped up the same amount of time that the locals have been here,” said Christine Barthelme of Point Pleasant, New Jersey. “My family will do mostly what we do on every holiday weekend here: relax in our backyard, have a barbecue and light the fire pit.”

Beaches, hotels and restaurants remain largely shut down in South Florida, another popular holiday destination. The annual Urban Beach Week festival, which typically draws tens of thousands to Miami Beach for a series of hip-hop and reggae shows, was called off for this Memorial Day.

“We saw what happened in early March with spring break crowds,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said, recalling the raucous scenes of young people partying in close quarters despite the burgeoning pandemic. “We will do what we need to if there’s crowds. It’s not a good thing to have in a pandemic.”

But up the coast in Palm Beach County, which is home to President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, officials were preparing for beachgoers to hit the sand over Memorial Day.

“Our ocean lifeguards and other parks staff will be monitoring the beaches and reminding park users to practice social distancing,” said Chris Korbelak, public engagement manager for the county parks department.

Theme parks are closed at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, but both have reopened their entertainment and restaurant complexes. Guests can expect mandatory mask usage, hand-sanitizing stations and other measures.

For a tourism and hospitality industry hit hard by the pandemic, there is modest hope that Memorial Day will mark the start of a return to something resembling recovery.

“This weekend is an early indicator as to how consumers feel about coming back and partaking in normal social behavior,” said Jason Guggenheim of Boston Consulting Group, which has surveyed consumers and sees pent-up demand for travel.

The data and consulting firm Tourism Economics projects that U.S. travelers will spend $4.2 billion this Memorial Day, compared with $12.3 billion spent over the weekend last year.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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