Millions of Americans are getting ready to emerge from coronavirus lockdowns to commemorate Memorial Day weekend and celebrate the unofficial beginning of summer with cookouts and family outings, raising concern among public health officials that large gatherings could cause outbreaks to come roaring back.
A Memorial Day parade from Vidalia, La., to the Natchez National Cemetery in Mississippi has roots going back to 1867. But instead of marching this time, people will motorcade in masks and gloves to let veterans know "that they have not been forgotten," said Laura Ann Jackson, co-chairman of the parade.
"It's going be different this year," she said.
Although the Memorial Day ceremony in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is still on, organizers are begging the public not to attend. Instead of filling 500 chairs, the solemn event honoring fallen veterans will be live-streamed into residents' homes.
"It's been really difficult for us to say, 'we really don't want you there,'" said Tom Rice, chairman of the committee that sponsors the event, which will feature the national anthem and a benediction from a priest. "So far, there's been no blowback."
Medical experts warn that the virus won't take a holiday. 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, wear masks, and avoid sharing food and drinks.
"Punch bowls. Nachos. These things are a no-no," Cohen said.
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said Friday that people can enjoy the outdoors if they stay at least 6 feet apart. Birx offered as examples playing tennis with marked balls, one for each player to handle, or not touching flags on the golf course.
"That is your space and that's the space that you need to protect and ensure that you're social-distanced for others," Birx said at a White House briefing. She also suggested disposable utensils for picnics and potlucks.
Birx said covid-19 is declining nationwide, but many supposedly healthy people are unknowingly infected, making social distancing, face coverings and frequent hand-washing necessary.
Many Memorial Day commemorations 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 spaces will be open -- with limits.
Californians headed into the weekend with both excitement and anxiety after restrictions eased in many areas. The nation's most populous state has started seeing a decline in covid-19 hospitalizations after being the first to order a statewide shutdown.
David Spatafore, who owns Blue Bridge Hospitality restaurant group, was looking forward to Friday's reopening of patio seating at the group's pizzerias and dining rooms at its high-end steakhouse in Coronado, across the bay from San Diego.
"I think people are going to be so happy to be able to go back out and not eat out of a plastic container or cardboard box," he said. "I know I am."
In Virginia Beach, Va., the famed 40-block boardwalk and sandy shoreline reopened, but with spacing guidelines and groups limited to 10. Group sports such as volleyball are prohibited, along with tents and alcohol consumption.
Mayor Bobby Dyer said about 150 "beach ambassadors" in red shirts will "diplomatically" ask people to follow rules.
Keeping holidays safe is a challenge worldwide. On the same weekend as Memorial Day, the Muslim world will mark the fast-breaking festival Eid al-Fitr. On Monday, U.K. residents get a bank holiday.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, warned that being on holiday can lead some people to drop their guard. "They forget to wear masks" Schaffner said. "They're not so keen on 6-foot distancing."
Jersey Shore beaches will be open but there will be no fireworks, Ferris wheel rides, roller coasters, go-karts or arcade games. Atlantic City's casinos remain closed.
Some locals plan to sit this summer out.
"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, N.J. "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. The Urban Beach Week festival, which annually draws tens of thousands to Miami Beach for hip-hop and reggae shows, was called off.
"We saw what happened in early March with spring break crowds," Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said, recalling the raucous scenes of youngsters partying in close quarters.
But up the coast in Palm Beach County, officials were preparing for beachgoers.
"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, where guests can expect mandatory mask usage, hand-sanitizing stations and other measures.
For the tourism and hospitality industry, there is modest hope that Memorial Day will mark the start of something resembling recovery.
Airlines, meanwhile, have largely written off hope of a quick rebound. Air travel in the U.S. remains down about 90% from a year ago, according to Transportation Security Administration figures.
But for most who leave home, it will be by automobile and for relatively short excursions to places like Washington state's Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
"We're expecting a bottleneck at some of the popular trails," spokesman Colton Whitworth said, "especially the lower-elevation ones closer to Seattle."
Information for this article was contributed by Dee-Ann Durbin, David Fischer, Freida Frisaro, David Koenig, Wayne Parry, John Zenor, Lisa Baumann, Andrew Seligman and Julie Watson of The Associated Press; and by Farah Stockman of The New York Times.
A Section on 05/23/2020
Print Headline: Virus experts cringe as holiday gatherings loom