Despite several weeks of warnings from health officials to follow “social distancing” measures and wear face coverings in public, Americans across the US crowded beaches and parties over Memorial Day weekend, among the first tests of a post-quarantine return to “normal” amid the coronavirus pandemic, as officials end “lock-down” measures to reopen their states.
Video from a Volusia County Sheriff’s Office helicopter on Saturday captured dozens of people blocking traffic near Daytona Beach, Florida, where officials required visitors to wear masks but have resigned that the mandate is “not realistic” or enforceable in large crowds.
In Missouri, tourists headed to Lake of the Ozarks, where dozens of people densely packed pool parties and watering holes without masks or other preventive measures in place, despite signs reminding visitors to keep at least six feet apart.
The boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, where masks are not required, was filled with tourists and visitors in a state that has seen more than 2,100 Covid-19-related deaths, according to the state’s health department.
Beaches in Pinellas County, Florida, were near capacity by mid-afternoon on Saturday, and the county’s sheriff’s office warned it was seeing an “unprecedented level of closures” to halt new visitors.
On Friday, White House health official Dr Deborah Birx urged Americans to go outside during the holiday weekend but stressed the importance of wearing face coverings if people can’t effectively keep six feet apart in large groups.
“As you go out this weekend, understand you can go out,” she said during a White House press briefing. “You can be outside. You can play golf. You can play tennis with marked balls. You can go to the beaches if you stay six feet apart.”
But reports of abandoned social distancing measures suggest that those guidelines have largely fallen by the wayside, without any federal mandates or enforceable or consistent measures across much of the US to keep them in place, as the nation’s death toll approaches 100,000 lives lost during the pandemic.
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Officials in nearly every state in the US began lifting stay-at-home orders and easing quarantine restrictions this month after several weeks of quarantine measures, though rates of new cases and hospitalisations have varied.
Rates in at least 11 states have hit record highs this week, including Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Maryland, Maine, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to a Reuters tally.
Abandoned social distancing measures are largely not reflective of the broader public opinion — several polls show that a majority of Americans are concerned that “reopening” their states too soon could lead to a spike in infections. Epidemiologists have frequently pointed to the chain of infection within communities with only partially followed guidelines, particularly among asymptomatic people.
It will take several weeks before the impacts of early reopening phases are reflected in health data, though health officials expect another wave of infections to hit later this year.
“I think it’s our job as public health officials every day to be informing the public of what puts them at risk,” Dr Birx told ABC’s This Week on Sunday when asked about reports of crowded beaches. “And we’ve made it clear that there’s asymptomatic spread.”
She said officials “want to be clear all the time that social distancing is absolutely critical ... and if you can’t social distance and you’re outside, you must wear a mask.”
Pressed on whether those warnings are enough, Dr Birx said: ”I think that’s our job to continue to communicate.”