July Fourth weekend pivotal amid surge in US coronavirus cases

The United States headed into the Fourth of July weekend with many parades and fireworks displays cancelled, beaches and bars closed, and health authorities warning that this will be a crucial test of Americans’ self-control that could determine the trajectory of the surging coronavirus outbreak.

With confirmed cases climbing in 40 states, governors have ordered the wearing of masks in public, and families were urged to celebrate their independence at home. Even then, they were told to keep their back yard cookouts small.

Health experts agree this will be a pivotal moment in determining whether the nation slides into a deeper mess. The fear is that a weekend of crowded pool parties, picnics and parades will fuel the surge.

“We’re not going to be arresting people for having gatherings, but we’re certainly going to discourage it,” said Dr Jeff Duchin, public health director for Seattle and King County.

‘Don’t share’

Those who decide they must gather with a small group of family members need to be careful, he said: “Don’t share utensils, don’t share objects, don’t pass them back and forth, because you’re passing that virus around as well.”

The warnings were sounded after a late May Memorial Day weekend that saw many people emerge from stay-at-home orders to go to the beach, restaurants and family gatherings. Since then, confirmed infections per day in the US have rocketed to an all-time high, more than doubling.

The US set another record on Friday with 52,300 newly reported cases, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Arizona, California, Florida and Texas have been hit especially hard.

Despite it all, there will still be fireworks and community events scattered across the nation, with many taking social distancing into account. In Ohio, Upper Arlington’s July Fourth parade will take a much longer route through its neighbourhoods so residents can watch without crowding the streets.

“We’re calling it the front porch parade,” said organiser Sam Porter. “We can’t just not do something.”

Fireworks will be launched from four spots across Albuquerque, New Mexico, so that people can watch and enjoy from home instead of gathering in a single place.

President Donald Trump was set to travel to South Dakota on Friday for a fireworks show at Mount Rushmore before returning to the nation’s capital for military flyovers on Saturday and a 1.6km (mile-long) pyrotechnics display show on the National Mall that his administration promises will be the biggest in recent memory. Up to 300,000 face masks will be given away but will not be mandatory.

The big party will go on despite objections from Washington’s mayor.

“Ask yourself, do you need to be there? Ask yourself, can you anticipate or know who all is going to be around you? If you go downtown, do you know if you’re going to be able to social distance?” Mayor Muriel Bowser said.

Beaches that had been open for the traditional start of summer over Memorial Day weekend will be off-limits in many places this time, including South Florida, Southern California and the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans who do go to the beach to wear face coverings, though not in the water.

With professional pyrotechnic displays cancelled, authorities are bracing for wildfires and injuries caused by people shooting off fireworks at home. Sales of fireworks have been booming in what some sellers say may reflect a desire for a little excitement among people cooped up for so long.

Delaware’s governor ordered bars in some beach towns to close ahead of the holiday, saying people were getting complacent about masks and social distancing. The Jersey shore town of Wildwood cancelled its fireworks, and the Lake Erie resort village of Put-in-Bay in Ohio did the same after health officials linked a small number of coronavirus cases to bars on the island.Florida’s most populous county, Miami-Dade, instituted an overnight curfew and beaches and businesses began closing down again as the state’s number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations kept rising.

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the 10pm to 6am curfew begins on Friday and will be in place indefinitely. The order closes casinos, strip clubs, movie theatres and other entertainment venues a month after they were allowed to reopen.

“This curfew is meant to stop people from venturing out and hanging out with friends in groups, which has shown to be spreading the virus rapidly,” Gimenez said in a statement.

On Friday, Florida reported 9,488 new confirmed cases and 67 deaths, a day after setting a new daily record of more than 10,000 cases on Thursday.

Statewide, about 20 percent of ICU beds are currently available, though some hospitals have additional capacity that can be turned into ICU units if need be.

The state’s health department’s tally of hospitalisations was higher on Friday at 341 new admissions in Florida, one of the biggest daily jumps since the pandemic began. Gimenez cited staffing shortages at local hospitals in announcing the curfew.

“I met with our medical experts this afternoon to discuss what other steps we can take to stop the spread of virus infection and ensure that our hospitals have sufficient capacity,” he said on Thursday. “At this time, we have plenty of beds, but some hospitals are experiencing staffing shortages.”

Last week, officials in Miami-Dade and other counties, including the Florida Keys, announced that beaches would be closed during the long weekend.

The latest county statistics show more than 1,300 COVID-19 patients in Miami hospitals. Of those, 281 are in intensive-care beds, occupying about 63 percent of the ICU beds that would otherwise be available.

State health officials in Arizona said the capacity of hospital intensive care units is at an all-time high, reaching 91 percent.

The number of people hospitalised on Thursday due to a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 was 3,013, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. It is the first time reaching 3,000.

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