Health experts are growing alarmed after seeing photos and videos of big crowds over Memorial Day weekend.
People are significantly less likely to get the coronavirus while outside, but the crowds of people in packed bars and pools in Missouri, boardwalks in Virginia and a race track in North Carolina are renewing concerns about whether safety measures to contain the virus are being taken seriously.
As states lift coronavirus-related restrictions, experts are warning that people are still at risk of catching COVID-19.
Just because a state has decided to reopen does not mean that the virus has disappeared, and people should not be going back to pre-pandemic behavior.
“I am concerned that there are people who think this is the all clear, and I think what we really need to be doing is defining a new normal,” President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE’s former Food and Drug Administrator Scott Gottlieb said on CNBC Tuesday.
Every state has allowed at least some nonessential businesses to reopen and has reduced some other restrictions, even as the virus continues to spread across the country.
That freedom is balanced by the concern that people will ignore public health recommendations like physical distancing and wearing masks.
Memo Cedeno Laurent, a research associate at the department of environmental health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the reopenings should not be a call for people to drop their guards.
Any setting where people are in close contact without masks, even outdoors, raises the potential for COVID-19 transmission, he said.
Laurent said he is particularly concerned about the viral images from this weekend because it will take at least two weeks to see any sort of impact on the number of COVID cases.
If numbers don’t spike right away, people could interpret it to mean that physical distancing is no longer important, he said.
“We have a tremendous blind spot” when it comes to understanding how long infections can take to show up on paper, Laurent said. “It’s a false sense of security.”
No activity will be completely risk free, but experts say small outdoor gatherings of a handful of trusted people, and wearing face masks when around large groups and in public, can cut the risk considerably, while still allowing people to enjoy summer activities.
“You see people going out in big social groups … arguably with people they don’t know … that’s a setup for a lot of risk, when you’re in those kinds of circumstances and you’re not using protective equipment, you’re not taking precautions,” Gottlieb said.
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Part of the concern among health experts is that every state, and sometimes even every county, is moving to reopen at a different speed. Mixed messages from local and federal officials have also led to confusion, essentially leaving it up to individuals to make the appropriate decisions.
Last Friday, White House coronavirus take force coordinator Deborah Birx made it a point to say Americans could continue their Memorial Day weekend activities as long as they were careful and practiced social distancing.
But on Sunday, Birx said the job of public health officials was merely to communicate the risk, and to encourage people to follow the guidelines.
“I think it’s our job as public health officials every day to be informing the public of what puts them at risk,” Birx said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”
“This only works if we all follow the guidelines and protect one another.”
The federal government has released recommendations for states, but no actual rules, leaving enforcement to the governors.
Some states that have lifted restrictions have no enforcement mechanism for following physical distancing recommendations.
For example, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) allowed beaches to open. Virginia requires wearing masks at indoor businesses though not at outdoor public places. Northam has encouraged people to wear them, and he sparked controversy after he was pictured without one at a beach this weekend. Local communities also only requested that people wear masks.
In Missouri, the mayor of the town where the crowded pool parties took place told PBS Newshour that local business owners are responsible for the behavior of their guests. He said the town is dependent on tourists, so businesses need to be fully open.
Harvard’s Laurent said individuals need to better understand the “social contract” required for gathering in newly reopened public spaces, and to take their responsibilities seriously.
“We have an issue where we see access to public spaces [as a] privilege,” Laurent said. “People risk losing access to them by not behaving appropriately.”