As crowds flock outdoors for Memorial Day weekend, government officials stress caution

Federal public health officials worked to remind Americans celebrating Memorial Day weekend of the importance of maintaining social distancing Sunday, highlighting that although the coronavirus crisis appears to be gradually improving in many regions of the United States, many still remain at risk of infection.

“With the country starting to open up this holiday weekend, I again remind everyone that the coronavirus is not yet contained,” Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, tweeted. “It is up to every individual to protect themselves and their community. Social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks protect us all.”

And on ABC’s This Week, Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, also emphasized the need to keep space between people, even outdoors.

“Social distancing is absolutely critical, and if you can’t social distance and you’re outside, you must wear a mask,” Birx said. “These are items that are really critical to protect individuals. We’ve learned a lot about this virus, but we now need to translate that learning into real changed behavior that stays with us so we can continue to drive down the number of cases.”

The reminders came as the US Covid-19 death toll approaches 100,000 — and as reports and photos circulate online showing large crowds at beaches and other vacation spots, some of them enclosed.

With outdoor recreational areas like beaches and parks drawing large numbers of people across the US, ideal social distancing is not always possible. Video went viral Sunday of a packed pool in Missouri, and there were reports of long lines and crowds at the Jersey Shore, water parks in Texas, and beaches in Florida.

“Without a doubt, this is one of the busiest weekends I’ve seen in many years,” Volusia County Beach Safety Deputy Chief Andrew Ethridge told the Daytona Beach News-Journal, in Florida. “We have 47 miles of beach in Volusia County and every bit of it has crowds.”

In many photos and videos it’s unclear how close together strangers are standing, but in some images it’s evident that there is less than 6 feet between strangers, and that people are not wearing masks.

This is a cause for concern, not because going out is inherently unsafe, or because pools and beaches are dangerous spaces, but because crowds offer unique opportunities for infection. As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, there are a number of ways to stay safe while outdoors — the most important of which Birx and Hahn highlighted: wearing masks and staying distant from others. But:

The risk here is close and prolonged contact. A jogger running by you for a couple of seconds isn’t the end of the world. But if you’re within 6 feet of someone else for longer than that — especially for hours — it could be dangerous.

“The two variables we worry about is that distance from another person who might be sick and the time spent with them,” Crystal Watson, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me.

This applies to the outdoors, too. While the outdoors are generally safer than the indoors, it’s still a good idea to avoid packed parks or beaches. People who don’t live together just shouldn’t be stacked together for long in any setting.

So if you’re going out to eat, consider skipping the packed restaurant. If you’re going to a park or beach, look for an area without too many people around.

Birx was asked about these images of crowded areas Sunday on Meet the Press, and said there are ways “to be together socially, yet distant.” She also stressed, “This only works if we all follow the guidelines and protect one another.”

And following those guidelines — staying 6 feet apart and wearing masks — limits the sort of prolonged contact experts believe is dangerous. By doing that, those hoping to enjoy a holiday weekend can do so while minimizing the risks of becoming infected, or infecting others.


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