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Memorial Day tempts outdoor gatherings

The Associated Press / A member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, wears a face mask as he places flags in front of each headstone for “Flags-In” at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Thursday to honor the nation’s fallen military heroes ahead of Memorial Day.

Millions of Americans are getting ready to emerge from coronavirus lockdowns and venture outdoors to celebrate Memorial Day weekend at beaches, cookouts and family outings, raising concern among public health officials that large gatherings could cause outbreaks to come roaring back.

Medical experts warn that the virus won’t take a holiday for the traditional start of summer. 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 healthy-seeming people are unknowingly infected, making social distancing, face coverings and frequent hand-washing necessary.

The holiday weekend arrives amid the bleakest economy in decades. Tens of millions have been laid off since the virus hit hard in March and forced shutdowns. Unemployment has reached its highest level since the Great Depression. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned Thursday that prospects for a recovery will remain unclear until the health crisis is resolved.

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, Virginia, 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.

Without clear federal guidance, state and local officials have been left to figure out how to celebrate the holiday safely. Social-distancing and bans on mass gatherings remain in place throughout much of the country.

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, New Jersey. “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.”

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