Another Holiday Weekend, Another Coronavirus Surge? Keep An Eye On Tourist Hot Spots

Sep 4, 2020
Originally published on September 6, 2020 8:01 am

Hopefully, summer won't end the way it began. Memorial Day celebrations helped set off a wave of coronavirus infections across much of the South and West. Gatherings around the Fourth of July seemed to keep those hot spots aflame.

Now Labor Day arrives as those regions are cooling off from COVID-19, and public health experts are calling on Americans to stay vigilant while celebrating the holiday weekend.

"Wear a mask, keep social distancing, avoid crowds. You can avoid those kinds of surges," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during a Today show interview on Wednesday. "You don't want to be someone who's propagating the outbreak. You want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."

An Elvis Presley statue on Nashville's Lower Broadway wears a state-issued mask.
Blake Farmer / WPLN

But travelers are also weary of staying home, and tourist destinations are starved for cash.

"Just getting away for an hour up the street and staying at a hotel is like a vacation, for real," says Kimberly Michaels, who works for NASA in Huntsville, Ala., and traveled to Nashville, Tenn., with her boyfriend to celebrate his birthday last weekend.

Local restrictions are lifted just as summer ends

In time for the tail end of summer, many local governments are lifting restrictions to resuscitate tourism activity and rescue small businesses.

Nashville, for instance, gave the green light to pedal taverns this week, allowing the human-powered bars-on-wheels to take to the streets again. "They're not Nashville's favorite group, frankly. But fairness requires this protocol change to take place," Mayor John Cooper said, noting the city's dramatic reduction in new cases. This week, the city also raised the attendance cap on weddings, funerals and other ceremonies.

A sign reminds tourists to wear masks while visiting honkey-tonks and restaurants in downtown Nashville on Aug. 5.
Mark Humphrey / AP

Elsewhere, Virginia Beach tried to get some leniency for its struggling restaurants over the holiday weekend. But Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, encouraged by Fauci, rejected pleas from the mayor. Fauci has encouraged governors to keep restrictions in place to avoid another holiday-related surge.

"Sometimes, as we start to lift restrictions, the impression that people get is 'Oh, that must mean it's safe,'" says epidemiologist Melissa McPheeters of Vanderbilt University. "We want to make sure we don't give that impression because this disease has not gone anywhere."

Some communities have gone the other direction and reimposed restrictions, especially for the three-day weekend. Santa Barbara, Calif., has banned sunbathing to avoid another surge in cases.

With school back in session, it's harder to avoid exposure

There's also a new X-factor with summer's last holiday weekend. In many states, schools have resumed in-person classes. So families and friends meeting up now are more likely to expose each other to the virus, even if they tried to keep to a tightly closed circle over the summer.

"If those bubbles now have kids that went back to school and are interacting with others or they've gone back to sports and the bubble has since expanded, that ability to be safely together in a gathering is probably less likely," says epidemiologist Bertha Hidalgo of the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

And yet, getting together safely — preferably outdoors — is still worth a try, Hidalgo says. She says people's mental health needs a boost to get through the next few months.

"If you can do the safe things now before winter hits and that cold weather hits, then you'll be more resilient to get through any bad times that may come," she says.

In travel destinations like Nashville that have welcomed visitors throughout the pandemic, tourism has not bounced back entirely. But on some weekend nights, the neon-bright tourist district can draw a crowd.

This week, Vaj Vemulapalli and his girlfriend, of Dallas, turned back to their hotel after feeling uncomfortable with how tightly people were packed together.

"We crave the social interaction, the going out to bars and everything," he says. "But at the end of the day, our general stance is it's not worth getting [COVID-19] just to get a drink."

Those crowds do face some restrictions, though, as Kimberly Michaels and birthday boy Marcus Robinson discovered. They arrived in Nashville fashionably late, masked up and ready to responsibly party. But after they checked into their hotel, they discovered that everything has to shut down by 10:30.

"It's crazy. It was like the twilight zone," Robinson says. "We went in [to the hotel] and the streets were full. Got dressed, came downstairs. Like, where did everybody go? Like, did something happen? But we didn't know, because we're not from here."

Kimberly Michaels and Marcus Robinson of Huntsville, Ala., drove to Nashville for a night to celebrate Robinson's birthday. The streets were crowded when they arrived and then quickly cleared as establishments closed at 10:30 p.m.
Blake Farmer/ WPLN

Still, as time goes by, some travelers are willing to take more risks to get back to activities that feel normal.

Suzette Ourso lives outside New Orleans and flew to Nashville for her first out-of-town trip since the pandemic hit. She says she's cautious, wearing her mask whenever near anyone else.

"I keep hand sanitizer in my purse now. That's something I've never really done before," she says. "But you can die tomorrow riding in your vehicle. So you can't live your life in fear, either."

Ourso has a trip to the beach planned for later in the month.

This story comes from NPR's partnership with Nashville Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2020 WPLN News. To see more, visit WPLN News.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Memorial Day weekend and July Fourth weekend accelerated the spread of COVID-19. So could Labor Day do the same thing? Public health officials say they're hopeful that more Americans now understand that masks are important, avoiding crowds is important. But in Nashville, tourists are coming back to drink, to hear live music. Here's Blake Farmer of member station WPLN.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: All summer long, Kimberly Michaels says, she's been chasing waterfalls with her boyfriend. They've explored almost every trail within a short drive of their home in Huntsville, Ala. But it's his birthday. And they had to find a way to celebrate if not with, at least near some people.

KIMBERLY MICHAELS: It's home. It's work, school. It's everything. So just getting away for an hour up the street and staying in a hotel is like a vacation, for real.

FARMER: They'd rolled into Nashville fashionably late, ready to responsibly party in the honky-tonks - masked up, as required. She and the birthday boy, Marcus Robinson (ph), just needed to check into their hotel. But the bars, while they've reopened, still have to close at 10:30

MARCUS ROBINSON: It's crazy like "The Twilight Zone." We went in, the streets was full.

MICHAELS: It was - the streets was full.

ROBINSON: Got dressed, come downstairs and, like, where'd everybody go? Like, did something happen?

FARMER: Life has not returned to normal in time for the Labor Day weekend. But many local governments are lifting restrictions to resuscitate tourism activity. In time for the tail end of summer, Nashville gave the green light to pedal taverns this week, allowing the human-powered bars on wheels to take the streets again. Perhaps it's better than an enclosed space. But epidemiologist Melissa McPheeters of Vanderbilt University says loosening rules sends a broader signal.

MELISSA MCPHEETERS: Sometimes as we start to lift restrictions, the impression that people get is, oh, that must mean it's safe. We want to make sure that we don't give that impression because this disease has not gone anywhere.

FARMER: And there's a new X-factor with this holiday. In many states, schools have resumed in-person classes. So families and friends meeting up for the long weekend are now more likely to potentially expose each other to the virus. And yet, some epidemiologists say it's worth finding a way to get together safely outdoors. Bertha Hidalgo of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, says it could help with mental health.

BERTHA HIDALGO: If you can do the safe things now before winter hits and that cold weather hits, then you'll be more resilient to get through any bad times that may come.

FARMER: Inside an unusually quiet Nashville honky-tonk, most people are not wearing masks. But they are following the rule to stay in their seats. The band is live, taking requests.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN: Just let me know if you want to hear - middle table, y'all got anything back there y'all want to hear?

FARMER: They ask for some Alan Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHATTAHOOCHEE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN: (Singing) Little way down yonder on the Chattahoochee, it gets hotter than a hoochie coochie.

FARMER: Susette Orso (ph) lives outside New Orleans and flew here for her first out-of-town trip since the pandemic hit. Her mask is on. But she's also ready to party.

SUSETTE ORSO: I keep hand sanitizer in my purse now. That's something I never really done before. But you can die tomorrow, you know, riding in your vehicle. So you can't live your life in fear either.

FARMER: In fact, she has a beach trip planned for later this month.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILL VAN HORN'S "LOST MY MIND")

KING: That story came from NPR's partnership with Nashville Public Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.