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.
And now Labor Day arrives as those regions are cooling off from COVID-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Wednesday that Americans should be cautious to avoid another surge in infection rates. 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, Alabama, and traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, with her boyfriend to celebrate his birthday last weekend.
Lifting restrictions for summer's end
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.
Elsewhere, Virginia Beach tried to get some leniency for its struggling restaurants over the holiday weekend. But Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam rejected pleas from the mayor, at the encouragement of Fauci. The country's top health official 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, California, has banned sunbathing to avoid another surge in cases.
Schooling screws up COVID circles
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 are now more likely to expose each other to the virus, even if they tried to keep a tight 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 drivable destinations like Nashville that have welcomed visitors throughout the pandemic, tourism has not bounced back entirely. But on some weekend nights, the neon-soaked 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 have limits, 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], the streets were full. Got dressed, come downstairs. Like, where did everybody go? Like, did something happen? But we didn't know, because we're not from here.”
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 is part of a partnership that includes Nashville Public Radio, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.