For This Fourth of July, Officials Say Celebrate Freedom by Staying Home

By Richard Fausset, Mitch Smith and Sabrina Tavernise

As the nation staggers toward a holiday weekend during the coronavirus pandemic, health officials are pleading with residents to not make a bad situation worse.

Festivities may be more muted two years after this Fourth of July parade in Round Top, Texas. The state set a daily high with more than 8,000 coronavirus cases on Wednesday.
Festivities may be more muted two years after this Fourth of July parade in Round Top, Texas. The state set a daily high with more than 8,000 coronavirus cases on Wednesday.Credit...Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

ATLANTA — On the website for American Legion Post 410 in Lakehills, Texas, an image shows a bald eagle soaring in front of an American flag. But just below the patriotic picture is the bad news that the unrelenting spread of the coronavirus has mostly grounded the tiny community’s Fourth of July celebrations.

“Due to the Governor of Texas shutting down the state again — the Parade has been cancelled,” the site says. “The live band has been cancelled.”

It is a familiar reality from coast to coast, as the nation staggers toward a holiday weekend burdened by a pandemic that is only growing worse.

On Thursday, the United States set a single-day case record for the sixth time in nine days, reaching 53,000 new coronavirus cases. And in a dramatic reversal, the governor of Texas, one of the worst-hit states this week, ordered residents in counties with more than 20 virus cases to wear masks in public.

In the face of cases reaching disheartening new highs, with at least 15 states setting single-day reporting records this week, health officials around the country have urged Americans to scale back their holiday plans.

State leaders in Nebraska suggested that holiday cookout hosts keep guest lists to make contact tracing easier if there was an outbreak. The Oregon Health Authority warned residents that “the safest choice this holiday is to celebrate at home.” And in Los Angeles County, Calif., where more than 12,000 new cases have been announced since last Friday, the health department ordered beaches closed and fireworks shows canceled.

Elsewhere, the pleas were similar: Skip the party. Stay home. Do not make a bad situation worse.

“We don’t want any more closures, but our numbers are going through the roof,” Dr. Cameron Kaiser, the public health officer in Riverside County, Calif., said. “Please don’t mix households, even if you think everyone is healthy, and instead celebrate the holiday with the people you live with. We started seeing more and more cases after Memorial Day and we can’t afford another jump after the Fourth of July.”

The cancellations have lent a sullen tone to the typical listings of Independence Day events: “What Can You Do This Fourth of July in Idaho?” a headline asks on the website of a Boise TV station, before suggesting ways to socially distance while celebrating.

At the same time, the anti-racism street protests that swelled across the country after George Floyd died in police custody on Memorial Day have prompted more people to question whether they should celebrate the holiday at all.

In Atlanta, Scotty Smart, 33, the founder of a nonprofit group called the Smart Foundation, said he had been asked to speak at “Forget the Fourth” events being held around town.

“When you look at the history of July 4, we weren’t necessarily free, so how can we celebrate our independence?” Mr. Smart said, speaking of his fellow African-Americans.

In recent years, Mr. Smart has reserved much of his celebratory spirit for the Juneteenth holiday, which falls on June 19 and commemorates the day in 1865 that enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free. This year, Mr. Smart helped organize a Juneteenth celebration in Atlanta that he said attracted thousands of people.

But this week, Mr. Smart’s July 4 plans were in question. Last week, he came down with a fever. On Wednesday, he was awaiting the results of a coronavirus test.

“Every time there’s a large gathering we take a risk,” he said. “We can’t sugarcoat it.”

ImageA surprise fireworks display in New York was announced an hour before to avoid attracting large crowds on Tuesday.
A surprise fireworks display in New York was announced an hour before to avoid attracting large crowds on Tuesday.Credit...Kathy Willens/Associated Press

In South Dakota, which has had relatively few cases of the coronavirus, President Trump has organized a fireworks show Friday evening at Mount Rushmore, an event that has come under scrutiny because thousands of people are planning to attend.

The National Park Service said in an email that it “strongly” encouraged social distancing and the use of face coverings, but added that officials would “not take actions against individuals who do not wear cloth face coverings or adhere to the guidance.”

Gov. Kristi Noem, who plans to attend the event, told Fox News that “we won’t be social distancing.”

In Washington, D.C., the authorities are plowing ahead with a traditional July 4 celebration. David L. Bernhardt, the Secretary of the Interior, announced in a news release on Wednesday a “one-of-a-kind air show” and a fireworks display “that promises to be the largest in recent memory,” with more than 10,000 fireworks launched.

Like last year, Mr. Trump will preside over that event, and federal authorities seemed to be preparing for considerable crowds: The Interior Department said more than 300,000 cloth masks would be available for visitors.

Muriel Bowser, the city’s mayor, criticized the event, according to CNN, saying it was not in keeping with federal health officials’ guidelines for gathering during the pandemic.

Over the holiday weekend, hotel pools in Miami-Dade County will be open only to registered guests, with decks at half capacity.Credit...Saul Martinez for The New York Times

In South Florida, officials have been focused on how to minimize large crowds of sun-seekers. In recent days, counties from the Florida Keys to Palm Beach announced that the beaches would be closed. In some places, parks will also be off limits, to avoid the typical mass gatherings that watch fireworks displays.

In Miami-Dade County, which has seen more than 1,200 new virus cases a day, Mayor Carlos Gimenez banned restaurants from selling food or drinks after midnight. Over the holiday weekend, hotel pools will close at 8 p.m., and alcohol sales will be prohibited before 11 a.m. and after 8 p.m. Pools will only be open during the day to registered hotel guests, with pool decks at half capacity.

“There is no more patriotic an act than protecting the lives of everyone in our county,” Mr. Gimenez said in a statement.

In California, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the director of Sacramento County’s Department of Health Services, has been spending the past few days trying to head off a Fourth of July tradition along the American River in which beer-guzzling revelers lash together dozens of rafts and float gently downstream.

“It’s going to be another beautiful weekend in California,” Dr. Beilenson said. “The most patriotic thing they can do this year is to stay at home.”

The county has hit what Dr. Beilenson calls a tipping point in the pandemic. Sacramento County had around 1,000 cases over the last 10 days compared with 2,000 total cases in the 18 preceding weeks.

Contact tracers have found that a large share of the spike in cases in the Sacramento area came from large parties for graduations and birthdays.

But in some states with rising daily case counts, it will be business as usual this weekend. Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, which typically attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas for the holiday, is preparing for crowds. There will be fireworks, live music and pool parties, and accommodations are widely sold out.

“When people are out having fun and partying, they’re boisterous, they’re yelling, they’re spraying from their mouth, and it goes even further than when you’re just speaking to people,” said Dr. Sharon Frey, an infectious-diseases researcher at St. Louis University. “What we see at the Ozarks are lots of parties. It’s known as the party place.”

Yet for a few Americans with easy access to wide-open spaces, this weekend will be no different than in years past. Kelly Coday, a resident of Broken Arrow, Okla., said he and his family would join his best friend’s family for an easygoing ritual — a cookout and fireworks along the Verdigris River, with a view of wheat fields and cow pastures.

Mr. Coday was relieved that the pandemic had not hit Oklahoma as badly as in other states. He has been confused by the call to remove so many monuments in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death. And he thinks that some police departments need systemic change. Nonetheless, he planned to celebrate his country on Saturday.

“This is an extraordinarily tough time we’re living in right now,” said Mr. Coday, 54. However, “Americans are resilient. I believe we’re going to make it, and get through all this, and come out on the other side stronger.”

Richard Fausset reported from Atlanta, Mitch Smith from Chicago and Sabrina Tavernise from Washington. Thomas Fuller contributed reporting from San Francisco, Patricia Mazzei from Miami and Melina Delkic from New York.