Hopefully summer won’t end like 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 the regions are cooling off from COVID-19. But travelers are also growing weary of staying home or just taking a pandemic-friendly hike.
All summer long, Kimberly Michaels says she’s been chasing waterfalls with her boyfriend. They’ve explored many of the trails near 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.
“Because home is work, school, it’s everything,” says Michaels, who has been working from home for NASA. “Just getting away for an hour up the street and staying at a hotel is like a vacation, for real.”
They made the short trip to Nashville, arriving fashionably late but ready to responsibly party in the famous honky tonks — masked up as required by Nashville ordinance, but no dancing since the dance floors are still closed.
She and the birthday boy just needed to check in to their hotel. But soon 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, 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.”
Lifting restrictions for Labor Day
Life has not returned to normal in time for the Labor Day weekend. But many local governments are lifting restrictions to resuscitate tourism activity and rescue small businesses.
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.
“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. Nashville hotels say their bookings have increased for this weekend, though still just around one-third capacity, according to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation.
Elsewhere, Virginia Beach tried to get some leniency for its struggling restaurants over the holiday weekend. But Gov. Ralph Northam rejected pleas from the local mayor, at the encouragement of Dr. Anthony Fauci. The country’s top health official has pushed 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 re-imposed restrictions especially for the three-day weekend. Santa Barbara 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 potentially 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 at 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. But on some weekend nights, the neon-soaked tourist district can draw a crowd.
This week, Vaj Vemulapalli of Dallas and his girlfriend 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] just to get a drink.”
Still, as time goes, 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.”