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Politics

It’s an Unfestive July 4th as States Call Off the Celebrations

It’s an Unfestive July 4th as States Call Off the Celebrations

  • From Boston to L.A., annual patriotic traditions are upended
  • Even the neighborhood BBQ could turn into spreading event
A couple sits on a beach while using a set of American flags to create a social distancing barrier around them in the Queens Borough of New York, on July 1.
A couple sits on a beach while using a set of American flags to create a social distancing barrier around them in the Queens Borough of New York, on July 1. Photographer: Gabriela Bhaskar/Bloomberg
A couple sits on a beach while using a set of American flags to create a social distancing barrier around them in the Queens Borough of New York, on July 1.
Photographer: Gabriela Bhaskar/Bloomberg

Covid-19 has crashed America’s Fourth of July party.

As the country grapples with a resurgent wave of coronavirus cases, public health officials and local leaders are trying to tamp down festivities for a holiday known for carefree revelry. That means canceling fireworks and parades, closing beaches and bars, and begging citizens not to invite the neighborhood over for a backyard barbecue.

In short, almost every Independence Day tradition suddenly looks like a potential super-spreader event.

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People gather on the beach Delray Beach, Fla., on May 23.

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“Normally, heading into the Fourth of July weekend, I’d be talking about grill safety,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said at a press conference this week. Instead, he urged Bostonians to keep their celebrations small and avoid crowds. The city’s annual July 4 blow-out -- fireworks over the Charles River, patriotic music from the Boston Pops on the Esplanade, picnicking crowds on the Common -- has been canceled, replaced with virtual offerings.

“This is traditionally a weekend for gathering in large groups, for historic ceremonies and social events,” Walsh said. “This is not something that we can do this year here in Boston.”

America’s birthday arrives at a dangerous time. Virus cases -- and deaths -- are surging across much of the country, defying hopes this spring that the pandemic would retreat come summer. Public-health officials blame the new wave of infections both on efforts to restart the economy and on increased socialization, particularly among the young. It is, they say, hazardous to party in public -- no matter how much stir-crazy Americans want to. It hasn’t escaped their notice that people nationwide have been setting off their own, often illegal fireworks for weeks, triggering a growing number of complaints to police departments.

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“This is going to be a different July 4th holiday for all of us,” said Barbara Ferrer, public health director for Los Angeles County. After a dramatic spike in virus cases over the past two weeks, the county will close its beaches for the long weekend. “Take solace in the fact that we’re all going to do it this way, this July 4th,” she said.

That may be an overstatement. President Donald Trump will host Fourth of July fireworks in Washington, despite the misgivings of the mayor. He’s also attending an early Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore on Friday, complete with fireworks and optional face masks. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem told Fox News that attendees won’t be required to stand six feet apart.

“We’ll be giving out free face masks, if they choose to wear one,” Noem said, according to a transcript. “But we won’t be social distancing.”

Also not totally down with distancing was 1990s rapper Vanilla Ice, who had planned to perform Friday at something called the Independence Day Throwback Beach Party, held at a lakeside restaurant outside Austin, Texas. He had promoted with nostalgia for the ‘90s, a time before Covid-19, but called the gig off Thursday in the face of daunting numbers.

There’s also the possibility that racial-justice protesters will return to the streets this weekend, using the holiday to highlight their demands. Some health officials, including Ferrer, say protests a month ago may be contributing to the current rise in infections, although they lack conclusive proof. But they don’t want July 4th to turn into another mass experiment in epidemiology.

“It is a sacred right to be able to go out and to protest, use our First Amendment rights, and especially at this critical moment for racial justice,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said this week. “I don’t want to, in any way, discourage that. But I also want to give people good medical advice.”

California, which had been restarting its massive economy, took steps this week to pause the process, in part due to the looming holiday. Some beaches will be closed entirely, while at others, parking lots will be shut to limit access. In 19 of the state’s counties, indoor dining at restaurants will be banned, and bars will be shuttered.

Governor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday that his state’s health officials were deeply worried about another cherished Independence Day tradition: big family gatherings.

“We may come with masks,” Newsom said. “Invariably, after a few hours, after a drink or two, after eating some food, the masks then are put aside.”

Red states as well as blue have curtailed their usual Fourth of July celebrations, if not ditched them outright. Boise, Idaho, won’t enjoy its “We the People,” parade this year. Arlington, Texas, likewise canceled its patriotic parade.

In Wyoming, organizers of the Cody Stampede rodeo added 1,000 seats in the bleachers for social distancing amid a fourfold pickup in Covid-19 cases in the community, the Casper Star-Tribune newspaper reported. Organizers also advised seniors and the infirm to skip this year’s event, which received state approval to operate with a limit of 40% of normal capacity, the newspaper said. Health officials urged fans to wear face-coverings to accompany their cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats.

Some of the nation’s beach communities -- such as Galveston, Miami and Fort Lauderdale -- will close or limit access for the weekend. Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, said in a release that beach goers, and people patronizing nearby businesses, haven’t been wearing masks or keeping their distance.

“I have been seeing too many businesses and people ignoring these lifesaving rules,” he said. “If people are not going to be responsible and protect themselves and others from this pandemic, then the government is forced to step in and restore common sense to save lives.”

For all the canceled fireworks and parades, the pandemic has hurt smaller-scale Independence Day celebrations as well.

Maine’s North Haven island typically holds a fun run, potato sack races and a water-balloon toss, said Christie Hallowell, who runs the community center. It also hosts a communal picnic for both year-round residents and the “summer people.” The American Legion steams mussels over an open fire, and people reconnect after not seeing one another for 10 months.

“I’m very happy it’s not happening, because it would not be the right thing to do,” Hallowell said. “But to miss the tradition of it is a little disappointing.”

There remains a question of whether Americans, frustrated by months of restrictions and a strangled economy, will take Fourth of July partying into their own hands. In California’s Santa Cruz County, officials had hoped to keep the beaches closed through the Independence Day weekend, said County Health Officer Gail Newel. But it reopened the beaches anyway, simply because law enforcement officers were unable to keep people away.

“People are not willing to be governed anymore in that regard,” Newel said.

— With assistance by Vincent Del Giudice, and Esmé E Deprez