US beaches, parks full on Memorial Day weekend despite pandemic

Health officials issue warnings after some revellers did not follow precautions while marking the beginning of summer.

    Experts have warned citizens to stay vigilant and continue to take precautions to avoid a COVID-19 resurgence [Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters]
    Experts have warned citizens to stay vigilant and continue to take precautions to avoid a COVID-19 resurgence [Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters]

    The Memorial Day weekend marking the unofficial start of summer in the United States brought big crowds to some beaches, parks and other destinations across the country, and warnings from experts about people disregarding the coronavirus social-distancing rules.

    The outbreak in the US, the hardest-hit country in the world, has killed nearly 100,000 people and infected 1,626,000. As all 50 states have begun to ease restrictions in some capacity, experts have warned citizens to stay vigilant and continue to take precautions to avoid a resurgence.

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    On beaches in the southern state of Florida over the weekend, sheriff's deputies and beach patrols tried to make sure people kept their distance from others as they soaked up the rays on the sand and at parks. 

    In the Tampa area, along Florida's Gulf Coast, the crowds were so big that authorities took the extraordinary step of closing parking lots. The county's sheriff, Bob Gualtieri, said about 300 deputies were patrolling the beaches to ensure people did not get too close.

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    In the state of Missouri, people packed bars and restaurants at the Lake of the Ozarks, a vacation hot spot popular with Chicagoans, over the weekend.

    One video showed a crammed pool where vacationers lounged close together without masks, St Louis station KMOV-TV reported. 

    In West Virginia, ATV riders jammed the vast, 700-mile Hatfield-McCoy network of all-terrain vehicle trails on the first weekend it was allowed to reopen since the outbreak took hold. Campgrounds and cabins were opened, as well. 

    "We truly appreciate getting to reopen," Jeff Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "Being able to open now will help our trail businesses recover."

    Warnings from health officials

    But the joys of being outside were met with warnings from health experts. 

    On the Sunday talk shows, Dr Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus taskforce, said she was "very concerned" about scenes of people crowding together over the weekend.

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    People gather on the beach for the Memorial Day weekend in Port Aransas, Texas [Eric Gay/The Associated Press]

    "We really want to be clear all the time that social distancing is absolutely critical. And if you can't social distance and you're outside, you must wear a mask," she said on ABC's This Week programme. 

    The US is expected to surpass the 100,000 coronavirus death mark in the next few days.

    The New York Times marked the grim milestone by devoting Sunday's entire front page to a list of 1,000 names of those who have died in the US. The headline: "An Incalculable Loss".

    Some precautions impossible to enforce

    Authorities at some destinations drawing summer-ready revellers acknowledged they could not enforce the recommended precautions, which have been met with hostility by groups of protesters across the country throughout the outbreak. 

    Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and other national parks across the country, which were coming off of a two-month shutdown before the holiday weekend, asked visitors to take simple precautions: wash hands, keep a safe distance apart, wear protective face coverings.

    "We can't keep the public away from bison and bears every year at full staffing levels. So the notion that we're going to keep every human being 6 feet apart is ridiculous," Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly told The Associated Press news agency.

    At the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina officials recommended visitors arrive early at popular spots and keep their distance.

    "There is plenty of space for visitors to spread out," park spokesperson Dana Soehn said. "But where they aren't, we're not asking our volunteers and employees to enforce it."

    Meanwhile, at Arizona's Grand Canyon, officials are leaning on an unenforced overnight closure to thin out visitor numbers, but are not limiting access to the canyon's cliff-hugging trails.

    "We're expecting there to be less people on the trails than being open all day," said Grand Canyon spokesperson Lily Daniels. "A lot of it is self-governance."

    SOURCE: News agencies