Pandemic Makes U.S. Spring Party Season a Time of Risky Revelry
(Bloomberg) -- The convergence of St. Patrick’s Day, spring break and the sunset of mask mandates is creating fresh fear of a Covid-19 resurgence in the U.S., even as cases drop and vaccinations accelerate.
Last week, Miami Beach police arrested hundreds as spring break lured an influx of visitors, breaking up at least one crowd with pepper balls. In Savannah, Georgia, bars are teeming with people celebrating the city’s Irish heritage. Houston authorities quashed plans for barefaced parties to mark the end of Texas’s mask mandate.
The revelry comes a full year into the pandemic, as vaccines have reached more than 65% of U.S. seniors and estimates suggest more than 83 million Americans have already been infected. Yet Covid-19 is still prevalent, and the highly infectious B.1.1.7 variant is dominant in states such as Florida and Texas.
“We have the knowledge and we have the tools to keep cases on this steady downward trajectory while people are being vaccinated,” said Julie Fischer, a microbiologist with global health nonprofit CRDF Global. “People just need to hold on for a little bit longer.”
While scientists and health officials have been pleading with the public to continue mask-wearing and social distancing, they may meet their match in spring breezes and the lure of green-dyed beer.
Even though the most famous St. Patrick’s parades have all been canceled, the bars in many cities are expected to fill up Wednesday. In Savannah, a gracious colonial-era city on Georgia’s Atlantic coast, there’s a six-day festival promoted by the Plant Riverside entertainment district.
Savannah’s holiday in normal years is a green-splashed bacchanal, but this year the maskless partying “flies in the face of what we’ve been trying to do here in terms of keeping people safe,” Mayor Van Johnson said in an interview Tuesday.
“You have a population across the country of people who are weary of Covid-19,” Johnson said. “We expect them to enjoy Savannah, but we expect that they will respect our city and our residents by social distancing and particularly wearing a mask in public spaces.”
The governors of Mississippi and Texas lifted mask mandates this month, bringing to 15 the number of states without one, and Google data show the nation is about halfway back to its mobility patterns before the first lockdown. In places such as Georgia and Florida, Republican governors have also stripped local officials of the power to punish risky behavior.
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said municipal workers are going to the beach to distribute masks and gave away some 7,000 just Saturday. But it feels like “swimming upstream,“ in part because Florida Governor Ron DeSantis prevented cities from fining people for Covid rule violations.
“We’re very serious about keeping order, and we don’t want people coming here thinking this is a place to go wild,” Gelber said Tuesday. “We’re clearly near the end, a lot of people are getting the vaccine and they’re also fatigued and antsy.”
It is, he said, “a very perilous mix.”
One thing may help: Some schools have shortened or canceled spring break altogether. Duke University, for example, gave only two days off last week. The Durham, North Carolina, school is battling outbreaks on its own campus, where this weekend undergraduates were ordered to quarantine for a week after fraternity gatherings fueled cases. The surge represented the largest one-week number of positive tests and quarantines since the start of the pandemic, the school said in a statement.
Americans have been warned time and again about mass gatherings, but Covid-19 has become so prevalent and contact-tracing is so poor that it’s often impossible to identify discrete outbreaks associated with particular events like street parties or sporting events.
What’s more, the targeted vaccination of the most vulnerable suggests the U.S. won’t necessarily see another pronounced spike in deaths before July.
Even in a scenario in which fast-spreading variants and relaxed behavior drive a significant rebound in cases, the corresponding increase in deaths would probably be very slight, according to estimates from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Analysis. Still, even a gentle surge -- as opposed to the expected decline -- would mean 55,000 more lives lost.
Fischer, the microbiologist, said Americans now have the tools to keep cases trending downward, and it would be a shame to let more people die unnecessarily.
“We are not in the clear yet,” she said. “It’s as if both the pilots and the passengers agree that since they can see airport, they no longer need to keep flying the plane.”
Despite the high-visibility parties, Americans as a whole are somewhat careful. As of March 8, about 73% always wear a mask outside their homes, according to survey data provided by the IHME. The challenge will be in sustaining that compliance for at least several more months. President Joe Biden has said that all Americans will be eligible to seek a Covid-19 vaccine by May 1 and should return to a semblance of normal life by Independence Day.
In Savannah, some people have clearly gotten ahead of that timeline.
Hotels were about 90% full last weekend and running about 80% full now, according to Johnson, the mayor. Still, the overall visitor traffic of about 30,000 to 50,000 people pales in comparison to a normal year, and Johnson said residents shouldn’t risk their well-being this year “for a day or two of reckless folly.”
Save it up, he said, for 2022.
“We are 366 days away from the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade and festival that the United States has ever seen, in the Irish capital of America: Savannah, Georgia. The clock starts now.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.