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Experts fear July 4 weekend will exacerbate coronavirus spread

Experts worry that the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. will worsen after the Fourth of July weekend, when millions of people gather across the country during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.

Memorial Day weekend — when people flocked to beaches, pools, parties, restaurants and bars after a weeks-long lockdown — helped spur many of the outbreaks the U.S. is seeing across parts of the country. 

But now the stakes are even higher.

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The U.S. is reporting record-high daily case counts, driven largely by outbreaks in the South and West. Several states are experiencing more severe outbreaks than they saw two months ago.

“I am very concerned, especially given this coming weekend, that the same types of spikes, the same types of surges could be seen not just in the places that are currently experiencing surges, but in places that have already experienced surges, and in ones that haven't yet,” said Joshua Barocas, assistant professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine.  

The U.S. is averaging 40,000 new cases a day, exceeding the numbers seen in May. This is partially because of increased testing, but the percentage of tests coming back positive is also going up, an indicator of a growing outbreak. 

While more than 50 percent of new COVID-19 infections in the U.S. are recorded in four states, Texas, California, Arizona and Florida, dozens of other states are also seeing increases both in cases and the percentage of tests coming back positive.

“My biggest concern with the Fourth of July is that in Arkansas, we have more than three times as many active cases now as we did in Memorial Day weekend,” said Nate Smith, secretary of health at the Arkansas Department of Health. 

“The same activities are going to be associated with a higher risk of acquiring COVID-19, so we need to be more vigilant this time than we were Memorial Day,”  Smith said.

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Most states are open now and relying on people to stay at least 6 feet from others or wear masks when that is not possible to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Experts hope people follow those guidelines over the weekend and hold their events or gatherings outdoors, where the risk of transmission is lower than inside.

“If the vast majority of people enjoy the weekend safely, spend more time outside, wear masks, socially distance, wash their hands and use hand sanitizer, then I think it will be a much safer weekend and we wouldn’t see those increases,” said Rachel Levine, secretary of health at the Pennsylvania Department of Health. 

“If people are in restaurants, bars or other locations, they’re in large crowds, they’re crowding together and not social distancing, that would pose a threat,”  Levine said.

However, it appears the willingness to wear a mask or maintain a distance from others is declining as states lift lockdowns.

A Gallup poll released Monday showed 73 percent of people “always” or “very often” practice social distancing, compared to 93 percent who said the same in April. 

Governors in California, Texas, Michigan, Arizona, Florida and other states have in recent days ordered closures of bars in some areas as experts warn crowded indoor settings are a dangerous source of spread in communities. 

California and Florida are also closing beaches in hot spots, but experts worry travelers from those areas could spread the disease throughout the country. Los Angeles is also prohibiting fireworks displays. 

Ahead of Independence Day — historically one of the busiest travel days of the year — officials and experts are not only urging people to follow social distancing guidelines but to also stay close to home to prevent spreading the virus to other areas or bringing it back home after the holiday.

A growing outbreak in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County was seeded by young adults who traveled to areas of the South and then came back home to congregate in bars and restaurants without masks, Levine said. 

New York, Connecticut and New Jersey are so far the only states to issue quarantine requirements for travelers arriving from certain parts of the country with increasing COVID-19 cases. 

Projections released Wednesday by the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia forecasts significant virus spread over the next four weeks in existing hot spots, including Houston and Miami, and in other areas like Kansas City, Mo., and Philadelphia, largely due to increased travel and lack of adherence to social distancing and mask wearing.

“COVID doesn’t respect any geographic boundaries, in that if you’re traveling to the beach and there are a large number of infected individuals there, you can bring it back with you,” said Gregory Tasian, an associate professor of urology and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

“This is made more problematic since there is no universal policy on mitigation strategies in terms of mandatory social distancing or universal masking. When you have that natural travel that occurs, COVID becomes more difficult to control,” he added.