How Your Labor Day Blast Could Make Pandemic Life Worse in the Fall

By | September 6, 2020
Credit…Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

For many Americans, Labor Day is a goodbye to summer before children go back to school and cold weather arrives. But public health experts are worried that in the midst of a pandemic, the traditional last blast of summer could translate into disaster this fall.

After the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, cases of Covid-19 surged around the country after people held family gatherings or congregated in large groups. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said he wanted people to enjoy Labor Day weekend but urged them to take precautions to avoid a post-holiday spike in cases: Take the fun outdoors; avoid crowds, and keep gatherings to 10 people or fewer; and even outdoors, where transmission risk is much lower, you still need to wear a mask and practice physical distancing if you’re spending time with people outside your household.

“We’ve been through this before,” Dr. Fauci said. “We see what happens over holiday weekends, and we want to make sure we don’t have an uptick. What I have been saying is kind of a plea to the American public, and to the younger people, that they can enjoy themselves over Labor Day weekend, but please be aware of and adhere to public health guidelines.”

In terms of daily case counts, the United States over all is in worse shape going into Labor Day weekend than it was for Memorial Day weekend. The nation is now averaging about 40,000 new confirmed cases per day, up from about 22,000 per day ahead of Memorial Day weekend. Dr. Fauci said that the number of daily cases in the United States was “unacceptably high” and that a spike in Covid-19 infections following Labor Day would make it far tougher to control the spread of the disease in the fall as people head indoors.

“We’d like to get a good head start into the fall by getting our daily cases and our test positivity as low as possible,” Dr. Fauci said. “If we get another resurgence of infections after Labor Day, it will make it that much more difficult to get that baseline down and make it much more problematic as we enter the fall season.”

Public health experts said it might be even more challenging to persuade people to curtail their Labor Day weekend plans, compared to past holiday weekends, because so many people are suffering from pandemic fatigue after six months of social distancing restrictions, closures and separation from loved ones.

“People are getting tired of taking these precautions and of having their lives upended,” said Eleanor J. Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health. “They’re missing their friends and family, and everyone wishes things were back to normal. That’s totally understandable, but unfortunately we don’t get a say, really.”

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Dr. Murray said it was important for people to remember that just one gathering could lead to spikes in cases that would affect many more people. She noted that a wedding in Maine with an estimated 65 guests had resulted in 147 infections, including three deaths among people who didn’t even attend the wedding.

Dr. Murray said that if people decided to ignore public health guidelines this weekend, at the very least they should place themselves in quarantine for two weeks after the event. “If those people at the wedding had said, ‘This is a risk I’m personally willing to take,’ but after the wedding they had quarantined, then the maximum number of cases would have been the 65 wedding attendees,” she said.

Although it’s safer to gather outside than indoors, the virus can still be transmitted in outdoor spaces when people gather in large groups or stand close to one another for long periods of time. Alcohol can loosen inhibitions, prompting people to forget about social distancing. Loud music can prompt people to stand closer and speak louder, which can spew more viral particles and put you at risk even if you’re wearing a mask, health experts say.

Dr. Murray said that whatever plan you have for the holiday weekend, ask yourself how you can make it safer for everyone.

“People need to socialize and to see people who are important to them,” Dr. Murray said. “If you were thinking of being indoors, go outdoors. If you were thinking about being outdoors, spread out further; wear masks. Think about what you can do to move down the risk continuum.”

While many people feel safer socializing with family members, a number of outbreaks have been traced back to family parties that included relatives from more than one household. In Maryland, 44 percent of the state’s new cases were traced back to family gatherings, compared with 23 percent from house parties and 21 percent to outdoor events, according to a tweet posted by Gov. Larry Hogan.

After a family gathering of two dozen people in Catawba County, N.C., 14 people who attended became ill, but it didn’t end there. “Before they started to show symptoms, they continued with their daily lives, such as going to work or taking a beach trip with other families,” Jennifer McCracken, Catawba County’s public health director, wrote in a case study of the event. “This set into motion a person-to-person contact chain that to date has spread COVID-19 to 41 people in nine different families and eight different workplaces.”

Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, said the holiday weekend would multiply the number of family gatherings around the country.

“A family gathering one weekend in August that sets off cases in a given county or town is one thing,” Dr. Gonsalves said. “One hundred family gatherings in that county on Labor Day weekend makes it a much larger epidemiological impact.”

Dr. Gonsalves said concerns about Labor Day celebrations were being compounded by the fact that there are already large outbreaks on college campuses. “We’ve had this gigantic migration event over the past few weeks where students are moving all over the country from homes to universities,” Dr. Gonsalves said. “The relative calm of places like New York and Connecticut has to be now thought of in the context of all this big jumble of people crisscrossing the country to get back to college.”

ABC News posted a video on Twitter showing crowds of people gathering at a sports bar near the University of South Carolina. The university has reported more than 1,735 cases since Aug. 1, including 1,461 active cases, according to its Covid-19 dashboard.

Brian Pace, a 35-year old psychologist in Phoenix, said he and his friends in Salt Lake City had talked about getting together for a socially distanced outdoor barbecue this weekend. He decided it was smarter to stay home, so he will get takeout from a local barbecue restaurant, JL Smokehouse, instead.

“I debated with friends,” Mr. Pace said. “But in the end, my decision boiled down to: Will I look back five years from now and say, ‘That was pretty stupid,’ or regret that I didn’t do it? It probably would be that it was stupid to do that, so we’re pretty much hunkered down here. When I go out, I wear a mask, and it’s takeout only.”

Dr. Fauci said he didn’t want his words of caution about Labor Day celebrations to stop people from enjoying the holiday. He said he personally planned to spend the weekend with his wife, fishing in the Potomac and having dinner with two friends, for a total of four people, on his backyard deck.

“You don’t want to tell people on a holiday weekend that even outdoors is bad — they will get completely discouraged,” Dr. Fauci said. “What we try to say is enjoy outdoors, but you can do it with safe spacing. You can be on a beach, and you don’t have to be falling all over each other. You can be six, seven, eight, nine or 10 feet apart. You can go on a hike. You can go on a run. You can go on a picnic with a few people. You don’t have to be in a crowd with 30, 40 or 50 people all breathing on each other.”