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Labor Day weekend sparks fears of new coronavirus outbreaks in California

Beachgoers enjoy a sunny summer day in Santa Monica in August.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The next big test of whether Californians can slow the spread of the coronavirus will come this holiday weekend, with officials hoping the public will refrain from the large gatherings and risky behavior that contributed to a spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths after a disastrous Memorial Day weekend.

California spent much of the summer paying the price for a rapid reopening of the economy in late May and early June, with a coronavirus surge from mid-June through the weeks after the Fourth of July that led to record deaths and new concerns about the virus spreading among young people and essential workers.

Now, Labor Day weekend — the final big holiday of the summer — poses new risks as it coincides with the easing of additional COVID-19 restrictions.

Health officials are hoping the shock of the summer will prompt people to play it safe this weekend, in part because so much is riding on keeping numbers down and to prevent history from repeating itself. If infections continue to decline, some classrooms could reopen this fall. There are also hopes that conditions will improve enough by the holiday season to allow for more in-person shopping.

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Experts said the challenge facing society is to get beyond the lockdown conditions of spring while still avoiding gatherings that can spread the virus. Many agencies are urging people to stay home through the weekend, but that might be hard for some to do in the waning days of summer — especially with a heat wave bearing down.

“People should not just hunker down and stay home. We’re normal social creatures, and we have to find ways of socializing in a safe way,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of UC San Francisco’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

The problem, she and other health officials say, is that it can be a slippery slope — especially now as the number of new coronavirus cases are declining.

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“The lethal combination in the pandemic is always when people become complacent because things are looking better,” she added.

Although the risk of the virus’ spread is greater inside than out, experts say crowds — even outside — can still pose a threat.

“If you’re right in someone’s face, being outdoors isn’t going to make a difference,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at UC San Francisco.

If people maintain a distance at beaches or other outdoor venues and wear face coverings, there may be no real need to limit access, Rutherford suggested. But if crowding occurs — as it has in the past — Rutherford said that might be cause for local governments to intervene.

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Ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, several counties closed beaches to prevent crowding like what was seen during the Memorial Day holiday. The focus was on the dangers related to a specific activity, rather than on proactive measures people should take to protect themselves and others. Bibbins-Domingo thinks that may have been an educational disservice.

Parts of the L.A. Zoo and SeaWorld San Diego are now open, but coronavirus restrictions continue around California

“We have to communicate what it is about these activities that is dangerous,” she said.

Beach restrictions and closures have gone into effect in some parts of the state, but other areas that previously implemented restrictions haven’t issued any for this holiday.

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Santa Barbara County announced that from Friday through Monday, water sports and physical activity would be allowed, but sunbathing, picnicking and lounging on the sand is prohibited.

Nearby counties — including Los Angeles and Orange — have not taken similar actions. But the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors warned that it could be forced to close the shorelines if they became overwhelmed with visitors.

And Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti cautioned against commingling.

“This is not a Labor Day weekend that will be full of celebrations,” Garcetti said. “You need to cancel all plans for gatherings.”

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Newsom takes a more cautious and stringent four-tier approach than his first reopening effort. ‘We’re going to be more stubborn this time,’ he says.

There is evidence that changes in behavior have occurred since Memorial Day, as officials have preached the importance of wearing masks and social distancing. At the same time, experts hope the summer spike — and the new restrictions it brought — might change attitudes.

While the state has seen a decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, the numbers are still higher than in early May. Thirty-eight counties are in the state’s Tier 1 level, the purple zone noting widespread risk of the virus.

“It’s possible we could go back up again if people don’t follow the guidelines,” Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a medical epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said.

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Kim-Farley believes that the mortality-to-infection rate — the number of deaths divided by the number of cases — is one reason people are often divided on what steps should be taken to combat the virus. He estimates the rate to be roughly 1%, a number that hits the “sweet spot for controversy in our society.”

If the number were 10 times less, which would be in keeping with seasonal influenza, Kim-Farley thinks that lockdowns and stay-at-home orders would not be required. If it were 10 times higher, in keeping with what occurred during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, he said fears would likely be higher across the board.

At 1%, people argue against restrictions as well as for more to be done.

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But some restrictions are necessary, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said, reminding residents that being around people who aren’t part of their household puts them at greater risk for infection.

“Gatherings — parties, cookouts and the other activities we usually do with non-household members on holidays — can easily lead to increases in transmission, hospitalizations and deaths,” said Ferrer, noting that it’s important to find ways to celebrate Labor Day without going to parties and barbecues hosted by non-household members.

Likewise, Orange County Public Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau urged residents to stay home this weekend if possible and opt for virtual parties over Skype or FaceTime instead of in-person gatherings.

“The safest thing for you to do is to stay at home,” added acting State Public Health Officer Dr. Erica Pan. “But if you do choose to be with others, please keep it outside.”

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The state’s numbers have been trending downward and experts hope to keep it that way. California has recorded more than 720,000 infections — the most in the nation — and over 13,000 deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 40% of people who are infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic carriers. Rutherford says that number could be even greater because infected individuals can transmit the disease before showing symptoms.

And though the use of face coverings and social distancing can help contain the spread of the virus, not knowing how prevalent it is on any given day is one more reason to remain cautious, he said.

His advice for those who are on the fence about whether to proceed with a celebration is to take a break from this year’s festivities.

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“You can go hang out at Labor Day next year. It’s time to take a pass on these activities and lie low.”


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