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Officials Urge Caution Over July 4th Weekend

July 3, 2020

From The Washington Post:

As the holiday weekend approaches, health officials are warning the public to remain vigilant amid concerns that the Washington region could see an increase in coronavirus cases as numbers skyrocket nationwide.

The District, Maryland and Virginia reported 1,062 new cases Thursday, on par with the region's daily average in mid-June, while marking the highest daily total since June 20. The daily caseload in the Washington area has flatlined in recent days after a steep drop that began in late May.

Officials urged residents to avoid large crowds, wash their hands, practice social distancing and wear masks during celebrations over the Fourth of July weekend. After warnings to take similar precautions amid demonstrations over police brutality, officials say holiday gatherings pose the latest threat to keeping a lid on coronavirus case numbers.

While many local fireworks displays have been canceled this year, the Mall will host a 35-minute fireworks display, as well as flyovers by the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels jet demonstration teams.

Federal officials urged social distancing and said 300,000 cloth face coverings will be available to visitors. But D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said conditions will be favorable for the spread of the virus as he urged residents to avoid the Mall on Saturday.

At a news conference, Newsham said it would be unwise to gather in large crowds, noting that a 53-year-old police officer died last month of covid-19 complications.

"This is a dangerous situation," he said, echoing concerns expressed by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) a day earlier. "I hope the residents of the District of Columbia will use their good judgment and watch the fireworks from home."

Newsham added: "Covid-19 is real. Real people can die because of our behavior. We urge you not to come down. Please don't come down to the Mall to the fireworks show."

In an interview Thursday on Fox 5, Bowser suggested that residents skip celebrations this Fourth of July and resume them next year. For those shunning fireworks and hosting a gathering in their home, the mayor cautioned that anyone who is positive for the virus could infect other guests.

"We're certainly in an unprecedented time with our response to the pandemic," she said. "I'm actually concerned about people having events at their home or going to family events. We want them to be super careful."

Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology at UVA Health in Charlottesville, said it will be critical to see how the public responds over the holiday weekend and whether case numbers stay in place.

"There's been a leveling off of cases," he said. "The question is, if we move too fast, are we at risk of backsliding?"

Sifri, who specializes in infectious diseases, said the trend of who is getting sick has changed in the Washington region.

Earlier outbreaks often originated in congregate settings, such as nursing homes, chicken processing plants and prisons, but those conditions have improved significantly with safety measures in place, he said. The region recently has seen virus transmissions through community spread as jurisdictions lift restrictions and more people venture into public settings.

Sifri urged leaders in the Washington region to monitor states in the South and West that have seen spikes in caseloads. Recent numbers nationwide have far eclipsed those recorded weeks ago -- surging above 50,000 the past two days.

"There is a risk for a rebound," he said of the Washington area. "The virus has momentum."

With more people likely to be out over the holiday weekend, Fairfax County sent text alerts to its residents Thursday, encouraging them to get tested if they are experiencing symptoms. The county said there are nearly 30 testing sites that will accept patients who don't have insurance.

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Thursday announced a new Maryland Department of Health order that instructs health-care providers to provide a coronavirus test for anyone who requests it, regardless of symptoms. The state also added testing sites in Ocean City and at Deep Creek Lake because of increased summer activities.

Montgomery County announced Thursday that it will open seven outdoor pools and three indoor aquatic centers to pass-holders beginning Monday. Swimming will require a reservation for a two-hour session with several safety protocols in place.

The District on Thursday recorded 25 new coronavirus cases and one death. Maryland saw 505 new cases and reported seven deaths. Virginia reported 532 cases and 30 fatalities -- the highest number of daily deaths in the state since May 27.

The positivity rate of tests in Virginia has also ticked up from 5.8 percent about a week ago to 6.2 percent -- a figure that stands at 7.8 percent in Northern Virginia.

The greater Washington region has recorded 142,548 known cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic, with the death toll reaching 5,582.

The number of daily hospitalizations on a seven-day average has been below 100 in the region since mid-June, while the average number of daily deaths has changed little since that time.

The pandemic continues to take an economic toll. More than 58,000 people filed for unemployment benefits in the District, Maryland and Virginia last week as parts of the region moved ahead with lifting additional restrictions.

Numbers released Thursday by the Labor Department show that 58,017 claims were filed in the three jurisdictions for the week ending June 27, down slightly from 60,915 claims filed a week earlier.

In the District, the number of claims hovered near 3,000 for the second week in a row. Marylanders filed 21,929 claims, down from 32,549 the week before. In Virginia, 33,062 claims were filed, up from 25,293.

Since the pandemic hit the Washington region and stay-at-home orders were issued in March -- forcing many businesses to shut their doors for weeks -- more than 1.5 million jobless claims have been filed in the region. After an initial surge in claims, the number of people seeking benefits has leveled off in recent weeks.

Nationally, 1.4 million people filed unemployment claims for the first time last week. It was the 15th consecutive week with more than 1 million unemployment claims nationwide.

In Queen Anne's County, Md., officials announced Thursday they will be restricting access to some beaches for the use of nearby residents to avoid overcrowding. The restrictions apply to Matapeake and Terrapin beaches, along with Ferry Point Park.

The county said in a statement it has been enforcing "capacity-only restrictions" to try to reduce crowds and will monitor crowd sizes over the holiday weekend, with no additional visitors allowed once capacity is reached.