Joe Biden on Thursday suggested it might be safe to gather in small groups come July 4, 2021, as vaccinations ramp up and the pandemic shows signs of easing. But from where Francisco Bruna is sitting, plenty of Americans have no intention of waiting even close to that long.
“We’re receiving a lot of calls,” Bruna, owner of Bru Med Travel, a Miami travel agency, told The Daily Beast on Friday. “People are starting to make travel arrangements, not only in the States but in the Caribbean and overseas as well. Some countries have opened up, like Turkey, Dubai, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands.”
Bruna said he has made some bookings for clients prior to Memorial Day, with people traveling to the Caribbean and Mexico in May, but that the bulk of the trips planned so far will take place in June, July, and August.
As for cruises, things are “a little more complicated,” Bruna added, explaining that ships may set sail over the summer at 50 to 75 percent capacity. He expects more stateside river cruise bookings, as well as voyages in and around the Hawaiian islands.
Just hours after signing a $1.9 trillion stimulus package on Thursday, Biden announced in a prime-time address that all American adults should be able to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by May 1, calling on states to expand their eligibility. The speech set out a specific timeline for the country to get back to normal, powered with a dose of cautious optimism.
“If we do all this, if we do our part, if we do this together, by July the fourth, there’s a good chance you, your families, and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbeque and celebrate Independence Day,” Biden said. “That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together, but it does mean small groups will be able to get together.”
However, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Friday that he believes “the majority of Americans are going to be getting together long before July.”
And, in fact, you don’t have to look very far—or, for that matter, solely in states run by pandemic skeptics—for signs of Americans embracing the spring weather and playing with pandemic fire.
On Thursday night, Ashwin Deshmukh was walking to Short Stories, the bar and restaurant he owns in New York City’s East Village when, embracing the balmy weather after a long, cold winter, he decided to take a detour through SoHo. As he passed an eatery en route, Deshmukh noticed a commotion spilling out onto the sidewalk.
“The host was escorting two people out,” Deshmukh told The Daily Beast. “One of the couple was sort of laughing, and a server said they had just met outside an hour before and they were caught in the bathroom together, and that they had to go.”
Deshmukh declined to name the restaurant where the tryst occurred. But he couldn’t help remarking on the surge toward normalcy that some epidemiologists fear is coming far too soon.
“It was not that uncommon in the before-time,” Desmuhk told The Daily Beast of the scene he stumbled across. “But it’s refreshing to see two people pick each other up at a restaurant in 2021.”
Some public-health experts were more alarmed than anything else.
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the U.S. death rate in 2020 up by 15 percent, marking the deadliest year in American history, according to an upcoming CDC report cited by Politico. There have so far been 531,654 COVID-related deaths in the U.S., and 23.9 million recorded cases, per the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. Since the beginning, the COVID death rate for people of color has far exceeded that of whites, and while case counts and death totals have trended downward in recent weeks, they are still at explosive levels.
On Thursday alone, there were 62,689 new coronavirus cases reported across the U.S., with at least 1,522 deaths—figures on par with those last spring and summer.
“It really worries me that we’re seeing this,” Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University global-health expert focused on the intersection between pandemics and the law, told The Daily Beast. “We’re at one of the most perilous moments in the pandemic because we’ve got a combination of businesses opening up, people having pandemic fatigue, and widely circulating variants. It’s a critical time because our population hasn’t been vaccinated yet to a sufficient degree, and you can see our hospitals and mortuaries filling up with people. “
Danny Butler, a barman at Upper Manhattan’s Tubby Hook Tavern, said there has been a definite increase in business that started even before Biden set his tentative reopening date. Part of this is due to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s partial relaxation last month of capacity restrictions on indoor dining, which were raised to 35 percent and will increase to 50 percent on March 19. Still, it appears that people are feeling more confident about going out again in general, Butler said.
“The last two weeks have been twice as busy as it was previously, especially when the weather got nice,” he told The Daily Beast. “We’re seeing people that we didn’t see for a while, not just the regulars.”
At his own restaurants, Deshmukh said, demand was starting to “come back like crazy.”
“I probably get a dozen emails or texts a day from people wanting to book a party,” he said. “We’re turning down a lot of them, based on capacity restrictions and being cautious, but I think when the city gets to 75 percent capacity, everything’s going to explode and it’ll be parties in the streets and parties in the restaurants.”
This summer is shaping up to be the “ultimate FOMO summer in New York,” Deshmukh added, with many of those who left the city during the first wave of the pandemic last year plotting their return. Not only is he now seeing more customers moving to NYC to take advantage of the more reasonably priced apartment rentals now on the market, but he’s also seen commercial rents beginning to increase after a year of stagnation or worse. One downtown landlord recently doubled the asking price for a space that Deshmukh said has been empty since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
In Florida, tourism normally generates tens of billions of dollars a year. In 2020, Miami hotel bookings dropped 85 percent compared to 2019. Now, Miami has spent $5 million on its biggest ad campaign in two decades, even as authorities send text messages to visitors’ phones saying, “Vacation Responsibly or Be Arrested,” according to the Associated Press.
“Spring break in Miami Beach may be one of the great rites of passage, but only if you plan on following the rules,” the texts read. “Otherwise, you might as well just stay home and save yourself the court costs.”
The State of Florida has dropped its mask mandate and all capacity restrictions, though Miami-Dade County still requires face coverings while in public and inside stores and restaurants. The problem is Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who signed an executive order Wednesday that expanded a previous ban on counties and municipalities fining individuals and businesses caught flouting COVID regulations.
For college students, the COVID lockdown has been particularly tough to bear. A party-turned-riot at the University of Colorado Boulder made headlines last weekend, with hundreds of drunk, unmasked pupils accused of destroying cars and throwing bricks at responding police officers.
Robert Tann, a CU Boulder undergrad who wrote an op-ed decrying the event, says he misses partying, and like most people his age, wants nothing more than to socialize once again with his friends.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult year to be a college student, to have a moment of your life ripped away from you that’s really hard to jump back into and recreate,” Tann told The Daily Beast. “But I also know the repercussions of partying during a pandemic, and while we’ve all had to sacrifice and lose out on things, losing out on a party is much less devastating than losing a life.”
Tann said he empathizes greatly with other young people across the country in the same situation but implores them to be patient.
“Having enough vaccines for every American by the end of May [as is Biden’s goal], it is cause for excitement,” he said. “But when we are so close, now is not the time to be recklessly endangering people, and if we continue to have gatherings of this size, we won’t be reopening and we’ll be moving the goalposts back even further.”
Olivia Poolos, a first-year student at Washington University in St. Louis, is concerned that her peers have lately become apathetic and burned out about taking COVID precautions.
She said she has noticed a definite shift in culture, with some seeing the “light at the end of the tunnel” that has appeared as a sign that “this is already over.”
“People are starting to get together in large groups and party again,” Poolos told The Daily Beast. “Last fall, people were definitely more careful and there was more a sense of shame among those partying. It’s not a widespread issue, but the kids that do party aren’t feeling as much of that social stigma against it anymore.”
That loss of stigma has experts worried.
“We've suffered unimaginably, and we only need to hold on for another two months,” Gostin said. “Just 8 weeks. It would be such a tragedy if we had thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of deaths right at the last mile.”