WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Many Americans flocked to beaches as one Florida county expanded access and California experienced a heat wave, even as new coronavirus cases hit a record high in the US the day before and deaths topped 200,000 worldwide.
Hair salons and other shops in Georgia, Oklahoma and some other states opened for a second day as pockets of the country sought to restart their economies following a month of government-ordered lockdowns.
The tentative steps toward restarting life run against the warnings of many public health experts, who say the increased human interaction could spark a new wave of cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the highly contagious virus.
The United States on Friday recorded 36,491 new cases of COVID-19, a record daily high, according to a Reuters tally. Global deaths linked to the virus passed 200,000 on Saturday, more than one quarter of them in the United States, the tally shows.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo repeated his warning that reopening businesses too soon was risky, while Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo pushed back against a protest at the State House in Providence as short-sighted, arguing it could force her to delay her restart date of May 8 at the earliest.
“At this point to violate social distancing rules, it’s just selfish,” Raimondo told a briefing, referring to the protest. “If everybody today went out and violated the rules I will definitely have to push back the date at which we can reopen the economy.”
Volusia County, home to the famed Daytona Beach, opened lots at its coastal parks on Saturday to handicapped visitors, one step in a phased reopening that has so far limited its beaches to those wanting to walk, surf, bike or swim.
In a briefing on Friday, County Manager George Recktenwald had portrayed the relaxed parking provision as an incremental step and warned against gathering in groups. But one resident said many beachgoers were not heeding the advice.
“I know they have rules and restrictions, but people aren’t listening,” said John Overchuck, 45, an attorney who lives in a beachfront home with his wife and toddler daughter just south of Daytona Beach in New Smyrna Beach. “I walked on the beach 10 minutes ago and it’s packed. That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Overchuck said he fears the return of thousands of spring breakers and tourists who in normal times are drawn to Smyrna and other county beaches. Some were already parking cars and pitching tents right on the beach, he said.
A heat wave brought thousands of Californians to the open beaches in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach on Friday despite stay-at-home orders for people across the state, and similarly large crowds hit the beaches on Saturday. California Governor Gavin Newsom has pleaded for those who visit the shore to practice social distancing.
Cuomo said on Saturday that his state began conducting antibody tests of nurses, doctors, police officers, grocery clerks and other essential workers while also allowing local pharmacies to collect samples for diagnostic tests.
The focus on testing comes as the crisis appears to be subsiding in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, with hospitalizations falling to their lowest in three weeks.
“Twenty-one days of hell, and now we are back to where we were 21 days ago,” Cuomo told a daily briefing. “Testing is what we are compulsively or obsessively focused on now.”
The top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci agreed that testing was key to getting back to normal by identifying carriers, isolating them and tracing their contacts with others.
“Right now we’re doing 1.5 million to 2 million (tests) per week. We probably should get up to twice that as we get into the next several weeks, and I think we will,” Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a webcast of the National Academy of Sciences’ annual meeting.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said that while his curve of cases was “undeniably flattening” he would not open parks or beaches and suggested he would move cautiously with the state’s reopening plan to be disclosed as soon as Monday.
“We need to see more progress and more slowing before we can begin implementing any effort to get ourselves on the road to the new normal that awaits our state on the other side of this pandemic,” Murphy told a daily briefing.
President Donald Trump did not hold his regular briefing after causing an uproar two days earlier by suggesting scientists explore whether the internal use of disinfectants such as bleach could treat COVID-19. He later said he was being sarcastic.
“What is the purpose of having White House News Conferences when the Lamestream Media asks nothing but hostile questions, & then refuses to report the truth or facts accurately,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
In Georgia, barbers, nail salons and other businesses opened for a second day but many business owners took precautions to limit customers and many stayed closed.
Theo Walker, owner of Golden Anchor Tattoo in Atlanta, said he put the question of whether to open to his artists and they voted yes.
“In an ideal world we would have loved to just wait at home until it’s all over, but unfortunately we all have bills that are waiting, and I did not want my artists to suffer anymore,” Walker said. “We all decided it was time to get back to work.”