WASHINGTON — Spring break has become the latest battleground of the nation’s culture wars, with some conservatives encouraging travel to warm-weather states like Florida, while the Biden administration pleads with people to stay home until a greater share of the nation is vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Speaking during a White House coronavirus task force briefing on Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reminded the public that her agency's guidance against nonessential travel remains in place. But such travel is already happening, with the Transportation Security Administration screening 1.3 million travelers last Friday, the most since the pandemic began.
A good number of those travelers appear to be traveling to states like Florida and Texas, where Republican governors have done away with virtually all coronavirus restrictions. The Biden administration worries that not only is such travel premature, but it could be counterproductive in battling the pandemic.
“We have seen footage of people enjoying spring break festivities maskless,” Walensky said. “This is all in the context of, still, 50,000 cases per day.” She added that a recent spike in Europe was a warning of what could be in store for the United States if caution went to the warming spring wind.
“They simply took their eye off the ball,” Walensky said, in apparent reference to countries like Italy and Germany.
But with U.S. colleges now on break and Americans young and old eager to travel, some critics say it’s time to disregard guidance they describe as needlessly cautious.
“Come Back to Florida for Spring Break,” read the headline of a widely shared op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by conservative pundit Dave Seminara. “Some students will behave irresponsibly on spring break,” Seminara conceded. “But the answer isn’t to punish everyone.”
The biologist Carl T. Bergstrom shared the article on Twitter with obvious incredulity, noting that it did not come from the Onion, the satirical newspaper that publishes fake news.
For some conservatives, the fear of the coronavirus was always overblown. Now that close to 3 million Americans are being vaccinated daily, they say, it is time to do away with what they describe as onerous fearmongering. “Public health experts urge Americans to stop living so that they will keep living,” wrote Fox News host and Trump ally Laura Ingraham on Twitter late last month, in reference to an article about spring break concerns from public health officials.
Asked about the controversy over spring break, the White House pointed to CDC guidelines asking people to “delay travel” for the foreseeable future. The Biden administration knows that Americans are exhausted by the pandemic and are eager to resume ordinary life. At the same time, it fears that a too-rapid return to normal will prove all too brief, as the coronavirus surges back and leads to more restrictive measures again.
“There’s always the risk of a surge back up,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, a close adviser to President Biden, said on Fox News on Sunday, arguing that with 50,000 daily new infections, this is “absolutely no time to declare victory.” Former President Donald Trump routinely declared victory over the coronavirus throughout 2020, only to find it inevitably surging back with redoubled force.
“I worry every time I see the images of revelers; it's not just what happens during spring break, it's what happens once they return back to their home communities,” Dr. Leana Wen, the former health commissioner of Baltimore and a professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University, told Yahoo News. “We've seen this playbook before, with superspreading events occurring after holidays.”
The winter holiday season became, like spring break, a matter of cultural warfare, with then-President Trump and some of his political supporters arguing that public health advice was needly restrictive. Epidemiologists believe that widespread travel in November and December led to a winter wave that caused thousands of additional deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Beaches themselves appear to be at low risk for transmission, since the coronavirus spreads most effectively in crowded indoor spaces — for example, the bars, clubs and restaurants that line those same beaches. Traveling can also present a risk, especially if people neglect or refuse to wear face masks.
The worry is that spring break will become a kind of viral clearinghouse, allowing young people to swap coronavirus strains that may not infect them but may seriously sicken other people back home, especially in states where vaccination efforts have lagged.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has lifted virtually all coronavirus-related restrictions in his state; last week, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas followed suit. Both men are believed to be eyeing a 2024 presidential run and want to showcase their states as business-friendly and anti-lockdown. DeSantis in particular has emerged as a favorite of pro-Trump conservatives who say his laissez-faire approach to the pandemic has been vindicated.
DeSantis's press secretary, Cody McCloud, defended the governor’s approach to spring break — and the pandemic in general. “Gov. DeSantis has made it clear that individuals are free to make their own decisions and that government will not dictate how people choose to live their lives,” McCloud told Yahoo News. “Thousands of Florida businesses rely on spring break each year, and the governor has provided every business the right to operate and every Floridian the right to earn a living.”
McCloud also noted that the DeSantis administration has vaccinated close to 3 million seniors in Florida, which presumably gives less vulnerable populations more freedom to socialize.
But with more than 32,000 people dead across the state from COVID-19, and the DeSantis administration accused of hiding the true scope of the pandemic in Florida, some are unconvinced. Last spring, attorney Daniel Uhlfelder took to the beaches of Florida dressed as the Grim Reaper as a criticism of DeSantis’s handling of the pandemic. Since then he has emerged as one of the governor’s most vociferous critics, and is part of an effort to defeat him in 2022.
“Florida is still a huge hot spot, and our vaccination rollout is a disaster,” Uhlfelder told Yahoo News, alluding to allegations that DeSantis prioritized predominantly Republican communities for inoculation efforts (the governor has emphatically denied such charges). “The tens of thousands of spring breakers coming here, going to bars and restaurants maskless and piling into hotel rooms, houses and condos without social distancing, is going to prolong the recovery even more.”
In both Florida and Texas, some local communities have clashed with their respective governors’ pro-travel policies. “Governors lifting mask mandates creates chaos locally,” says Dr. Kavita Patel, a former Obama administration health policy official now at the Brookings Institution. That in turn fosters confusion about whom to listen to and which guidance to follow.
More than 100 people were arrested in Miami Beach over the weekend for rowdy gatherings that turned violent. "We're seeing too much spring break activity," the city’s mayor complained to CNN.
The island of Galveston, off the Texas coast, also saw large crowds intent on relegating the pandemic to the past. As one beachgoer told a local ABC affiliate, “We don’t need the government entity to come out here and tell us you need a mask or you don’t need a mask.” More than 46,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Texas.
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