Coronavirus cases are on the rise again in the US and hospitalizations are reaching record numbers. But in the beach town of Ocean City, Maryland, you could almost forget that the country is in the middle of a pandemic.
Before you get to the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, you pass a warning that has been sprayed onto the sidewalk in red: "Proceed at your own risk. Practice physical distancing. COVID-19 recovery."
The notice doesn't exactly put you in the mood for a relaxed vacation, but those who just want to spend a fun day on the beach after months of quarantine can literally walk all over it without paying it any mind.
That mirrors the current situation in the US, where the number of new coronavirus cases has been rising and COVID-19 hospitalizations are breaking new records — and where you see more and more people gathering at bars and meeting friends without wearing masks or social distancing.
'This crisis is still not behind us'
The majority of the people who are souvenir shopping or setting up at the beach in Ocean City on Wednesday aren't wearing masks, either, even though the pandemic is far from over. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan reminded people earlier this week: "As we continue to safely reopen, it is important to remember that this crisis is still not behind us."
But after more than three months of harsh restrictions, many people in the US are tired of the pandemic. "We want to go back to normalcy as much as we can," says Paul, who came to Ocean City with his family from New Jersey and Queens, New York.
His brother-in-law Billy agrees. "Keeping people locked up for this long isn't normal," he says. "Some states are handling the situation well, but some are overreacting."
Their family is ready to have fun on the boardwalk, where visitors can enjoy the view from the newly opened Ferris wheel, snack on fries, funnel cake and fried Oreos, or browse the myriad little stores that all offer more or less the same selection of t-shirts and knick-knacks.
It's not busy yet on Wednesday morning, with gray skies and the occasional rain shower. But by the time the sun comes out in the afternoon, the bustling boardwalk is almost enough to make you forget that the US is still in the middle of a pandemic. Debby and her husband Gene from Pennsylvania are definitely not thinking about the virus on their camping trip by the sea. "We are done with corona," Debby says.
'Only a quarter of people take it seriously'
Health experts say this carelessness is dangerous. The US could reach 100,000 new coronavirus infections a day if numbers keep going up like they currently are, Anthony Fauci, one of the leading doctors on the US government's coronavirus task force, says. The resurgence of the virus in states such as Texas, Arizona and California "puts the entire country at risk," the immunologist said. "When you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they are doing well, they are vulnerable."
That's what worries Mia Mason as well. The Democrat is running for Congress in Maryland's First District. "Ocean City is a tourist location," Mason says. "You have people coming here from Pennsylvania or other states where the recovery is going well. But they might get [coronavirus] from people coming from North Carolina and then take it back to their home states."
Because of the pandemic, Mia Mason is running her election campaign almost entirely online. That includes Zoom meetings at Ocean City's amusement park.
Standing on the boardwalk on Wednesday, Mason estimates that "only a quarter of the people here take it seriously" and that only about half put on their mask when they enter a business. It's not for lack of reminders — almost all stores and restaurants have large signs taped to their windows and doors telling customers that masks are required.
For business owners, being able to open up again was a blessing. But the reopening comes with a risk, too. If the loosening of restrictions in Maryland lead to a resurgence similar to what other states have experienced, "businesses might be forced to close again before Labor Day" on September 7, Mason warns.
Business versus health concerns
Brenda Parker runs the Inlet Bar and Grille on Ocean City's boardwalk. The rustic bar has been in her family for five generations, but never in the past 75 years, Parker says, did it have to weather a storm like this. At least the patrons are coming back now — but not all of them are wearing masks while they're waiting for their drinks at the bar. That puts Parker and her employees in a difficult position.
"I don't feel safe with them not wearing masks," Parker says.
But summer, and especially the Fourth of July holiday weekend, is when bars like Parker's make the most money. She is afraid she'll drive customers away if she insists they wear a mask. "We can't tell them to wear a mask because it's their right to wear it or not."
That's why Parker wants a law that makes it mandatory to wear a mask whenever you're indoors. President Donald Trump needs to take action, Parker says: "He should make it so that you get fined $500 if you don't wear a mask."
Although order in Maryland does require people to wear a face covering in select public spaces, many people will spend the holiday weekend in Ocean City not wearing masks. After the last big holiday, Memorial Day, at the end of May, the US saw their coronavirus infection numbers spike. Time will tell whether Independence Day will have a similarly devastating effect.
This article was amended on July 6 to make it clear that Maryland does have an order requiring people to wear a face covering in select public places.