Typically a day of fireworks, parades and other community events, celebrating the Fourth of July will look different this year as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
COVID-19 infection rates are spiking or ticking upward in more than a dozen states, including California, Florida, Texas, Arizona and Wisconsin. Several counties in Florida have closed their beaches for the long holiday weekend and the city of Milwaukee has canceled all its public July 4th activities.
But Wisconsin’s coronavirus activity remains high, and the percentage of positive tests has been ticking up.
On Thursday, Wisconsin’s health department and Gov. Tony Evers advised people to stay home for the holiday weekend.
“Given the recent surge in COVID cases in the state and the recommendation by DHS based on these trends, Wisconsinites ought to stay at home this weekend and enjoy the 4th of July safely with with family,” said Ajay Sethi, an associate professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
If you do decide to celebrate this weekend, here are some things to keep in mind.
Amanda Simanek, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, recommends celebrating with groups of people you’ve already incorporated into your circle during the pandemic.
“Generally, what I would encourage people to do, whether it’s a barbecue or any time we’re thinking about opening up our social circles, is to keep it small and consistent over time,” said Simanek, who spoke to the Journal Sentinel prior to Thursday’s new recommendations from the state.
“It’s better on the Fourth of July to get together with people you’ve already been getting together with,” she says.
The coronavirus is transmitted through contaminated air, so some activities perceived by many as normal, such as prolonged face-to-face conversations, are actually significant drivers of its spread, Sethi says.
And when people view these activities as low-risk – especially at private gatherings where no one has shown symptoms – they take fewer precautions than they should, he said.
Experts agree it’s best to keep small gatherings limited and still practice general guidelines for slowing the spread of the virus: staying six feet away from anyone not from your household, wearing a cloth face covering and socializing outside rather than inside.
Sometimes, even when there are good-faith efforts to reduce risk, people are disposed to let their guards down.
“When you’re having a nice time, you kind of forget, and your vigilance and your perceived risk might drop a bit,” Sethi said.
If you do decide to spend July 4th with people from outside your household, make sure everybody is on the same page about expectations for the gathering, Simanek added.
Before coming together, families might want to ask each other what precautions they’ve been taking in recent weeks, said Patrick Remington, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who also spoke to the Journal Sentinel prior to the state urging people to stay home.
It’s relatively low-risk for two families who have been self-isolating to gather outside together, he said, although it is still good to exercise an abundance of caution and follow safe distancing practices.
“If you’re going to get together with two or three families on a patio, and if one of the families has been going out to bars, has been in large group gatherings and they want to get together, that’s a riskier thing to do than to get together with families who have basically been in self-isolation,” Remington said.
If you choose to attend a public event like a parade, or watch a fireworks display in a park where others are doing the same, experts say it’s best to keep your distance from non-household members and to wear a mask.
And if the environment feels too crowded, it’s best to leave.
Sethi recommends planning around big crowds ahead of time – if it’s possible to enjoy something from a distance, like fireworks, try to find somewhere to watch that won’t naturally draw a large number of spectators.
But if you show up somewhere and do encounter a swarm of people who are too close for comfort, it’s safest to make new plans, Remington said.
Even if you plan to maintain a large distance from those around you, it’s possible that “a crowd emerges and you can’t,” he said. “You literally are packed shoulder to shoulder.
“You don’t actually control that space … if crowds are gathering, there’s really no way for you to protect that space other than to avoid that setting or to leave immediately.”
If you end up within six feet of anyone not wearing a mask, Remington said to assume that you’ve been exposed to the virus and act accordingly.
When you’re deciding the best way for you and your family to celebrate, understanding the risk levels involved — and the precautions to take to mitigate them — with your holiday weekend plans is key.
People who are young and healthy may be more willing to risk exposure than the elderly or people with underlying conditions, Remington said.
But, he added, it’s crucial to remember the potential impact of your choice on others.
For those who plan to interact with other people in the days or weeks following the Fourth, putting yourself in a higher-risk situation can translate to added risk for those you come into contact with, the people your contacts come into contact with, and so forth.
“If you’re living alone and you’re young and healthy, then you may say, well I’m going to take a risk, I’m going to go to this Fourth of July celebration because the penalty for failure is not great for me,” Remington said. “But I think many people first of all don’t understand that when you take a small risk and multiply it by tens of thousands of people, we’re talking about a lot of people getting sick.”
In Wisconsin, the coronavirus situation hasn’t changed very much since the state began to reopen, Simanek said.
In fact, she said, the percentage of positive tests seems to be increasing.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there have been 29,199 confirmed coronavirus cases in the state. Over the past seven days, when new cases have averaged nearly 500, the percentage of positive tests for the coronavirus has been 5.1%. It was 3.6% in the seven days before that, and 2.7% in the seven days before that.
“Instead of heading south, we are heading north again in terms of number of cases,” Sethi said.
The public health situation makes it important to stick to guidelines for minimizing spread as you make your plans for the holiday, Simanek said, regardless of where or how you celebrate.
“People should not have a different mindset about being cautious when they go out to celebrate,” she said. “We know people want to celebrate, just try to be smart about how you do it.”
Contact Asha Prihar at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AshaPrihar.