KYLE, Texas – There will be no parades, no live music and no food vendors, but the mayor here knew he could not, under any circumstances, cancel the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
It is the last bit of a summer tradition Travis Mitchell refused to surrender after the resurgence of covid-19 took so much else from this Texas Hill Country community. Cases have soared to more than 800 after stalling between 30 and 40 active cases for two months. The city of 50,000 experienced its first coronavirus-related fatality this week.
“There’s a ton of suffering,” said Mitchell, whose city is closing parks and parking lots to prevent crowding during the pyrotechnics show on Saturday. “We need to be reminded of what freedom is. There’s something about fireworks coming up into the sky and casting light, piercing the darkness.”
Cities and communities of all sizes, from Miami to Los Angeles, are dispensing with the elaborate Independence Day festivities they love, hoping to head off a menace that is putting more and more of their residents in the hospital. Some are going virtual while others are canceling the events altogether. It is an especially urgent move in the South and the Southwest, as cases have surged in recent days after efforts to reopen state economies has given the virus new life.
Though public officials are using every tool they have – a mix of closures and prohibitions – to discourage groups from coming together on the nation’s birthday, they are in turn pushing people into private celebrations that also could pose significant risks. Unregulated and unwatched, family backyard gatherings and celebrations that have to move indoors because of intense heat or rain can do exactly what experts fear: Put people in proximity while they drink, eat and converse.
As cases have surged, authorities worry that July 4 parties could spread the disease in the same way it swept through gatherings during Memorial Day weekend. Texas cases spiked after the May holiday as the state reopened, and the disease is threatening to overwhelm the health care system here.
This time, public parks, beaches and natural springs will be closed. Gatherings of more than 10 are prohibited or discouraged. Bars are shut down. Rafting and tubing on rivers is restricted. And masks are now compulsory in the Lone Star State’s public spaces.
“People say we are destroying their liberty,” said Bexar County Judge Wolff Nelson, whose new order asks businesses to post advisories about covid-19 symptoms. “But if you are spreading the disease and killing people, you should not have the liberty to do that.”
Across the South, officials in Miami, Atlanta, and Nashville are all canceling concerts or fireworks shows that normally would draw thousands of spectators, while Houston and Orlando are opting for “virtual” displays that people can watch at home.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez signed an order last week keeping beaches closed during the holiday weekend and enacted a 10 p.m. curfew that begins Friday night. Police “will be out checking on thousands of businesses and closing those that violate the rules and capacity limits for their establishments.”
Violators face fines of up to $500 and 180 days in jail.
Patty Abril, a spokeswoman for the county mayor’s office, advised watching fireworks from home or sheltered in cars. The county has emergency orders mandating masks and limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people, she said.
Nashville canceled its Fourth of July concert – country musician Brad Paisley, who was slated to perform, will do so in 2021 instead – but the fireworks will go on. Residents will have to watch from home, though, because they are barred from being in public parks.
Orlando may be going virtual, but its theme parks have other plans. SeaWorld Orlando, which did not reply to a request for comment, is expected to launch fireworks at the park.
Marybeth Sexton, an infectious-disease expert at Atlanta’s Emory University, applauded cities that canceled parades and fireworks to prevent the spread of the virus.
“You really want at this point to avoid crowds as much as possible,” Sexton said. “It’s very understandable to want to celebrate a holiday, whether it’s some sort of drive-by event or small outdoor picnic or cookout.”
Such gatherings can be safe alternatives to large events “as long as the numbers are small and the people are distant,” she said. That means keeping seats apart and ensuring that people do not share common sources of food or pass around plates.
But governments can’t control what happens in American homes. Young people have driven the surge in cases in the South and Southwest – gathering as they typically would – and they can be carriers of the virus without showing any symptoms or feeling ill. Multigenerational gatherings pose specific dangers to older groups, and family events have been the source of serious outbreaks in recent weeks.
“People need to be very cautious,” said former Texas health commissioner David Lakey. “If they go to a large celebration, they should expect someone is infected.”
Marisa and Rudy Garcia would normally take their children down to the San Marcos River or the city’s summer festival for the weekend. Instead, they are celebrating his mother’s birthday at a backyard barbecue with a few family members but none of her friends.
“It’s disappointing,” said Garcia’s cousin Celeste Muñoz. “But getting sick would be worse.”
The late June pivot to renewed restrictions in Texas disoriented Clayton Brashear, owner of Clayton’s Beach Bar & Grill in South Padre Island. He was distraught after dismissing 10 employees because the governor’s orders limit his business to takeout food service.
The Fourth of July is the biggest weekend in the biggest month for the island, Brashear said. His outdoor patio bar is a bevy of activity each summer, with live entertainment and trademark fireworks.
But this year, city and Cameron County officials shut down the park where they launch the mortars and instituted an 11 p.m. curfew for adults. Pop-up tents and canopies are banned on the beach to discourage groups from gathering.
“This is devastating,” Brashear said, adding his employees use the summer wages to pad household budgets. “Families depend on this. Lost hours means lost school supplies, lost groceries and taking away the one weekend vacation these workers may have all year.”
In Central Texas, Wendy Martin was preparing the last details of a boat race in her community of Kingsland, about 60 miles northwest of Austin. It’s part of a multi-event extravaganza called AquaBoom that has taken place on July 4 for more than 50 years.
Life didn’t change much during the pandemic for Kingsland, a small picturesque community on the banks of two rivers and a lake and where President Lyndon B. Johnson owned a hideaway ranch. The area reported just three cases in March and all were travel-related. It was quiet until June, when Llano County’s cases increased to 10.
“We were living in this bubble that people were saying it wasn’t even real,” said Martin, who had to postpone most events until Labor Day. “And now all of a sudden, you know someone who is sick and you’ve seen how horrible it is. It’s in our face, it’s here and it’s spreading.”
In Kyle, Mitchell said officials went after covid-19 aggressively with social-distancing orders, fearing his city of young families and essential workers would be susceptible to the virus. Soon after the orders expired in May, Kyle residents accounted for two-thirds of the new cases in Hays County while representing just 20 percent of the population, the mayor said.
The first half of 2020 has been so disruptive, chaotic and unpredictable that Mitchell said city leaders wanted to give residents something they could count on: $30,000 worth of fireworks ignited from a central location and set to the tune of music, illuminating the city’s red, white and blue water tower for miles around.
A sharp increase of online traffic to the city’s website has Mitchell worried that with all the cancellations across the region, people will be looking to come to Kyle to view the city’s fireworks display. But he has no way of knowing what will happen and has local police on the ready in case there is an influx.
The Star-Spangled Banner fluttered from downtown lampposts but the usual pomp and circumstance of Independence Day was muted, relegated to a city square adorned in flags. The mayor mused that this holiday should be a time of reflection, a quiet time with close family to step back and relish the moment. America, he said, has a lot of thinking to do.
Julian and Paulina Hernandez, who own a local Popsicle shop, are keeping it simple with a cookout and sitting in backyard lawn chairs to watch the show from afar.
“2020 has been nothing but bad news,” Julian said.
“But we have to keep going,” Paulina added. “There’s always something to look forward to.”