Americans are fleeing weeks of home isolation for beaches, parks and other leisure destinations over the Memorial Day weekend -- and that has pandemic experts and businesses concerned about a spike in coronavirus cases.
Many states have begun to lift restrictions at the urging of President Donald Trump while travel and tourism businesses are seeing signs of life after nearly two months of near-zero demand. Yet those limits on public activity helped slow the spread of the virus, and a surge in tourism could mean trouble, said Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.
"We should be worried about increases in COVID-19 transmission," he said. "I do expect that we're going to see an uptick in coronavirus cases a week to two weeks after Memorial Day because of that increase in travel as well as because of the premature relaxing of social distancing in some states."
Memorial Day travel is still expected to be a fraction of previous years. The U.S. Travel Association anticipates consumers will spend just $4.2 billion on travel over the holiday weekend, a third of 2019 levels.
Yet there are signs of a revival. Airlines say bookings have recently begun to exceed cancellations for the first time since the pandemic caused demand to plummet in March. And some beach destinations have seen last-minute hotel bookings soar.
In North Carolina's Outer Banks, with roughly 100 miles of shoreline, bookings have jumped since a reopening of the area was announced in early May, said Lee Nettles, executive director of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. The organization represents the section of the Outer Banks within Dare County, which has seen a total of 22 cases with a single fatality as of May 21, according to the county health department.
Nettles credits the shutdown for that low case count, and said the heightened interest has brought with it concerns among businesses about the risk of visitors bringing fresh cases of the disease to a place that has seen remarkably few.
"Everybody is very concerned, particularly since many of our main feeder markets are areas that have seen high rates of incidence," Nettles said. "The downside of closing down and it being successful in that way is that it increased the anxiety of what is going to happen now that we're reopen and welcoming people back."
The Visitors Bureau has mounted a safety campaign to encourage visitors to wear masks and maintain social distancing while several businesses have to take additional steps to ensure safety, posting them on the group's website.
Reservations in Panama City and Fort Myers, Florida, more than doubled between April 26 and May 19 compared to last year while Honolulu -- where a mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors is strictly enforced -- saw a 164% increase, according to Adara Inc., a cooperative that collects travel data from hundreds of companies.