Travel is up, Covid-19 cases are down, and vaccines have been put in many arms.
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t over, but Memorial Day weekend is set to look more like it did before the virus upended life more than a year ago.
Americans Saturday were experiencing their first holiday weekend since the CDC changed its masking guidance on May 13 – that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks indoors, and they don’t have to keep their distance from others.
Mask mandates melted away. As of Friday, California, Hawaii, New Mexico were the only states with mask mandates for everyone.
People are increasingly on the move. AAA estimated that more than 37 million people in the US would travel at least 50 miles from home over the Memorial Day weekend – 13% down from 2019, but 60% above last year.
And the US set a pandemic-era record number of passengers traveling through US airports in a single day – 1.96 million – on Friday, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
President Joe Biden on Friday praised what vaccination progress has been made, expressing a sense of hope ahead of the unofficial start of summer.
“We’re not just saving lives. We’re getting our lives back, ” Biden said during remarks at Sportrock Climbing Center in Alexandria, Virginia on Friday.
Vaccines have helped make a gradual return to normalcy possible.
More than 166 million people in the US – 50.1% of the population – have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine as of early Friday, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 40.2% of the population is fully vaccinated, the CDC says.
Cases have fallen since a short rise in mid-April: The country has averaged more than 21,600 Covid-19 cases a day over the past week – 69% below the spring 2021 peak of more than 71,200 on April 14, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
Last year, public health specialist Dr. Saju Mathew was worried about case spikes that followed holiday travel and congregating.
“This year I am not as worried. What a difference these vaccines have made,” Mathew, a primary care physician in Atlanta, told CNN on Saturday.
But with mask mandates evaporating – and maybe with unvaccinated people dropping their masks against CDC guidance – the unvaccinated “have become more of a threat to each other,” he said.
“All the more reason I hope the unvaccinated crowd will get that incentive to get vaccinated,” Mathew said.
The CDC on Thursday predicted that daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths will fall over the next four weeks. The CDC ensemble forecasts concluded that there will be a total of 596,000 to 606,000 Covid-19 deaths by June 19.
As of Friday, Covid-19 has killed at least 593,364 people and infected more than 33 million in the US, according to Johns Hopkins.
Pent-up travel demand unleashed
In Florida’s Miami Beach on Saturday, a vaccinated Mississippi couple told CNN that they were among a group of about 50 relatives and others who met there this week to celebrate a birthday.
“Being able to come out of your room, go to the beach, go to … places to eat, something to drink – it’s been great,” Arnett Lock-McNair said. “… We’re going back to a little bit of normalcy.”
“We go to some interior places, you have to wear your masks, but for the most part, we’re almost forgetting about it,” her husband, Dwight McNair, said.
The US is seeing an unleashing of pent-up travel demand, AAA spokesperson Robert Sinclair told WNYW in New York on Friday.
“We’re seeing … the so-called revenge travel, where people (were) able to save a lot of money because they weren’t traveling to work last year,” and are now spending it, Sinclair said.
In Santa Monica, California, Mayor Sue Himmelrich told CNN Saturday she was happy to have people return to the beach. Much of the city’s revenues come form tourism and parking, “and all of that went to basically zero for several months last year.”
They relied on layoffs, retirements and federal funds to keep financially afloat. She’s keen on increased tourism during weekends like this.
“People are coming back to the beach. Back to … the pier which was shut for a long time last year. And we’re hopeful that we’ll be back,” she said.
Greg Morena, owner of the restaurant The Albright, told CNN he was thankful for the crowds streaming back onto the Santa Monica Pier and for an uptick in business for Memorial Day weekend.
“Life has returned. I mean, we’re back. Thank God,” he said. “This last year has been really difficult. Keeping people employed, advocating for what we think is the right way to do it, but it’s been a real challenge.”
Biden: ‘We’re not done yet’
The country’s improved Covid-19 outlook is boosted by continuing efforts by states to get people vaccinated. Ten states have reached the Biden administration’s goal of vaccinating 70% of adults by July 4 with at least one dose.
Also, nearly three-quarters of seniors are now fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.
On Friday, Biden said despite the growing light at the end of the tunnel, “We’re not done yet.”
“We have to reach those who are not vaccinated and make it as easy as possible for them to get protected,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order prohibiting schools and school districts from requiring students and workers to wear a face covering while on campus.
The new order, effective Monday, also eliminates rules for restaurants, bars, conventions, childcare facilities, live performance venues and other organizations. Previous executive orders eliminated regulations for camps and sporting events, according to a press release.
“As hospitalizations, cases, deaths, and percent positive tests all continue to decline – and with vaccinations on the rise – Georgians deserve to fully return to normal,” Kemp said in the release. “With safe and effective vaccines widely available and the public well-aware of all Covid-19 mitigation measures, mandates from state and local governments are no longer needed.”
Vaccine disparities continue in America’s vulnerable communities
The slow return to normalcy is made possible by vaccines, and those who choose to take them. But there is a segment of the US population that is not getting vaccinated as quickly, and it’s not all by choice.
Socially vulnerable counties in America are experiencing lower vaccination rates, according to CDC data published Friday.
A CNN analysis of the federal data found counties that are lagging behind the overall Covid-19 vaccination rate tend to be poorer and less educated, with less access to computers and the internet.
This digital and economic divide contributes to disparities in health care access generally, experts say, and access to Covid-19 vaccines is no exception.
“With too many things in health, we focus on the individual behavior without looking at the systems that either make it easy or not for someone to practice that healthy behavior,” Dr. Richard Besser, president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told CNN.
The CDC used a social vulnerability index, which assesses counties based on 15 factors in four categories: socioeconomic status, household composition, race and ethnicity, and housing type and transportation. More vulnerable counties have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, but those same communities have also lagged in vaccination rates.
“Health behaviors (like getting a Covid-19 vaccine) are, in part, a personal choice,” Besser said. “But one of the things that’s often said is that the choices we make depend on the choices that we have. For someone who doesn’t have internet access, there’s not much choice there in being able to go online and schedule your appointment.”
CNN’s Jason Hoffman, Natasha Chen, Paul Vercammen, Deidre McPhillips, Ryan Prior, Michael Nedelman, Jamiel Lynch, Hannah Sarisohn contributed to this report.