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‘An international example of bad judgment’: Local officials stunned by raucous Memorial Day festivities

People around the United States were seen without masks and disregarding social distancing tactics as states eased shutdown parameters on Memorial Day weekend. (Video: The Washington Post)
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A pandemic couldn’t cancel America’s most crowded parties this Memorial Day weekend, even as the novel coronavirus took at least 2,000 more American lives.

At a flashy club in Houston, dozens splashed around the pool and sipped on drinks on the patio. In rural North Carolina, thousands packed the stands shoulder to shoulder at Ace Speedway on its opening night, where face masks were the exception. And in Daytona Beach, Fla., even after an event called “Orlando Invades Daytona” was canceled, hundreds still danced in the street and on top of cars near the boardwalk.

“It looks like there are two people out the sunroof throwing money,” the seemingly perplexed pilot of a police helicopter said over his radio, flying over the wild scene near the beach to get a closer look. “They’re clearly throwing cash at the crowd.”

The raucous events across the country over the holiday weekend led some local officials to sound the alarm Monday, warning that consequences could be dire if such behavior continued unchecked.

Some, like Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D), vowed to crack down on businesses failing to enforce capacity restrictions. Turner chastised the clubbers who may end up exposing responsible people “who chose to do the right thing” by staying home. In Missouri, viral images of pool parties at waterfront bars and yacht clubs in the Lake of the Ozarks even led St. Louis County officials to issue a travel advisory, calling the scenes an “international example of bad judgment.”

Crowds pack venues in Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks, ignoring social distancing

One Ozarks pool party at Backwater Jack’s featured live music under the theme “Zero Ducks Given,” while photos at another yacht club showed dozens of people crammed together beneath a sign that said, “Please practice social distancing.” On Monday, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, who is also a physician, urged employers to question workers about their recent travels, and recommended a 14-day quarantine for anyone who flouted social distancing.

“This reckless behavior endangers countless people and risks setting us back substantially from the progress we have made in slowing the spread of COVID-19,” Page said in a statement announcing the travel advisory.

The weekend’s crowded festivities could presage the challenges local officials may face this summer as governors gradually roll back restrictions and residents flood reopened businesses. In areas that no longer have enforceable executive orders, authorities insist there is little they can do to require people to practice social distancing. The mayor of Osage Beach, Mo., where the viral pool parties took place, said he views it as essential that his town’s tourist-dependent businesses reopen, while police there said they couldn’t enforce any restrictions.

Some churches tentatively reopen as Memorial Day crowds descend on tourist hot spots

“It kind of ties our hands when they’re just guidelines and not mandates,” Chris Twitchel, captain of operations for the Camden County Sheriff’s Office, in the Lake of the Ozarks, told The Washington Post this weekend. He added, “We are doing the best thing that we can by urging people to use social distancing. But ultimately, there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

Elsewhere, even if executive orders are in place, some local sheriffs have refused to enforce them. Such was the case in Alamance County, N.C., where Ace Speedway is located.

Although Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s second phase of reopening North Carolina limits outdoor gatherings to 25 people, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson said he would refuse to “enforce an unconstitutional law,” allowing the speedway’s opening night to proceed as planned on Saturday night, WTVD reported.

About 2,500 people showed up, half of the track’s 5,000-seat capacity, co-owner Jason Turner told WXII.

“We’re tired of being stuck in the house,” one spectator, Becky Woosley, told FOX 8. “I’m not afraid of this virus one bit.”

In a Facebook video ahead of the event, Ace Speedway’s Turner asked attendees to respect other spectators’ space and to wash their hands frequently, although he said nothing of face masks. He also asked attendees to write their names and phone numbers on a legal pad at the entrances, to assist the county health department in contact tracing should anyone later test positive for the virus.

“We know everybody’s excited, everybody’s chomping at the bit to get back out here and get back to some normalcy, but we have to do so responsibly,” Turner said on the video, urging those who have come in contact with anyone who’s tested positive to stay home.

He thanked the sheriff for “standing up for our constitutional rights.”

Police elsewhere were not quite so open-minded to inviting mass crowds in their communities. But like in tourist-swarmed Lake of the Ozarks, authorities in Daytona Beach said they couldn’t simply arrest people who gathered en masse.

“We don’t take this lightly, especially with the crowds gathering together right now as we got the coronavirus still going around and people not practicing social distancing,” Daytona Police Chief Craig Capri said at a Sunday news conference about the crowds. “But I’m not the social distancing police — that’s not my job.”

Police convinced the promoters of the “Orlando Invades Daytona” event to cancel it, but hundreds still showed up Saturday. “We were invaded by people from Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando,” Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said.

On Saturday, roughly 200 people clogged the highway adjacent to the boardwalk and began dancing and hollering, as two men revved up the crowd from the sunroof of a white vehicle. They began throwing money while people in the crowd scrambled to pick it up — causing an immense traffic jam.

Video shared by the Volusia Sheriff’s Office showed massive crowds swarming a Daytona, Fla., highway adjacent to the city’s beaches on May 23. (Video: Volusia Sheriff's Office)

Things got worse. A shooting broke out nearby around 7:30 p.m. Two people in the crowd were shot and four others were injured by shrapnel, police said. No one has been arrested.

Still, police praised the overall response to the hectic situation, saying that other large crowds they encountered along the beach dispersed when asked. Chitwood said he has heard from critics who insisted those recklessly gathering should have been arrested, or that he even should have used tear gas, but the sheriff said that was out of the question.

“I can tell you the only investigation we have going on right now is for the a------ that was throwing money out of the car,” he said.