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Opinion Memorial Day showed how risky reopening is

Thousands of people jam Cocoa Beach, Fla., on Memorial Day weekend. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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It may not have been the rule everywhere around the country, but from the number of photos of jam-packed beaches, pool parties, bars and parks we saw, there were multiple sites ripe for transmission of the novel coronavirus. Those photos and videos should stoke fear that in the first true test of public compliance with social distancing and mask-wearing, Americans had failed. At least a significant minority of Americans failed. As a result we should not be surprised to see a batch of new hot spots in the next couple of weeks (the incubation period for the coronavirus).

It is not like we were not warned. In Texas, where infections were still on the rise, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has been incessantly pushing for more openings, fewer restrictions. The message that sends can be misleading and deadly: It’s fine! No problem! Getting back to work is the highest priority! We saw the results in Houston where the devil-may-care attitude created a petri dish for new infections:

Dr. Laila Woc-Colburn with Baylor Medicine Infectious Diseases said she saw a number of videos that had surfaced and was disappointed by the behavior.
“We’ve been doing so well,” said Woc-Colburn. “At the same time, I guess, it’s human nature in the sense that you’ve been cooped up in your home and you just want to go and live your life like it was before. The problem that our life that was before is not coming back.” . . .
“We know that the virus is in the community and by not following the norms of the masking, the washing [of hands] and the social distancing, we are going to see the peak,” she explained. “It’s not going to be tomorrow, it’s going to be like in 10 to 14 days because, that’s how we know and we have history and history repeats itself.”

Pictures and videos of crowded venues should become fodder for public service announcements in all states: If you behave like this, you and your loved ones may get sick and die. The information campaign — starting with the president — to wear masks whenever in public must intensify. If need be, governors and mayors must enforce mask-wearing — no matter how incensed the anti-science deniers become.

The debate surrounding reopening too soon amid the coronavirus pandemic is striking an eerily familiar tone. (Video: The Washington Post)

In addition, local law enforcement must take seriously social-distancing rules, shutting venues where they are not being practiced and holding store, bar and restaurant owners responsible for failure to adhere to the rules. (By the way, this is also a giant advertisement for not exempting employers from liability; to the contrary, they need to have a financial interest in policing social-distancing protocols.)

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We unfortunately are now engaged in a public health experiment of sorts that will tell us what happens when public messaging, state and local rules, and community pressure break down and mass gatherings return. And make no mistake, the impetus for rash reopening and minimizing of risk starts with Trump.

Trump, insistent on playing the culture wars, declared all houses of worship should open (not that he was going, mind you) this weekend. We have seen how this worked out just a couple of weeks ago. The local Fox News affiliate in Los Angeles reported:

Mendocino County public health officials said Sunday that six more people who participated in a Mother’s Day service at Assembly of God Church in Redwood Valley contracted the virus, raising the number of cases to nine and making the outbreak responsible for a third of local infections.
Meanwhile, Butte County health officials said two of 180 people who attended a Mother’s Day church service in Oroville have tested positive for COVID-19. They said a recent spike in local cases, mostly in the Oroville area, indicate increased community spread.

A Tennessee pastor quoted by the New York Times says, "Here’s the phrase we keep using: Use your own judgment. . . . If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. We’ve tried to empower people. You’re a grown adult. You know what’s best for you.” This is a public health disaster in the making, conveying exactly the wrong message: Mask-wearing is a personal choice. Wrong. Like vaccinating children, masks are a matter of public health. They protect not only the wearer but others in the community — the sick, the old, the immune compromised.

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That’s what religions are supposed to care about, right? It’s the most vulnerable among us whom our religious faiths tell us deserve our love, consideration and help. Creating new hot spots and granting open license to ignore basic health precautions surely does not reflect someone who self-labels as religious and pro-life.

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We should pray that the holiday weekend does not reignite the pandemic but instead serves to wake up local and state leaders, clergy and ordinary Americans. If not, the death rate will soar and lockdown procedures will return.

Read more:

Sergio Peçanha: Five habits we should keep as we reenter the world

E.J. Dionne Jr.: This Memorial Day, will we find meaning in our suffering?

Ken Ilgunas: America may be opening back up, but most of our land is still off-limits. Let’s change that.

Dana Milbank: America’s seniors, sacrificed on the altar of reopening