By Sinéad Carew
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Americans excited about what for many was their first big break from coronavirus shutdowns flocked to beaches and outdoor areas on Saturday, snarling roadways and forcing some closures on the Memorial Day weekend that signals the start of the U.S. summer.
In Destin, Florida, The Back Porch, a surfside restaurant on Henderson Beach, was full. The restaurant was operating at 50% seating capacity to ensure that chairs and umbrellas could be placed 6 feet apart, and newcomers had to wait for places to become free before they could enter, said hostess Julianna Preede, 18.
“There’s a lot of people here right now – it’s a holiday weekend,” Preede said.
In Arizona, holiday travelers flooded Interstate-17, causing a 15-mile backup on the roadway used for access to some of the desert’s most beautiful canyons, the Arizona Department of Transportation said.
Some recreation areas, including Saguaro Lake, became so crowded that authorities had to shut them down.
While the Memorial Day holiday that honors the U.S. military dead is on Monday, the weekend leading up to it marks the unofficial start of summer, with Americans traditionally flocking to beaches, gathering at backyard barbecues and unfurling picnic blankets in parks.
Among those soaking in the sun and enjoying a bit of travel on Saturday was President Donald Trump, who was seen golfing at his Trump National club in northern Virginia, his first golf outing since the White House declared a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak in March.
Trump has been eager to promote the idea that the United States is returning to normal.
Arlington National Cemetery, which holds veterans of U.S. conflicts including the Civil War, remained open only to family pass holders who must have a face covering to enter. Access was granted to visit gravesites only, with no touring allowed.
In rain-soaked New York, epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at his news briefing on Saturday discussed his decision to allow up to 10 people to attend ceremonies honoring America’s military veterans, warning that social distancing and face masks should be part of any plans to get together.
“It depends on how people act. You can have a safe gathering of 10 people. You can also have a wholly unsafe gathering of 10 people,” Cuomo said.
Heavy downpours kept crowds down at state beaches in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which were re-opened with governors urging people to stay at least 6 feet apart, the recommended distance to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Surprise openings of other outdoor sites thrilled Americans cooped up at home by pandemic lockdown rules.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota welcomed visitors again starting on Saturday, earlier than expected, inviting in admirers of the 60-foot-high granite sculptures of the faces of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
The U.S. death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continues to rise and is expected to surpass 100,000 in the coming days, the highest number of any country.
This week, 11 states have reported a record number of new COVID-19 cases, including Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Maryland, Maine, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to a Reuters tally.
Iowa had a record increase in deaths on Saturday, as did Minnesota and Rhode Island earlier this week, according to a Reuters tally.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker and Barbara Goldberg; editing by Diane Craft and Sonya Hepinstall)