FRISCO — As our mountain resort communities wake from months of enforced hibernation, a palpable sense of relief can be felt among residents and visitors who are once again hiking trails, fishing rivers and letting their troubled minds wander across the great mountainous terrain of Summit County.
Now, they are also dining at restaurants, perusing shops and riding buses. The easing of public health restrictions might appear to signal that the worst of the pandemic storm is over and the county can fully get to work on rebuilding its battered economy.
But the world’s public health experts have been warning for weeks that the first wave of the pandemic is not over and that the virus is still very much active in our communities, even those with cases in decline. Concerns are mounting of not only a second wave in fall or winter, but a second peak of cases within the next few weeks or months that could lead to daily death counts similar to what was seen during the worst of the pandemic in April.
This week, the U.S. reached the grim milestone of 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, a tally reached just four months since the first American case was recorded in Washington and two months after the nation reached the 1,000 death milestone.
After a resurgence of cases in China, the country has enacted new lockdowns for cities in its northeastern region, placing 100 million people under renewed restrictions. Other new outbreaks also have been reported in South Korea and Hong Kong, showing how this coronavirus can roar back with a vengeance, mirroring or even exceeding the COVID-19 caseload that overwhelmed hospitals across the planet over the past few months.
And while there has been worry about a seemingly inevitable “second wave” of coronavirus infections this fall, the World Health Organization’s executive director of health emergencies, Dr. Mike Ryan, warned there is a more immediate threat of viral resurgence that could appear in the coming weeks and months, threatening to overwhelm health systems and even lead to more shutdowns.
“When we speak about a second wave, classically what we often mean is there will be a first wave of the disease by itself, and then it recurs months later,” Ryan said during a recent press conference. “And that may be a reality for many countries in a number of months’ time. But we need also to be cognizant of the fact that the disease can jump up at any time. We cannot make assumptions that just because the disease is on the way down, now it is going to keep going down, and we are getting a number of months to get ready for a second wave. We may get a second peak in this wave.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the head of the nation’s coronavirus task force, said during an interview with CNN that the assumption of the worst of the viral outbreak having passed is a dangerous one, given how slowly the virus incubates.
“One of the things that the people who are out there frolicking need to realize is that when you do that and you see no negative effect in one week, please don’t be overconfident,” Fauci explained. “The effect of spreading is not going to be seen for maybe two, three or even more weeks. That’s the reason why we encourage people to be prudent and take a careful look at the guidelines and, to the best extent possible, to follow them.”
Infectious disease experts have been horrified by scenes playing out over the past week, such as at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, where viral videos showed crowded pool parties teeming with young revelers ignoring public health guidelines. These parties have the potential to become “super spreader” events that rapidly spread the virus to other communities when visiting partiers return home, bringing their infection with them.
Public health experts are strongly cautioning places that are reopening and trying to dispel notions that summer heat will simply make the virus disappear like the flu usually does.
“A lot of people have put what I’d call a ‘flu lens’ on their expectations, World Health Organization coronavirus task force member Dr. Margaret Harris told NPR’s Morning Edition on Thursdsay. “They keep on thinking it’s seasonal.”
“But if you look around the globe, we’ve got countries in the middle of their summer and autumn having large, large outbreaks. So we’re not seeing a seasonal pattern. What we are seeing is, indeed, when people ease too quickly, that they do then see a rise in infections. So we certainly don’t say you have to be in lockdown, but we are saying ease carefully.”
As a resort community, Summit County and its businesses would have good cause to be thrilled to open up again. That zeal to attract visitors creates a strange dichotomy with the Colorado’s public health guidelines, which still “strongly advise” that Coloradans stay at home.
Other American resort towns that opened for business earlier, like Bend, Oregon, were bracing for low turnout and little revenue over the Memorial Day weekend, given that the state still requested residents stay at home and cut business capacity down to one-third.
As it turned out, even with the lowered capacity, the Bend Bulletin reported restaurants there making as much money as they did the previous Memorial Day.
“It was an absolute bonanza,” Anthony Avraam, general manager of the Pine Tavern in Bend, told the Bulletin. “We were busy from the moment we opened the door. We were turning people away.”
Similar scenes are playing out in resort towns, beach towns and other vacation destinations across America. Given the novel, unprecedented nature of the virus, it is still unclear when or if a second peak of cases would emerge during this wave or how prepared resort towns will be to deal with another surge. It is also unclear whether a surge would lead to another shutdown.
For now, Summit County — which has the distinction of having the first recorded COVID-19 case in Colorado back in March — will have to wait and see how this ever-evolving pandemic manifests itself over the coming weeks, while using physical distancing protocols, occupancy limits and contact tracing teams to mitigate viral spread.
In the meantime, local businesses will be trying to make as much hay as they can while the sun shines.