As US edges toward reopening, a mixed picture takes shape

Washington (AFP) –


Efforts across the United States to reopen the economy after the long virus lockdown produced a decidedly mixed picture on Sunday, as thousands flocked to beaches on a holiday weekend but some churches defied the president's insistence that they reopen.

Some officials tried to lead by example over the three-day Memorial Day weekend: President Donald Trump went golfing for a second straight day, while in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his daily coronavirus briefing not from a stuffy office but from popular Jones Beach on the state's Long Island.

But notions of normality collided with the grim message that the country, harder-hit by the coronavirus than any other, is just 3,000 short of the milestone of 100,000 dead.

In a striking editorial choice, The New York Times dedicated its entire Page 1 and more inside space to listing the names of 1,000 of the dead, with short phrases describing some.

Some examples: "Dale E. Thurman, 65, Lexington, Ky., tailor known for his exacting work and strong opinions; Ellis Marsalis, 85, New Orleans, jazz pianist and patriarch of a family of musicians."

- 'Great for mental health' -

Along much of the Atlantic coast, cool and cloudy weather held down beach attendance, a day after huge crowds hit beaches in some warmer areas.

But those who did pull on their sandals expressed relief at being finally able to escape the months-long lockdown.

At New York's Coney Island, the beach was closed to swimmers but people strolled cheerfully along the boardwalk under the watchful eye of patrolling police, some of them handing out masks.

Lisa Sklar, a men's apparel stylist who had come with her husband and their grown daughter from nearby Westchester County, said it was a huge relief to be outdoors.

"We have been homebound for 70 days -- 10 weeks," she said, wearing sunglasses and a mask. "It is great for our mental health to be here."

Judith, a 37-year-old sales worker who has been furloughed for 90 days, was not wearing a mask, citing guidelines saying it is not necessary outdoors so long as people maintain a safe distance.

"I wish the reopening would go faster," she said as she walked with her four-year-old daughter, "for the jobs and for everybody's mental health." She declined to give her last name.

- 'Very concerned' -

Some beachgoers said they were glad the cool weather was making it easier to observe social distancing.

Earlier Sunday, Dr. Deborah Birx, who heads the White House coronavirus task force, said she was "very concerned when people go out and don't maintain social distancing."

Scenes from some beaches Saturday showed hundreds of vacationers crowding onto boardwalks, few of them in masks.

Governor Cuomo, briefing reporters under a canopy at beach's edge, was again able on Sunday to cite a far lower one-day death rate in New York: 109, which was up from Friday's 84 but still far below the 1,000-plus days as COVID-19 hammered the state several weeks earlier.

His beachside appearance, in a white short-sleeved shirt, seemed clearly designed to underscore the message that the state is, at least, starting to move back toward normality.

The same seemed true of the president's first back-to-back golf outings in months. Trump again traveled by motorcade to one of his golf courses in suburban Virginia.

He tweeted that "cases, numbers and deaths are going down all over the Country!"

That was not true in every state. Arkansas, for one, has seen its case numbers rebound.

But Trump's demand that state and local officials allow churches, mosques and synagogues to reopen "right now" was meeting at least some resistance.

An AFP journalist surveying religious buildings in Washington found none of nearly a dozen was open.

A sign outside the Foundry United Methodist Church on Washington's 16th Street read: "All are welcome -- online only."