Spring breakers flood beaches as experts fear COVID-19 spread: 'We are definitely not out of the woods'

Beachgoers gather in Miami Beach, Fla., earlier this month. As spring break begins at many schools nationwide, experts weigh in on what is and isn't safe. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)
Beachgoers gather in Miami Beach, Fla., earlier this month. As spring break begins at many schools nationwide, experts weigh in on what is and isn't safe. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)

With spring break underway in many regions, Dr. Rochelle Walensky — director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — is warning Americans that abandoning pandemic precautions may lead to another surge in cases. “We have seen footage of people enjoying spring break festivities maskless; this is all in the context of still 50,000 cases per day,” Walensky said at a press conference on Monday.

She added that many places in Europe are now seeing COVID-19 spikes after loosening restrictions, and it’s proof that taking your "eye off the ball" can lead to trouble. "I'm pleading with you, for the sake of our nation’s health. These should be warning signs for all of us," Walensky said. Despite these pleas, data from the Transportation Security Administration shows that over 1 million Americans are currently traveling each day within the past week, the highest number of travelers since the pandemic began.

So where are these individuals going, and are they staying safe? Here's what you need to know.

Spring breakers are flocking to beaches in Texas, where all restrictions have been lifted

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott officially lifted all pandemic restrictions in the state on March 2, allowing businesses to reopen at 100 percent and masks to be discarded. It's no wonder, then, that spring breakers have chosen to vacation in the state — with thousands reportedly heading to Galveston, an island off the southeast coast of Texas. Michael Woody, Galveston's chief tourism officer, told Houston news station KPRC-TV that he expects the rush to continue. “There are over 30 million people within a 300-mile radius ... and for many of them we have the closest beach,” he said.

Dr. Bhavna Lall, clinical assistant professor of adult medicine at the University of Houston and a Harvard University-trained public health expert, says that these trips are premature. "To have thousands of people gathering on beaches when they're not vaccinated, when they're not wearing masks, not social distancing, it's just going to spread this further," Lall tells Yahoo Life. "They're going to go back to their cities, and they're just going to spread this to other people that are not vaccinated as well. And the more this virus spreads, the more it mutates, and the more we're going to end up with variants of concern."

Lall says that all three of the main COVID-19 variants — the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7), the South African Variant (B.1.351) and the Brazil variant (P.1) — are currently spreading in Texas, meaning it's not a safe place for people to visit. "We're really risking it by all these people gathering outside together in close proximity not social distancing and then going into restaurants and bars and not wearing masks and not social distancing," she says. "So we really need to just hang on and just a couple more months."

Most universities are canceling spring break; one school is paying students to avoid it

In the wake of a surge of COVID-19 last summer caused largely by young people, a report this week showed that 60 percent of colleges in the U.S. have chosen to cancel their spring breaks. Many are offering creative solutions such as "wellness days" or midweek days off, all in hopes that students will remain in their state and not travel elsewhere during spring break.

One school has taken an even more aggressive approach to prevent students from traveling — offering them a reward for following the rules. Earlier this month, the University of California. Davis, offered $75 "grants" to the first 500 students who agreed not to travel during the university's spring break, which is March 22-25. Dr. Daniel Bachmann, emergency medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and director of its emergency preparedness program, isn't opposed to the idea.

"I think it is definitely one step toward risk mitigation or to avoid increasing positive cases," Bachmann tells Yahoo Life. He says he understands that the rise in vaccinations may be giving people hope the pandemic is almost over, but he says that there are still too many unknowns to abandon precautions entirely. "I think the safest option is to still follow the same measures that we have largely been following."

Lall agrees. "We need to encourage young people to just act responsibly, just hold on for a couple more months," she says. "The end is in sight. We just need to continue social distancing and wearing masks. We just have to wait."

Miami Beach officers had to shoot 'pepper balls' to break up a crowd

Although Florida itself has no statewide mask mandate, Miami Dade-County has required masks indoors since April 2020 — sending the message that the county takes the virus seriously. It's a message that police officers escalated over the weekend when they arrested 100 people, many of them spring breakers, for becoming "unruly" in large groups. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber told CNN that the events were worrisome. "We've got a problem with too many people coming here," Gelber said. "We've got a problem with too many people coming here to let loose."

Bachmann says that while police may not be the ideal way to enforce these regulations, it's not a bad solution. "If you're traveling somewhere, it is definitely incumbent upon you to know and understand what the local regulations are of where you're going," he says. "So, yes, if you're not observing whatever the local regulations are, whether it's COVID-related or not, then it's reasonable for law enforcement to be involved ... law enforcement is another way public health can be provided or people can be reminded what the regulations are."

Overall, he says that those considering spring break — whether in Miami or elsewhere — should think hard about whether they can do it safely. "It boils down to risk mitigation and making decisions that are going to be safer from a COVID standpoint — where you're going or how you're getting there, or the activities that you're doing while you're there," says Bachmann. "Choosing things that are safer from a COVID standpoint, because we are not completely out of the woods — even though things are improving, we are definitely not out of the woods."

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