Beachgoers crowd the shoreline along the oceanfront in Virginia Beach, Va.
While state and local officials welcome the economic growth from an influx of summer visitors to beach towns like Ocean City, Maryland, and Virginia Beach, they worry relaxed attitudes about wearing masks and social distancing could be leading to an increased positivity rate of coronavirus cases among younger people.
From the end of May to the beginning of July, cases increased by 240% among people younger than 20 years old in Virginia and by 250% among people aged 20-29, according to state Health Department data.
Virginia Beach reported its largest single-day increase of 116 cases on Friday, almost tripling the number of cases reported on June 1, according to the Washington Post. More than a quarter of total reported positive cases so far in Virginia Beach have been among 20 to 29 year olds. Portsmouth, Norfolk and Hampton saw their coronavirus cases triple from mid-May.
"To see our cases go from 128 back around May 13, when we were still in Phase One, to being over 460 now that we're in Phase Three ... " Hampton, Virginia, Mayor Donnie Tuck told DCist/WAMU. "And, we're still looking at the prospects of opening our schools and how we're going to do that. So there are still some real challenges in front of us."
Tuck speculated that the increase in cases among young people could be attributed partially to members of the demographic being less worried about being hospitalized from COVID-19; he also noted that young people are frequenting restaurants and bars in the area.
"I just want to tell people, be careful that right now there are so many unknowns about this virus that you can't be too cautious," Tuck said, "You need to make sure you protect yourself, and not just that — have the courtesy of protecting others."
Parts of Northern Virginia have also seen an increase in positive cases, though the area overall has seen cases plateau. Last week at least 130 people, mostly teenagers, tested positive for the virus after returning from a party in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Loudoun County Health Director David Goodfriend, himself a doctor, told WJLA it was unacceptable behavior.
"We need you as a teenager to do what's right to keep us safe," Goodfriend said. "The virus is just waiting for us to make a mistake, and what we don't want is for these folks to spread infection onto others."
On Friday, the commonwealth reported 943 new cases, its highest count since June 7 and well above the seven-day moving average. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted on Friday that the figures were "concerning", and asked Virginians to "stay vigilant."
In Maryland, the positivity rate — the proportion of people who test positive out of the overall number of people tested — last week among people 35 and under was around 6.33% compared to 3.44% in people 35 and older, according to state health department data. It's not clear if that is due to a higher proportion of sick people being tested.
On Tuesday morning, Maryland recorded its highest number of new cases, 733, since June 5. Its seven-day average of new cases is also creeping upward. Gov. Larry Hogan issued a letter Tuesday pushing local health officials to enforce public health and safety regulations more stringently at bars and restaurants. In the letter, the governor pressed local health departments, law enforcement agencies and local liquor boards and inspectors to crackdown on businesses "flagrantly violating the law and endangering public health." Hogan encouraged those entities to warn, fine or even close businesses deemed to be in violation of state guidelines.
Hogan echoed Northam's concern on Friday saying it's "more important than ever for all Marylanders to remain vigilant, wear face coverings, wash their hands, and practice physical distancing."
Worcester County Commission President Joseph Mitrecic said the county is strongly encouraging people to wear masks and is handing out free masks to anyone who wants one. Still, people visiting the boardwalk and beach in Ocean City, Maryland, have not been required to wear masks.
"People tend to get a feeling of safety while they're here on vacation and maybe aren't as vigilant as they should be," Mitrecic said. "The last thing we want is for the governor to shut the state down again and we don't want to be the cause of that. We are as strict as we can be."
Two restaurants in Ocean City — Fish Tales OC and the Purple Moose Saloon — voluntarily closed last week because at least five workers tested positive for the virus, according to WJZ-TV. Mitrecic said the restaurants' closure comes at a great loss for the seasonal beach town.
"We are on top of it," he said. "We're letting restaurants know they need to abide by the rules and, if they don't, they will be shut down by the health department or lose their liquor license."
Clifford Mitchell, director of the Environmental Health Bureau for Maryland's Health Department, told the Daily Record that the state is increasing its efforts to educate young people about the need to wear a mask, social distance and to avoid large crowds.
"I think some of the concerns we have is that young people ordinarily are likely to be more social, more interactive and more mobile, but we also have been observing that with restaurants reopening, with bars reopening and with other venues opening, we've seen more anecdotal evidence that, in particular, young people are not necessarily always following the advice regarding social distancing and facial coverings," Mitchell said.