NOEL KING, HOST:
Memorial Day weekend and July Fourth weekend accelerated the spread of COVID-19. So could Labor Day do the same thing? Public health officials say they're hopeful that more Americans now understand that masks are important, avoiding crowds is important. But in Nashville, tourists are coming back to drink, to hear live music. Here's Blake Farmer of member station WPLN.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: All summer long, Kimberly Michaels says, she's been chasing waterfalls with her boyfriend. They've explored almost every trail within a short drive of their home in Huntsville, Ala. But it's his birthday. And they had to find a way to celebrate if not with, at least near some people.
KIMBERLY MICHAELS: It's home. It's work, school. It's everything. So just getting away for an hour up the street and staying in a hotel is like a vacation, for real.
FARMER: They'd rolled into Nashville fashionably late, ready to responsibly party in the honky-tonks - masked up, as required. She and the birthday boy, Marcus Robinson (ph), just needed to check into their hotel. But the bars, while they've reopened, still have to close at 10:30
MARCUS ROBINSON: It's crazy like "The Twilight Zone." We went in, the streets was full.
MICHAELS: It was - the streets was full.
ROBINSON: Got dressed, come downstairs and, like, where'd everybody go? Like, did something happen?
FARMER: Life has not returned to normal in time for the Labor Day weekend. But many local governments are lifting restrictions to resuscitate tourism activity. In time for the tail end of summer, Nashville gave the green light to pedal taverns this week, allowing the human-powered bars on wheels to take the streets again. Perhaps it's better than an enclosed space. But epidemiologist Melissa McPheeters of Vanderbilt University says loosening rules sends a broader signal.
MELISSA MCPHEETERS: Sometimes as we start to lift restrictions, the impression that people get is, oh, that must mean it's safe. We want to make sure that we don't give that impression because this disease has not gone anywhere.
FARMER: And there's a new X-factor with this holiday. In many states, schools have resumed in-person classes. So families and friends meeting up for the long weekend are now more likely to potentially expose each other to the virus. And yet, some epidemiologists say it's worth finding a way to get together safely outdoors. Bertha Hidalgo of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, says it could help with mental health.
BERTHA HIDALGO: If you can do the safe things now before winter hits and that cold weather hits, then you'll be more resilient to get through any bad times that may come.
FARMER: Inside an unusually quiet Nashville honky-tonk, most people are not wearing masks. But they are following the rule to stay in their seats. The band is live, taking requests.
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN: Just let me know if you want to hear - middle table, y'all got anything back there y'all want to hear?
FARMER: They ask for some Alan Jackson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHATTAHOOCHEE")
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN: (Singing) Little way down yonder on the Chattahoochee, it gets hotter than a hoochie coochie.
FARMER: Susette Orso (ph) lives outside New Orleans and flew here for her first out-of-town trip since the pandemic hit. Her mask is on. But she's also ready to party.
SUSETTE ORSO: I keep hand sanitizer in my purse now. That's something I never really done before. But you can die tomorrow, you know, riding in your vehicle. So you can't live your life in fear either.
FARMER: In fact, she has a beach trip planned for later this month.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF WILL VAN HORN'S "LOST MY MIND")
KING: That story came from NPR's partnership with Nashville Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.
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