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Miami Beach, college students, spring break and how not to wrap up a pandemic | COMMENTARY

Young people gather without masks for social distancing prior to the 8 p.m. curfew in Miami Beach, Florida on Sunday, March 21, 2021. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images).
Young people gather without masks for social distancing prior to the 8 p.m. curfew in Miami Beach, Florida on Sunday, March 21, 2021. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images). (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Thousands of Maryland college students returned to class on Monday after a brief mid-semester respite. Some schools skipped spring break entirely, while others have breaks scheduled for later in the season. Goucher College doesn’t begin its brief spring “pause” until this weekend, and Johns Hopkins University has scattered individual days off through April. Whatever the schedule, it’s probably safe to assume that some of the more adventurous of the undergraduate set either has made, or is planning to make, the trek to Florida or a similar clime. We have no problem with that, we all need a getaway now and again.

We do have a problem, however, with young adults treating their deserved vacations like a rock concert gone bad and failing to maintain social distance or wear masks, like occurred in Miami Beach over the weekend, leading to an emergency curfew and police intervention to try to disperse the massive crowds. Now, those in attendance are likely getting tested (if they are back on campus) or not (if they just moved back in with Mom and Dad). In either case, they may well have dragged home an unwelcome souvenir, a little COVID-19, to finish out the spring term.

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This was all so predictable, beginning with the choice by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to not only lift restrictions, but prevent local governments from imposing mask mandates. If anyone was chomping at the bit for the pandemic to be over (beyond Florida businesses that profit off spring break), it’s 18-to-22-year-olds, who already feel invulnerable and are looking for a good time. Expecting them to dutifully pick up a mask from a roving public beach mask ambassador and to keep far away from fellow vacationers without requiring it, is like expecting cats to voluntarily agree not to jump up on the counter or knock over standing objects. Sure, you can train them, but you are fighting a powerful instinct. Better to limit opportunities to make bad choices.

The problem here is not just spring break. And it’s not just Governor DeSantis (although how anyone can claim Florida has outperformed other states during the pandemic when it’s already surpassed 2 million cases, has a 6% weekly positivity rate and now leads the nation’s surge in variant cases with rising numbers in both the British and Brazilian strains, is mind-boggling). No, the underlying issue continues to be the public’s COVID-19 fatigue and the desire to let our collective guard down as the nation makes progress in vaccinations. Florida spring break is just the most visible sign of this concerning trend.

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As Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health experts have stated repeatedly: This is not let the moment to lift vital safety measures. The U.S. recently hit the 100 million mark in total vaccinations administered. That’s great. It’s ahead of the 100 vaccinations in 100 days schedule President Joe Biden set. As of this past weekend, an estimated 41 million Americans are now regarded as fully vaccinated, which is a lot, but in a nation of 328 million, it’s not close to herd immunity, generally acknowledged to be between 70% and 90%. That achievement is probably months away, particularly if certain individuals resist getting their shots (and polls suggest as many as 31% have expressed qualms).

It is all very well to relax certain restrictions where appropriate. As teachers are vaccinated and schools move ahead with responsible reopening plans, in-person instruction is sensible, particularly given its own public health benefits. But lifting mask restrictions isn’t — despite the claim that individuals can make responsible choices. It sends a spring break-like message that the pandemic is no longer a serious threat when it is. Just ask the colleagues, friends and families of the 26 Maryland residents who died from the coronavirus on Saturday alone. Or perhaps those of the 8,000 Marylanders who lost their own battles with COVID-19 during the past year. It’s not over until it’s over.

That’s not a fun message. That’s not a good time to think about. It’s not a party on the beach and it’s definitely not the return to normal that all of us crave. But this is a serious business. The B.1.1.7 variant first spotted in the United Kingdom is believed to be both more deadly and more contagious than the original strain of COVID-19. The good news, as Dr. Fauci revealed on Friday, is that vaccination appears to effictive against it. The bad news is that we haven’t all gotten our vaccinations yet. Sorry, but the moment to celebrate the end of the pandemic has not yet arrived.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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