ABOVE PHOTO: Fourth of July fireworks explode over the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol along the National Mall in Washington. President Joe Biden wants to imbue Independence Day with new meaning in 2021 by encouraging nationwide celebrations to mark the country’s effective return to normalcy after 16 months of pandemic disruption. The White House says the National Mall in Washington will host the traditional fireworks ceremony and it’s encouraging other communities hold festivities as well. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)
By Zeke Miller
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden wants to imbue Independence Day with new meaning this year by encouraging nationwide celebrations to mark the country’s effective return to normalcy after 16 months of coronavirus pandemic disruption and more than 600,000 lives lost.
The White House is expressing growing certainty that July Fourth will serve as a breakthrough moment in the nation’s recovery, even though the U.S. is expected to fall short of its goal of having 70% of adults vaccinated by the holiday. Still, the pace of the nation’s healing will be a stark contrast with the rest of the world struggling to vanquish the virus.
The planned celebration will be the largest event of Biden’s presidency and is designed to demonstrate the nation’s victory over the virus as COVID-19 cases and deaths drop to levels not seen since the first days of the outbreak. The U.S. is seeing its highest rate of air travel since the pandemic began, and schools, businesses and restaurants are rapidly reopening.
To celebrate the resumption of pre-pandemic life, Biden is looking to celebrate the July Fourth holiday as “a summer of freedom.”
He plans to host first responders, essential workers and military service members and their families on the South Lawn of the White House for a cookout and to watch the fireworks over the National Mall. More than 1,000 guests are expected, officials said.
The plan shows the dramatic shift in thinking since Biden cautiously held out hope just three months ago that people might be able to hold small cookouts by the Fourth.
For most Americans, that reopening target was hit last month, by Memorial Day weekend, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people and state and local virus restrictions also eased.
Now, officials say July Fourth will serve as an unofficial kickoff to a new phase in the U.S. pandemic response. The federal government is looking to turn the page on the domestic public health crisis and focus on an economic and civic revival at home and marshaling support for vaccinations around the globe.
The White House is hoping to see similar Independence Day activities across the country, a year after the virus forced a mass cancellation of festivities.
“We welcome you to join us by hosting your own events to honor our freedom, salute those who have been serving on the frontlines, and celebrate our progress in fighting this pandemic,” the White House wrote in an email to state and local officials Tuesday. It asked them to share their own plans, which the administration would later highlight.
“America is headed into a summer dramatically different from last year,” the administration wrote to officials. “A summer of freedom. A summer of joy. A summer of reunions and celebrations.”
The upbeat announcement contrasts with the drearier reality in Europe, where Biden is on an eight-day tour, and in the rest of the world as vaccines remain scarce.
“The administration needs to walk a line, using events like this to increase vaccine interest and confidence here in the U.S. while also being sensitive to the fact that this crisis is still out of control in many parts of the world,” said Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the Division of Health Policy and Public Health.
For instance, in the United Kingdom, one of the few countries that has a vaccination rate similar to that of the U.S., the government announced last Monday that it plans to further delay reopening for at least another month to try to get more people vaccinated and to slow the spread of the highly transmissible and more dangerous delta variant first identified in India.
In large swaths of the world, the virus is raging unchecked, and health experts warn that without vaccinations, variants can emerge that will break through the protection the vaccines are providing in the U.S.
While in Europe, Biden and other Group of Seven leaders announced plans to provide 1 billion shots for poorer nations, half of them from the U.S., but aid groups said a far greater commitment is needed to defeat the virus around the globe.
Even in the U.S., as infection rates continue to slip, the vaccination campaign is far from over. Fewer than 370,000 Americans are now getting their first dose on average each day, down from a high of nearly 2 million per day two months ago. White House officials acknowledge the deep geographic disparities in vaccination rates and said the administration will continue to issue reminders that unvaccinated Americans remain at risk of serious illness and death from the virus.
Yet cases are trending downward even in the Southern and Midwestern states that remain markedly behind the rest of the country in vaccinations.
Elsewhere, California began its grand reopening last Tuesday, lifting nearly all its remaining virus restrictions. In New York, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo said had hit a benchmark of 70% of adults receiving at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, rules were being lifted that had limited the size of gatherings and required some types of businesses to follow social distancing or cleaning protocols.
“It means that we can now return to life as we know it,” Cuomo said, announcing that the state would also launch fireworks last Tuesday to mark the occasion, in addition to New York City’s already announced plans to resume its July Fourth fireworks display on the East River.
All American adults have been eligible for vaccine shots for two months, and the administration has mounted an aggressive “month of action” to try to drive up demand for doses, though that has done little to change the trend lines: Fewer Americans are interested in getting vaccinated.
Officials say the effects of the July Fourth vaccination goal of 70% of Americans on driving down COVID-19 cases are already being felt even if the benchmark won’t be attained. Some 166.5 million adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to CDC data. To reach his goal, Biden would need to vaccinate about 14 million more people in less than three weeks.
“Regardless of where we are on July Fourth, we’re not shutting down shop,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week. “On July 5th, we’re going to continue to press to vaccinate more people across the country.”
Biden intends to use his remarks on July Fourth to highlight the administration’s “wartime response,” with a vaccination campaign that helped bring cases and deaths down by about 90% from where they were before he took office on Jan. 20.