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Memorial Day tempts Americans outdoors, raising virus fears
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Memorial Day tempts Americans outdoors, raising virus fears

Memorial Day tempts Americans outdoors, raising virus fears
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
Beachgoers relax on the shore at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, Mass., Friday, May 22, 2020. Beaches in Gloucester reopened with restrictions on Friday after being closed two months ago due to the pandemic. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Memorial Day tempts Americans outdoors, raising virus fears

Millions of Americans are getting ready to emerge from coronavirus lockdowns and venture outdoors to celebrate Memorial Day weekend at beaches, cookouts and family outings, raising concern among public health officials that large gatherings could cause outbreaks to come roaring back.

Medical experts warn that the virus won’t take a holiday for the unofficial start of summer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people stay home, avoid crowds and connect with family and friends by phone or video chat.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said Friday that people can enjoy the outdoors if they stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart. Birx suggested playing tennis with marked balls, one for each player to handle, or not touching flags on the golf course.

“That is your space, and that’s the space that you need to protect and ensure that you're social distanced for others," Birx said at a White House briefing. She also suggested disposable utensils for picnics and potlucks.

Birx said COVID-19 is declining nationwide, but many healthy-seeming people are unknowingly infected, making social distancing, face coverings and frequent hand-washing necessary.

The holiday, which honors fallen service members, arrives amid the bleakest economy in decades. Tens of millions have been laid off since the virus hit hard in March and forced shutdowns. Unemployment has reached its highest level since the Great Depression. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned Thursday that prospects for a recovery will remain unclear until the health crisis is resolved.

Many Memorial Day commemorations have been canceled or downsized, including concerts and fireworks shows. Parks, beaches, campgrounds and swimming pools remain closed in much of the country.

But plenty of popular spaces will be open — with limits.

Californians headed into the weekend with both excitement and anxiety after restrictions eased in many areas. The nation’s most populous state has started seeing a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations after being the first to order a statewide shutdown.

David Spatafore, who owns Blue Bridge Hospitality restaurant group, was looking forward to Friday's reopening of patio seating at the group's pizzerias and dining rooms at its high-end steakhouse in Coronado, across the bay from San Diego.

“I think people are going to be so happy to be able to go back out and not eat out of a plastic container or cardboard box,” he said. “I know I am.”

In Virginia Beach, Virginia, the famed 40-block boardwalk and sandy shoreline reopened, but with spacing guidelines and groups limited to 10. Group sports such as volleyball are prohibited, along with tents and alcohol.

Mayor Bobby Dyer said about 150 “beach ambassadors” in red shirts will “diplomatically” ask people to follow rules.

Without clear federal guidance, state and local officials have been left to figure out how to celebrate the holiday safely. Social distancing and bans on mass gatherings remain in place throughout much of the country.

Keeping holidays safe is a challenge worldwide. On the same weekend as Memorial Day, the Muslim world will mark the fast-breaking festival Eid al-Fitr. On Monday, residents in the United Kingdom get a bank holiday.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, warned that being on holiday can lead some people to drop their guard.

“They forget to wear masks,” Schaffner said. “They’re not so keen on 6-foot distancing.”

Jersey Shore beaches will be open but there will be no fireworks, Ferris wheel rides, roller coasters, go-karts or arcade games. Atlantic City’s casinos remain closed.

Some locals plan to sit this summer out.

“The unfortunate thing is that all the out-of-town people have been cooped up the same amount of time that the locals have been here,” said Christine Barthelme of Point Pleasant, New Jersey. “My family will do mostly what we do on every holiday weekend here: relax in our backyard, have a barbecue and light the fire pit.”

Beaches, hotels and restaurants remain largely shut down in South Florida. The Urban Beach Week festival, which annually draws tens of thousands to Miami Beach for hip-hop and reggae shows, was called off.

“We saw what happened in early March with spring break crowds,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said, recalling the raucous scenes of youngsters partying in close quarters.

But up the coast in Palm Beach County, officials were preparing for beachgoers.

“Lifeguards and other parks staff will be monitoring the beaches and reminding park users to practice social distancing,” said Chris Korbelak, public engagement manager for the county parks department.

Theme parks are closed at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, but both have reopened their entertainment and restaurant complexes, where guests can expect mandatory masks, hand-sanitizing stations and other measures.

For the hard-hit tourism and hospitality industry, there is modest hope Memorial Day will mark the start of something resembling recovery.

“This weekend is an early indicator as to how consumers feel about coming back and partaking in normal social behavior,” said Jason Guggenheim of Boston Consulting Group, which has surveyed consumers.

Data and consulting firm Tourism Economics projects travelers will spend $4.2 billion on Memorial Day weekend, compared with $12.3 billion last year.

Airlines, meanwhile, have largely written off hope of a quick rebound. Air travel in the U.S. remains down about 90% from a year ago, according to Transportation Security Administration figures.

Oklahoma resident Seth Rott this week boarded a plane for the first time since the pandemic to visit a friend in Washington for Memorial Day. Rott said he had little concern about social distancing or safety, given airlines' anti-virus measures.

“I think it will probably be the easiest flight that I’ve ever had just because of a lack of traffic,” he said.

But for most who leave home, it will be by automobile and for relatively short excursions to places like Washington state’s Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

“We’re expecting a bottleneck at some of the popular trails,” spokesman Colton Whitworth said, “especially the lower-elevation ones closer to Seattle.”

At an outdoor beach restaurant in San Diego on Friday, a server wearing surgical gloves and a face covering rushed by with a piña colada in a pineapple-shaped cup. Another employee stood by with cleaning supplies in a gloved hand, ready to sanitize empty tables.

Customer George Cruz could only imagine what crowds may come over the weekend, when he, his wife and 6-year-old daughter will be staying home.

“That’s why we decided to come now,” he said. “There definitely will be a surplus of people at the beach.”

“I just hope everybody is smart about how they go out," Cruz added.

___

Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia, Johnson from Washington state and Biesecker from Reston, Virginia. Associated Press writers Dee-Ann Durbin in Ann Arbor, Michigan; David Fischer and Freida Frisaro in Miami; David Koenig in Dallas; Wayne Parry in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey; John Zenor in Montgomery, Alabama; Lisa Baumann in Seattle; Andrew Seligman in Chicago; and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed.

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Miami-Dade County civil court records show the school sued Patricia Ripley and her husband, Aldo Ripley, in 2016 for more than $4,000 in unpaid tuition for their son. It was not clear when Alejandro had last attended the school but the Miami Herald reported that he was being tutored at home at the time of his death. The school’s administrators shared on Facebook both the news of his alleged abduction and the subsequent news of his slaying. “Ale, we will forever miss you,” a post on the school’s Facebook page read. It was accompanied by a video of Alejandro working with a teacher. “Praying you rest in peace.” A Miami-Dade County medical examiner told WPLG in Miami on Tuesday that the boy’s autopsy confirmed he drowned. His mother has been charged with first-degree murder and attempted first-degree premeditated murder, prosecutors said. A witness who lives at the condo complex told WPLG he saw Alejandro in the canal behind his home but didn’t think much of it. “Kids fall in the canal all the time,” said the witness, who declined to speak on camera. “Usually, you grab them, yank them out and away you go.” Alejandro appeared to be seated in water that was chest deep, the man said. “The only odd thing was she kind of started screaming and called his name, and then turned around and ran off screaming,” the man told the news station. 'He was just sitting there, and I tried to speak to him a couple of times and he looked at me, and that’s when she returned with an older couple. ”At the time, I thought they were together because that woman was giving it to her, screaming, ‘What are you doing? Why’d you leave the kid there?‘” The witness described the bystanders pulling Alejandro from the water. Video footage shows them drying the boy off before he and his mother leave. “Unfortunately, when she took him to the second canal, there was no one there,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told The Associated Press on Saturday. “She tried it once, and people rescued him. He was alive. He could have stayed alive. She intended, from all the facts of the case, to kill him.” Because he was nonverbal, Alejandro could not tell his rescuers how he ended up in the canal near the condo community, Fernandez Rundle said. “We talk about children being voiceless. This is another level of voicelessness,” the prosecutor told the AP. “He was incapable of saying, ‘Mommy put me in the water.’” Miami-Dade County Jail records show Ripley is being held without bond. Aldo Ripley sobbed Friday as he spoke to reporters following his wife’s bond hearing. “We love Alejandro, and we don’t agree with whatever they said about my wife,” a masked Aldo Ripley said through tears. “It’s not real.” Watch Aldo Ripley speak below and hear from Patricia Ripley’s attorney, courtesy of the Herald. It was not immediately clear if the boy’s father has seen the evidence against his wife. Patricia Ripley’s attorney, Nelson Rodriguez-Varela, told reporters outside the courtroom that he would not discuss any evidence in the case but would “leave that for another day.” “There is obviously a great deal of support for her,” Rodriguez-Varela said. “Everybody’s very concerned about her situation. “By all accounts, she has been an excellent mother, an excellent person, a great family as you can see from the people who are here.” The defense attorney said he is amassing a legal team to ensure his client’s rights are protected and she has the “opportunity to vindicate her good name.” Alejandro’s killing has provoked outrage in Florida and across the country, not only because of the circumstances of his death but also because of the nature of Ripley’s initial story to police. She claimed two black men had run her off the road and abducted her son at knifepoint, authorities said. “The only voice in his life that he depended on to get through this world was his mom’s,” Miami-Dade police Director Alfredo Ramirez said Friday during a news conference. “To think that voice would be the one that would harm him the most. “As a parent and as a member of this community, I’m deeply saddened for what happened to that young boy. And then for her to displace blame of her crime on another community, it’s just … well, another crime that was committed. It is very disappointing.” According to an affidavit in the case, Ripley called 911 shortly before 9 p.m. Thursday and reported that she and Alejandro had been traveling near a Home Depot in West Kendall when her vehicle was sideswiped, causing her to crash. She claimed the driver of the other car got out and approached her vehicle with a knife, demanding drugs before opening the front driver’s side door and stealing her cellphone and tablet. “She stated this male then removed her 9-year-old autistic child and fled in an unknown direction,” the affidavit says. Ripley was taken to the police station for questioning, according to the document. Meanwhile, law enforcement officials issued an Amber Alert for Alejandro. The alert described Ripley’s alleged assailants as “two unknown black males driving an unknown light blue four-door sedan.” “One of the abductors may be wearing all black clothing and a black bandanna as a face mask,” the alert said. “He may also have cornrows in his hair.” At the police station, Ripley gave “conflicting statements” to missing persons detectives, the affidavit states. The case was transferred to homicide detectives when Alejandro’s body was found, about 11 hours after he was first reported missing and 4 miles from the scene of the alleged abduction. Ripley was taken from the missing persons bureau to the homicide division for additional questioning. Again, she gave conflicting statements, the affidavit says. “These statements contradicted the statements of witnesses and the video footage obtained from the area of SW 103rd Avenue and Kendall Drive,” the document states. The footage described in the affidavit matches the surveillance video obtained by Univision. The Herald reported that security camera footage from outside the Home Depot near where Ripley claimed Alejandro had been kidnapped showed Ripley sitting alone in her car for 20 minutes before she called 911 to report him missing. Witnesses also told police they’d seen Ripley with her son near the canal where he was eventually found dead, CBS Miami reported. When confronted with the evidence, Ripley admitted she had not been robbed, the affidavit says. “She admitted that she drove to SW 62(nd) Street and SW 138(th) Court at approximately 8:30 p.m. and parked near a canal,” the document states. “She then led the victim to the canal, where he drowned. “She stated he’s going to be in a better place.” The CBS affiliate reported that a law enforcement official said Ripley told detectives she’d been thinking about killing her son for a while because the older he got, the more difficult he was to physically control. According to the Amber Alert, Alejandro weighed 120 pounds and was 4 feet, 11 inches tall. Miami-Dade County Jail records show that Ripley weighs 138 pounds. She is 5 feet, 5 inches tall. Since Alejandro’s death, at least one Miami-area support group for special needs children and their families has seen an uptick in calls from parents whose children are in crisis. Rabbi Yossi Harlig, co-director of Friendship Circle Miami, told the Herald the boy’s killing has rippled through the community as the nation deals with the deadly COVID-19 outbreak, which had killed more than 98,000 Americans as of Tuesday morning. The social distancing required to help stem the spread of the virus has placed already-struggling families in even more tense situations as they shelter in place and parents homeschool their children. “One of the concerns is that when someone acts like that, it could trigger other people. You never know,” Harlig told the Herald. “Typical families are feeling overwhelmed. Imagine if you’re raising a child with special needs.” In a Facebook video posted on the Friendship Circle’s profile, Harlig described the love and caretaking provided by the parents of most special needs children as “something that is like the work of angels.” With that love, however, comes pain, worry and an often overwhelming challenge. He begged those feeling that challenge to reach out for help. Friendship Circle Miami, which held a memorial service for Alejandro on Friday and has an online town hall meeting planned for Wednesday night, is implementing a hotline service for overwhelmed parents, the rabbi told the Herald. The group is also hoping to establish group therapy or child care centers to help families cope. “One thing that people always tell us is that they feel very isolated and alone, and there’s nowhere to turn to,” Harlig said. “One of the big things that people need is a respite, to have a place where they can drop off their child for a few hours and they can take a break.” The Lifeline Project will be launched in the days and weeks ahead, Harlig said on the organization’s Facebook page. “If anyone who cares for a person with special needs feels they are in crisis, they can reach us at 305-234-5654 or rebyossi@friendshipcirclemiami.org,” the page states. In Friday’s news conference outside Fernandez Rundle’s office, the prosecutor said nothing is worse than the death of a child. “The death of a child is tragic; the killing of a child is horrific,” the prosecutor said. Fernandez Rundle praised the work of Miami-Dade County detectives, who she said combed the community for evidence and witnesses and quickly established the truth of the case. “The tragic loss of the life of a 9-year-old boy, and the loss, really, of any young life, leaves all of us grieving,” Fernandez Rundle said. “This boy’s senseless, senseless death will stay with all of us, just as his bright smile that shines out from the photographs we’ve all seen.” Harlig said in a statement that his organization’s leaders are shocked and saddened by Alejandro’s death. “No child should ever be in this position, especially a child with special needs who cannot call out for help,” the rabbi said. “We all grieve for Alejandro and his family.”