Covid-19 surge in US dampens July 4 celebrations

Florida recorded a record number of new Covid-19 infections on Saturday, as a nationwide surge in cases forced the cancellation of many Independence Day celebrations — with the exception of two fireworks displays hosted by Donald Trump.

A further 11,458 people in Florida tested positive over the previous 24 hours, the state’s health department reported on Saturday morning. This was a record for the state, which has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

It was the second-highest one-day increase of any state other than New York, which reported a daily increase of 11,571 on April 15 during the depths of its public health crisis, according to Financial Times analysis of data from the Covid Tracking Project.

The coronavirus outbreak has worsened across America’s “Sun Belt” — notably in Florida, California, Texas, Arizona and Georgia — in recent weeks. The surge has forced many states to reverse efforts to reopen their economies. The US reported its highest one-day total for new Covid-19 cases on Friday, a day before the July 4 holiday, which commemorates the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence.

But the pandemic did not stop Mr Trump from marking the occasion with a celebration at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota on Friday night. Most people at the event appeared not to wear face masks and there was no social distancing, despite the warnings of public health officials.

Standing in front of the massive sculpture of American presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, Mr Trump delivered a divisive political speech in which he denounced a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history” by what he described as “far-left fascism”.

“Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities,” the president added. The speech did not mention the pandemic, but emphasised his campaign theme of law and order in the wake of protests following the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The president arrived back at the White House in the early hours of Saturday morning, ahead of a July 4 celebration in Washington that evening.

Mr Trump and his wife, Melania, are expected to appear on the White House South Lawn for a “Salute to America” event before a fireworks display on the National Mall.

The president organised a similar event in 2019, including a military parade that sparked controversy, with Mr Trump’s critics accusing him of politicising a US holiday.

This year’s event will be held despite the objections of public health officials and Muriel Bowser, the Democratic mayor of Washington, DC.

Because the celebration will be held on federal, rather than city, land, Ms Bowser does not have jurisdiction over the event. But she warned about the public health risks of such a large gathering at a time when local regulations encourage people to continue social distancing and avoid gathering in confined spaces with more than 50 people.

The US interior department said more than 300,000 cloth face coverings would be available and distributed to visitors on the National Mall.

The Trump campaign announced on Saturday morning that it would “employ aerial advertising” in 13 places across the US over the holiday weekend, with planes flying “Keep America Great Again” banners above popular beaches.

“President Trump respects the American flag and is standing up for our nation’s great history,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the president’s re-election bid. “This Independence Day, Team Trump will fly banners across the country to remind Americans that President Trump will always defend the freedom and liberty that we all enjoy.”

With four months to go until election day, the president’s poll numbers have dropped sharply in recent weeks, with many Americans disapproving of his handling of both the coronavirus pandemic and widespread civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd. Most national polls show the president trailing Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by double digits.