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Experts Worry as US Ease Restrictions

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State and local officials around the United States have again started rolling back social-distancing rules. Officials in some areas had lifted similar restrictions in the past, but reordered them again when coronavirus infections increased.

While some Americans welcome the move, health experts warn that it will, again, increase infections, illnesses and deaths.

In the state of Mississippi, officials are now permitting restaurants to expand their visitor limit to 75 percent. New Jersey decided to reopen exercise centers and permit indoor dining with limited capacity. Organized sports returned in Michigan and parts of Florida are now considering an end to mask requirements.

Bars can reopen in some parts of Florida at 50 percent capacity with some safety measures in place. But Florida's three biggest areas — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — are keeping bars closed because of high case numbers.

Allie Preston and her husband Zach visited The Leon Pub in Florida's capital, Tallahassee. "We've been cooped up for a while. It was nice to have normalcy," Allie told The Associated Press.

In other areas, American football fans gathered to cheer on their team without face coverings.

Jacksonville Jaguars fans cheer during the first half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Jacksonville Jaguars fans cheer during the first half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Supporters of President Donald Trump attended an indoor campaign event over the weekend outside Las Vegas, Nevada. The event violated a rule set by the state's governor that limits indoor and outdoor gatherings to 50 people. While officials urged face masks, many attendees did not wear them.

On Wednesday, the Big Ten, a major college conference, announced it will play football games this season. The move followed decisions by the Big 12 and Atlantic Coast conferences to also hold games. Just five weeks ago, the Big Ten said it would not play sports in autumn because of concerns over player safety. The latest decision came even though many students are still not permitted to return to classes in person.

State officials are not the only ones easing social distancing restrictions. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Roman Catholic archbishop said he will no longer excuse people from in-person worship unless they are sick or are caring for someone who is. Coronavirus infections, however, are rising in Wisconsin.

In many states, the number of infections is still too high to permit high-risk activities, such as going to bars, exercise centers, theaters and sporting events. Virus risks are also high for people taking part in close contact sports or eating inside restaurants.

In Framingham, Massachusetts, officials said they have started issuing $500 fines to property owners who violate the rules on gatherings and face coverings.

"Folks are becoming very cavalier about the pandemic," said Mark Rupp, professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. This week, Nebraska's governor ended nearly all of his state's restrictions, even with new coronavirus cases on the rise.

"I think it is setting us up for further transmission and more people getting ill and, unfortunately, more people dying," Rupp said.

By the third week of September, Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center reported that more than 6.6 million people in the U.S. have been infected with COVID-19. The center also reported more than 196,000 deaths. Those numbers are by far the highest totals of any country.

The number of infections, however, has fallen from a daily average of 67,000 in late July to about 36,000. And deaths are running at about 750 a day, down from over 2,200 in late April.

Public health experts noted that it is safe to hold some activities in communities where there are low levels of infection.

The nation's top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, praised officials in Vermont for their efforts to safely reopen the state. In a video appearance with the state's governor, Fauci said the state's face mask rules and other safety measures had led to success in fighting the virus.

"Please, you've done so well, don't let your guard down," Fauci said. "Because if we do, we are going to see surges that are going to put us back to where we were months ago."

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Hai Do adapted this story from Associated Press news reports. Bryan Lynn was the editor.

Words in This Story

capacity - n. the ability to hold or contain people

mask - n. covering used to cover your mouth

bar - n. a place where alcoholic drinks are served

coop up - phrasal verb, to keep (a person or animal) inside a small space or building for a long time

cavalier - adj. showing no concern for something that is important or serious

pandemic - n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people throughout the world

transmission - n. the act or process by which something is spread or passed from one person to another

surge - n. a sudden or large increase

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