How you handle this Labor Day will help steer the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, doctors say

People wear protective face masks outside The Metropolitan Museum of Art as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on September 6, 2020 in New York City. The fourth phase allows outdoor arts and entertainment, sporting events without fans and media production. (Photo by )

Americans have two choices as they celebrate Labor Day today:

1. Be responsible. Keep gatherings small, have them outside, wear a face mask when you're not eating or drinking, and stay 6 feet away from anyone outside your household whenever you have your mask off.

2. Ignore all those guidelines and repeat the same mistakes made during Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, which led to surges in new Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths and set the economy back even further.

But this holiday, the stakes are even higher.

"We go into Labor Day with 40,000 new cases a day -- much higher than we were at Memorial Day," said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

"So I'm worried that any new surges will be potentially quite catastrophic."

Why Labor Day behavior is even more critical

Unlike Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, Americans now face two major challenges that could either be hurt or helped by their behavior this holiday:

-- Getting students back in school safely and making sure they're able to stay in school. Both depend on how much coronavirus is spreading in the community.

Already, some schools have temporarily shut down after Covid-19 outbreaks.

-- The imminent flu season. The coronavirus pandemic coinciding with the flu season this fall could strain or max out hospital capacity -- which could mean reduced care for anyone else who needs to go the hospital.

An estimated 410,000 to 740,000 Americans were hospitalized with the flu last flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health experts urge the public to get a flu vaccine this year to make sure hospitals don't get overwhelmed.

"Particularly as we go on the other side of Labor Day and enter into the fall ... we don't want to go into that with another surge that we have to turn around again," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Is it possible to still have fun this Labor Day?

Absolutely. Of course, the safest way is to celebrate solo or with those you live with.

Outdoor activities such as hiking or biking are also good options.

But if you're socializing with others at a backyard cookout, you can still take precautions to minimize risk, epidemiologist Ali Mokdad said. For example:

-- Make sure only one person is at the grill.

-- Put the cooked food on separate plates for each person attending. Then move away from the grill.

-- Ask people to come and get a plate one at a time.

What we learned after Fourth of July celebrations

Several states suffered record numbers of new hospitalizations or deaths after the Fourth of July holiday -- erasing much of the progress made during painful economic shutdowns.

"By the middle of June, we were pretty much at our nadir in terms of new Covid-19 cases. We are around 20,000 new cases (per day)," said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

"And then after July Fourth, that's when things really started to rev up and accelerate to the point where we went up to 65,000, 70,000 new cases a day. And now we're back down to 40,000 cases," Hotez said Monday.

"Unfortunately, we're already at a much higher level than we were in the weeks before the July Fourth holiday. So I don't think it'll take much to really bring us back up to 70,000 new cases a day."

Some are letting their guard down

Despite lessons learned from previous complacency -- including more economic closures -- some people are already flouting safety this Labor Day weekend.

In San Francisco, an event celebrating Burning Man culture had more than 1,000 people packed together at Ocean Beach, Mayor London Breed said.

The gathering was "reckless and selfish," the mayor said, and city officials announced the parking lot at Ocean Beach would be closed.

In Atlanta, party promoters touted "The Biggest Labor Day Weekend Party in the City" hosted by rapper Gucci Mane at a local nightclub.

And a "Sunday Funday" rooftop party was advertised with an image of people standing close together, some without masks. There was no mention of safety precautions in the ad.

CNN's Madeline Holcombe, Sandee LaMotte, James Froio and Micha Palmer contributed to this report.

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