WASHINGTON (AP) - Cue the fireworks. 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.
Even as the U.S. is set to cross the grim milestone of 600,000 deaths from the virus on Tuesday, the White House is expressing growing certainty that July Fourth will serve as a breakthrough moment in the nation’s recovery. That's even though the U.S. is not expected to quite reach its goal of having 70% of adults vaccinated by the holiday.
As COVID-19 case rates and deaths drop to levels not seen since the first days of the outbreak, travel picks up and schools and businesses reopen, Biden is proclaiming "a summer of freedom" to celebrate Americans resuming their pre-pandemic lives.
The holiday will see the largest event yet of Biden’s presidency: He plans to host first responders, essential workers and military servicemembers and their families on the South Lawn for a cookout and to watch the fireworks over the National Mall. Well more than 1,000 guests are expected, officials said, with final arrangements still to be sorted out.
The plan shows the dramatic shift in thinking since Biden just three months ago cautiously held out hope that people might be able to hold small cookouts by the Fourth, an idea that seems quaint now given the swift pace of reopening.
"By July the 4th, there’s a good chance you, your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbeque and celebrate Independence Day," Biden had said as he marked the one-year anniversary of the pandemic on March 11. "That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together, but it does mean small groups will be able to get together."
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 the accompanying relaxation in state and local virus restrictions.
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.
TOPSHOT - Fireworks explode over the National Mall as the US Capitol (R) and National Monument are seen on July 4, 2017, in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)
Across the country, the White House is hoping to see the similar Independence Day activities, after last year saw the mass cancellation of July Fourth festivities, according to two White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline the administration’s thinking.
"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 plans to be highlighted later by the administration.
In Washington, the National Mall will host the traditional fireworks ceremony, the White house said.
"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, three-country tour — not to mention much of the rest of the world where vaccines remain scarce.
Instead of having a mission accomplished moment, in Britain, one of the few countries that has a vaccination rate similar to the U.S., the government announced Monday it plans to further delay reopening for at least another month to try to get more people vaccinated. But cases there, unlike the U.S., are rising, and not all adults have been offered a vaccine yet, nor have children.
While in Europe, Biden and Group of Seven allies 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.
Still, the U.S. vaccination campaign is far from over as rates slip. 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 acknowledged that there are still deep geographic disparities in vaccination and that the administration will continue to remind Americans that if they are not vaccinated they remain at risk of serious illness and death from the virus.
All American adults have been eligible for 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 4 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 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."
The Democratic president 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.