LOS ANGELES - Americans enjoying newfound liberty are expected to travel and gather for cookouts, fireworks, concerts and beach outings over the Fourth of July weekend in numbers not seen since pre-pandemic days.
Yet lingering restrictions, worker shortages and significant numbers of unvaccinated people mean some may not be as free as they would like to be.
And there are fears that the mixing of large numbers of vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans at a time when the highly contagious delta variant is spreading rapidly could undo some of the progress made against the scourge.
The estimated number of people traveling is up roughly 46% from last year's pandemic-impacted Independence Day weekend and just 5.6% below the pre-pandemic holiday in 2019.
Of those who are traveling, 2.8 million, or roughly 86%, are expected to travel by car, with 13% flying and the rest relying on some other means of transportation.
The Automobile Club of Southern California estimates that 3.3 million Southern California residents will travel over the weekend -- with the holiday travel period officially beginning Thursday and continuing through Monday.
FILE - People move through LaGuardia Airport (LGA) before the start of the Fourth of July weekend on July 02, 2021 in New York City.
Beaches and lakefronts are expected to be packed as well. In Southern California, Huntington Beach is planning one of the biggest celebrations on the West Coast, a three-day festival that could bring in a half-million people.
"Car and air travel each are showing growing strength this Fourth of July holiday weekend because many states have reduced or eliminated COVID-19 restrictions,'' said Filomena Andre, the Auto Club's vice president for travel. "We expect car travel to be the highest on record and air travel to be the third-highest amount since AAA started tracking data in 2001.''
The large numbers of people driving to their destinations comes despite soaring gas prices that are reaching levels not seen at least six years. The average price of a gallon of gas in Southern California already tops $4 a gallon.
Elizabeth Driscoll plans to enjoy the festivities in Cheboygan, Michigan, including a parade down Main Street, a trip to a farmers market and a family party on a lake, all ahead of the fireworks display over the Straits of Mackinac. Last year, the parade and fireworks were canceled.
"You can feel it all over town, just an influx of people on the tourism side, and people who live here are out and about," she said. "There’s good energy."
At the same time, airlines have been struggling to get enough crew members to fly their planes. Pools and beaches have been hit with a shortage of lifeguards. And restaurants and bars in tourist destinations have had to scale back hours because of a lack of help.
President Joe Biden has welcomed the holiday as a historic moment in the nation's recovery from a crisis that has killed over 600,000 Americans and led to months of restrictions that are now almost gone. He plans to host more than 1,000 people at the White House — first responders, essential workers and troops — for a cookout and fireworks to mark what the administration is calling a "summer of freedom."
"I’m going to celebrate it," Biden said Friday ahead of the holiday. "There’s great things happening. ... All across America, people are going to ballgames, doing good things." But he also warned that "lives will be lost" because of people who didn't get vaccinated.
The U.S. is averaging about 12,000 new cases and 250 deaths a day thanks to vaccines that have been administered to two-thirds of the nation's adults. But that is short of the goal of 70% by July 4 that Biden set. Vaccine hesitancy remains stubborn, especially in the Deep South and West, allowing the delta variant to spread throughout the country.
People who opt to fly may find themselves in long security lines at Los Angeles International Airport, which is slowly returning to pre-pandemic passenger levels. Airport officials said Tuesday that May passenger volume at LAX topped 4 million, the most since February 2020 and a more than 600%
increase from last May.
Passenger traffic overall is currently estimated at about 63% of the level seen at the same time in 2019, but airport officials warned travelers to plan ahead and arrive early. An average of 76,000 people a day are passing through security screening stations at the airport, and nine of the top 10
busiest days of the past year occurred during June. On Sunday, 87,410 people passed through security screening, with higher numbers anticipated over the weekend.
While masks have been shed around the country even in indoor spaces, the Transportation Security Administration emphasizes that they are still required at airports and on planes — a restriction not everyone is accepting gracefully. Airlines are reporting increasing cases of disruptive passengers refusing to wear masks.
Fireworks are likely to draw some of the biggest crowds many communities have seen in months.
"Outdoor stuff remains, I think, pretty safe for unvaccinated or vaccinated people," said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. "Probably a packed outdoor concert is not ideal, but short of that, outdoor activity is safe for people. Watching fireworks is fine."
Moving the party indoors is considered less safe, at a time when some states have less than half their population fully vaccinated.
"I’m concerned about most of the country," said Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of George Washington University’s school of public health. "I think it’s premature to declare it over, especially because of what we see in other parts of the world."
City News Service contributed to this report
Associated Press writers David Koenig in Dallas; Mae Anderson in Nashville, Tenn.; and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed. Murphy reported from Indianapolis.