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As young families cooled off in White Bear Lake on a steamy July Friday, Toua Yang and a family that numbered 30 set up canopies, folding chairs and a generator that powered music and a fan on a hill overlooking the water.

Yang, like so many other Minnesotans, kicked off the July 4th weekend at a time when they’ve been forced to navigate a global pandemic that has locked down normal life and kept people apart for months.

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For some, it was time to throw caution to the wind and reclaim normalcy as they headed to lake cabins, parks and backyard barbecues. Many had faith that gathering outdoors would keep them safe. Others thought it best to pull away from big crowds and large reunions.

Yang and his group of 30 fell somewhere in the middle, keeping their gathering to a tight social circle. “We feel safe when we’re with family,” said Kou Song as the fan-powered breeze cooled the gathering.

Across the state, Minnesotans are making their own decisions while health care and government officials hold their breath over how the midsummer festivities will affect the spread of the virus.

With COVID-19 cases spiking across the country, July 4th couldn’t come at a worse time. But it’s tough to persuade people to give up the gatherings that celebrate summer’s long, hot days.

While governors in Wisconsin and California asked people to stay home, Minnesota health officials preached safety and caution, urging people to celebrate primarily with the people in their own households and to consider virtual visits with larger groups.

Bob Krominga of White Bear Lake had his own idea for the weekend as he readied his boat to take three friends out on Friday and another two or three friends on Saturday.

“The lockdown has gone on long enough,” said the Army veteran as he walked from his boat slip outside the VFW marina. “It’s just time to get back together. I’m also not a huge fan of the State Fair being shut down. … I just don’t know how much longer we can keep people locked down and bring the economy to its knees.”

Better safe than sorry

On the opposite side of the metro in Excelsior, Eileen Lee was avoiding crowds and practicing physical distancing with her two sisters as they sat 6 feet apart in lawn chairs in the shade of a tree, watching boats zip by on Lake Minnetonka.

“It’s very important to avoid crowds,” said Lee, 73, of Champlin, who was wearing a mask. “I think it’s the best thing we can do for each other.”

Her sisters missed shopping and the usual summer parades and festivals. But for Lee, it’s just what has to be done to keep the virus from spreading.

“It’s not the end; it will all come back,” she said. “Next year will be better.”

Every year, the July 4th holiday is the busiest weekend on Lake Minnetonka, with hundreds of boaters flocking to the Twin Cities’ largest lake, resulting in a spike in drunken boating arrests, piles of trash and even E.coli outbreaks. “This year will be E.coli and COVID,” Lee said.

Normally, Excelsior is packed for the popular July 4th fireworks show, which was canceled over virus concerns and lack of funding.

On Friday, the town seemed almost quiet. Outside an ice cream shop, a few people lined up, spaced out and wearing masks. Cruises limited passengers while restaurants’ sidewalk signs touted curbside pickups or patios.

But on the lake, it was a different story for boaters. Boats bunched up on St. Albans Bay as kayakers paddled by.

And next to Big Island, Cruiser’s Cove, the well-known floating party spot, was just as packed as always, said Gabriel Jabbour, a marina owner and former Orono mayor.

In fact, he thinks this year’s holiday weekend will be busier than normal on the water because people can’t experience restaurants and bars in the same way.

“We’ve never had this many people calling. There are more boats. People are congregating,” he said. “Nobody is paying attention to COVID.”

Since summer began, Matt Dwelly, a watercraft inspector for the state Department of Natural Resources, has witnessed overwhelming crowds flocking to the outdoors.

“This whole season has been busier than normal. It’s been kind of crazy,” he said at the White Bear Lake County Park boat landing, where a half-dozen cars lined up to launch their rigs.

People feel they’re safe out on a boat and aren’t cautious about the size of their groups, he said.

He added that boaters are ignoring posted signs at his marinas for social distance rules.

More distance on land

Back on land, people appeared to be keeping a distance from other groups at the beach in Excelsior.

Eric Wagner, 24, lounged on towels, enjoying beverages with friends from Milwaukee before renting a boat for the holiday.

“I’m not very worried about getting [coronavirus],” he said. “It’s America’s birthday, so we’re going to enjoy it.”

Still, the Wayzata native, who now lives in Milwaukee, said he’s skipping bars, not seeing friends he hasn’t been regularly hanging out with during the pandemic and won’t be visiting his parents until he gets a COVID-19 test.

Misty Clark, 42, of Navarre, decided to avoid Excelsior’s lakeside restaurants. But she was eager to soak up sunshine with her boyfriend and friends on a pontoon.

“For the most part, it seems pretty normal,” she said of the lake’s boating scene. “You have to go do things.”

On Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, kayakers glided by as Marcia Logeais of Minnetonka celebrated her 68th birthday in a more subdued way than usual.

Instead of the usual big family celebration Up North at a resort or cabin, she celebrated with her daughters and their families, wearing masks despite the sweltering 90-degree heat and skipping the cake.

For them, the whole holiday weekend had scaled back plans, swapping the typical crowded festivals of corn dogs and fireworks for yard work and a quiet picnic in the park.

“It’s a bummer, but it’s better to be safe,” said her daughter, Katie Hissim, 36, of St. Michael. “Most of our friends and family are adjusting their [holiday] plans.”

Travis King, 40, and his family nixed a trip to Iowa to visit his parents, whom he hasn’t seen since Thanksgiving, because they’re worried about spreading the coronavirus to them.

“I’m not in a rush to go down there,” King said, noting that Iowa has fewer restrictions or adherence to COVID safety measures. “I thought we’d catch a break with this happening during summer. Summer is our favorite time of year.”

But it’s worth staying safe during the pandemic, his wife, Monica King, 41, added.

“The better we do this, the sooner it’s done,” she said of the pandemic. “This is the closest thing to normal we’ve done all summer.”