ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — President Joe Biden started the Memorial Day weekend by visiting a rock climbing gym in northern Virginia as the state lifted all COVID-19 distancing and capacity restrictions at private businesses and much of the nation pushes toward a greater sense of normalcy.
Biden sought to use the stop on Friday at Sportrock Climbing Centers — an 18,000 square foot space of climbing and bouldering walls, a gym, and yoga studios — to celebrate progress made as the country looks to turn the corner on the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 593,000 Americans and 3.5 million people worldwide.
The president also used the moment to thank Americans who have already received vaccinations —about 51% of Americans are now fully vaccinated — and again urged Americans who haven't to get their shot.
“All over the country we’ve gone from pain and stagnation of a long dark winter to an economy on the move,” Biden said. He added, “Americans of every party, race, creed have come together and rolled up their sleeves - literally - and done their part.”
This year the long holiday weekend that marks the unofficial start to the summer comes at moment when the federal government and state governments are relaxing masking and social distancing rules now that a majority of Americans are now vaccinated and more Americans are looking to return to their pre-pandemic routines.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam lifted coronavirus-related restrictions on capacity and social distancing in the state on Friday. He had already lifted Virginia’s indoor mask mandate for fully vaccinated people on May 15 for most indoor settings, although businesses can still require masks if they want to.
On Friday, Virginia’s positivity rate — the percentage of people testing positive for the virus in the last seven days — stood at 2.6%. About 54% of the state's population has received at least one dose of vaccination, and nearly 44% is fully vaccinated, according to Virginia Department of Health data.
Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist by occupation, said that there is “finally a very bright light at the end of this long tunnel” due to Biden following scientists advice on his approach to the pandemic.
"As a doctor I know it also makes a big difference when leadership respects science and follows its lead,” Northam said.
Biden appeared enthralled by the Sportrock climbers, who seemed unfazed as the president watched them climb. Asked by a reporter if he'd like to give it a go, Biden responded that he would “like to” but suggested he start with one of the easier walls.
"I’m not gonna try the angle wall, I’d try that wall,” Biden said with a grin, pointing to a flatter climbing wall.
The visit came as Biden is pressing Republican lawmakers to back a massive infrastructure bill to rebuild roadways and bridges, replace millions of lead waterpipes and more — something that the White House is pitching as a salve for an economy as the U.S. turns the corner on the worst public health crisis in more than a century.
He sought to contrast the progress being made on vaccinating Americans with GOP resistance he's facing in Congress.
"The American people are more ready to come together, I believe, than the Congress and the elected people,” Biden said.
Biden was scheduled to travel later on Friday to Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va., to thank U.S. troops for their service before heading to his home in Wilmington, Del., where he is expected to spend most of the holiday weekend.
Associated Press writer Ben Finley in Norfolk, Va. and Aamer Madhani in Chicago contributed reporting.