The Fourth of July holiday falls on a Sunday this year and creates opportunities for a long weekend that could be filled with friends and family. Below is a compilation of suggestions from Virginia Tech experts on how to mark the holiday safely while still having fun.

Backyard grilling safety during the holiday weekend

As Americans observe safe July Fourth traditions, Virginia Tech food safety expert Joell Eifert has advice for those grilling at backyard cookouts. Even as we move into period of post-pandemic recovery, it remains important to practice good handwashing before preparing, handling and cooking food.

“Food safety begins with proper hand cleaning — including outdoor settings,” said Eifert, director of the Food Innovations Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Before you begin setting out your picnic feast, make sure hands and surfaces are clean. If you are outside and don’t have access to running water, simply use a water jug, some soap, and paper towels. Or, consider using moist disposable towelettes for cleaning your hands.”

Keep pets safe

Hitting the road with the family dog or cat should always include extra planning. Be sure to consider holiday foods that might be unhealthy for pets. Summer heat and travel can always be dangerous, not to mention fireworks. Mark D. Freeman is an assistant professor of community practice in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

“Every year near the Fourth of July, we see a significant increase in the number of traumatic injuries to dogs, specifically related to the fear response associated with fireworks," Freeman said. "Dogs have jumped through glass windows and off decks and balconies, chewed through doors and walls, and many get hit by cars when they panic and run away from the noise.”

Avoiding the ER while enjoying outdoor activities

For lots of people, hiking, biking, and tubing or swimming are the highlights of a fun and safe July Fourth weekend. A little common sense and the right preparation go a long way, according to Stephanie Lareau, who is an emergency medicine physician at Carilion Clinic in Roanoke and associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

“Over the holiday weekend, heat-related illnesses are preventable. It’s especially important to wear cool, breathable clothing and use adequate sun protection. Avoid exercising during the hottest hours of the day. Early symptoms can include lightheadedness, cramps, headache or nausea,” said Lareau. “Stop the physical activity and move to a cooler place. Heat stroke, which is diagnosed by confusion or change in mental status, is a potentially deadly consequence of ignoring warning signs of heat-related illness."

Water sports are very popular on hot days. Whether you spend time boating on a lake, floating down a river, Lareau suggested, "If you choose to recreate on the water make sure you wear a personal floatation device. Alcohol use is a significant risk factor for drowning." She added, "If you have children around water make sure one adult is focused on watching them and isn't distracted by other tasks."

Public health expert offers safety advice for July Fourth celebrations this year

Before heading out this year to celebrate Independence Day with family and friends at barbeques, parades, and firework shows, Virginia Tech public health expert and epidemiologist Laura Hungerford said it’s important that your plans include public health safety measures.

“The Fourth of July is a great time to get together, since so many activities take place outside,” Hungerford said. “Hopefully, everyone on your invite list who is 12 or older has already been vaccinated. This protects them both from getting really sick and also from spreading it to others.”

When it comes to attending large public outdoor events like parades and firework shows, Hungerford said the more people who you are close to at an event and sharing your airspace, the higher the risk that you will be exposed to someone who is spreading the virus.

“The safest choice is to wear a mask if you are unsure of the health of those around you," Hungerford said. "The sooner you are vaccinated, the more summer activities you can enjoy while keeping yourself and those you love safe.”

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