North America

Donald Trump marks Independence Day amid anti-racism protests

US President Donald Trump struck a divisive tone when speaking in front of Mt Rushmore. Source: AAP

Facing a tough re-election battle in November and eager to mobilise his political base, Donald Trump denounced "violent mayhem" on US streets, though most demonstrations have been peaceful.

The United States marked an unusually sombre Independence Day on Saturday, as a record surge in coronavirus cases, anti-racism protests and an angry speech from President Donald Trump cast a shadow over what normally are festive celebrations.

Popular beaches on both coasts - normally packed on July 4th - were closed as California and Florida suffer alarming surges in COVID-19 infections, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti warned citizens to "assume everyone around you is infectious."

Across the country, Main Street parades have been cancelled, backyard barbecues scaled down, and family reunions put off on a day when Americans typically celebrate their 1776 declaration of independence from Britain.

But others, weary of lockdowns or simply defiant, carried on as if the deadly pandemic were a thing of the past.

The previous evening Mr Trump spoke at Mount Rushmore.

"No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America," he said.

But Mr Trump went on to lash out at protests that have erupted since unarmed African American George Floyd was killed by police.

Facing a tough re-election battle in November and eager to mobilise his political base, Mr Trump denounced "violent mayhem" on US streets, though most demonstrations have been peaceful.

His presidential challenger, Democrat Joe Biden, struck a different tone, tweeting Saturday: "Our nation was founded on a simple idea: We're all created equal. We've never lived up to it - but we've never stopped trying. This Independence Day, let's not just celebrate those words, let's commit to finally fulfill them." 

Protests have continued in many US cities since George Floyd's killing in May, and more than a score were taking place Saturday in Washington.

Florida on Saturday marked a new daily high in confirmed virus cases at 11,458 - far more than any other state. Miami Beach imposed a curfew and made mask-wearing mandatory in public, yet some Florida beaches remained open.

The beach at New York's Coney Island was also open and crowded, with few wearing masks.

Mark Ruiz came with his wife and two children, despite being "definitely worried" about the virus.

"I just can't stay home on the Fourth of July, I got to take my kids out," he told AFP. "We can't be in a bubble all summer."

Coney Island also hosted a special socially distanced version of the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest - won for the 13th year in a row by Joey Chestnut, who set a new world record downing 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes.

Health officials have been bracing for a new spike in virus cases after this weekend, which they see as a potential tipping point for more infections.

The US virus death toll is fast approaching 130,000, roughly one-quarter the world's total.

Fireworks displays are typically a high point of the holiday, but an estimated 80 percent of the events have been cancelled this year.

Local officials in Washington have discouraged massing on the National Mall for the capital's fireworks display. 

People were out even so, with some saying they were compelled to be there at a moment when the US is both grappling with the virus and undergoing a historic reckoning on racism.

"It's time for us to stop bragging that we are super special, that the world should follow, we need to look inside to see what's wrong with us. We never honestly asked ourselves about race in this country," 54-year-old Mary Byrne told AFP.

Mr Trump plans to take in Saturday's "Salute to America" in Washington, complete with military music and flyovers, from a White House balcony.

He and his wife, Melania, released a video message wishing Americans "a very, very happy Fourth of July."

The president was optimistic about the virus. "We got hit with this terrible plague from China," he said, "and now we are getting close to fighting our way out of it."

Mr Trump's address at the Washington festivities will pay tribute to health care workers, police and the military, White House spokesman Judd Deere told AFP. 

Social distancing would be observed, he added.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

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