Americans marked a Memorial Day like no other Monday as the coronavirus pandemic upended traditional commemorations and forced communities to honor the nation’s military dead with smaller, more subdued ceremonies like car convoys and online tributes instead of parades.
On the weekend that marks the unofficial start of summer, U.S. authorities warned beach-goers to heed social-distancing rules to avoid a resurgence of the disease that has infected 5.4 million people worldwide and killed over 345,000, including nearly 100,000 Americans, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Memorial Day commemorations were cancelled or toned down across the country. Veterans, along with nursing home residents, have made up a significant portion of those who died in the U.S. outbreak.
The 37,000 American flags traditionally placed on the Boston Common to honor Massachusetts military members who died in service were replaced with just 1,000 flags, to limit volunteers and onlookers.
The city of Woodstock, Georgia, held its remembrance ceremony online. American Legion Post 316 Commander Julian Windham recognized military members aiding in the global fight against the virus.
“Even when the enemy is an invisible virus, or a microscopic germ, the sacrifices made are just as meaningful,” Windham said. The ceremony, which included readings, vocal performances and gunshots from a ceremonial rifle team, had been filmed over a series of days last week and later edited together, Windham said.
In Chicago, a neighborhood group that’s been holding a parade for more than a half century also moved its event online, with video clips from previous years and messages from special guests, including veterans and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. In the suburb of Lisle, a convoy of vehicles from area fire departments and VFW posts drove silently through village streets in what officials said was a safe and unique way of observing the holiday.
Fallen military members were honored in New York City with car convoys and small ceremonies this year rather than parades to conform with lockdown restrictions.
“It’s something we’re upset about, but we understand,” said Raymond Aalbue, chairman of the United Military Veterans of Kings County, which usually puts on a parade in Brooklyn. There’s “no reason to put anybody in harm’s way,” he said, adding “it’s really cutting quick to the heart of all the veterans.”
On New York’s Long Island, a small group of veterans saluted, wearing masks and spaced several feet apart, as a parade of cars passed beneath a large American flag.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined a private ceremony at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan, with both the sacrifices of military members and the current challenge of coronavirus on his mind.
“Over 100,000 Americans will lose their lives to this COVID virus. How do we honor them? We honor them by growing stronger together,” he said.
“We want to make sure we remember them and thank our heroes today.”
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made his first in-person appearance in more than two months by laying a wreath at a veterans park near his Delaware home. He wore a face mask as he and his wife bowed their heads in silence. He saluted and could be heard saying “Never forget.”
Biden told reporters, “I feel great to be out here.” He also yelled to a group standing nearby, “Thank you for your service.”
After two days of playing golf, President Donald Trump visited Arlington National Cemetery, where he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which overlooks rolling hills dotted with white tombstones. He later spoke at Baltimore’s historic Fort McHenry, noting that tens of thousands of service members and national guard personnel are currently “on the frontlines of our war against this terrible virus.”
Trump said brave warriors from the nation’s past have shown that “in America, we are the captains of our own fate.”
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has criticized Trump’s visit, saying the city cannot afford it and that the trip sends the wrong message about stay-at-home directives.
Tens of thousands of Americans still headed to beaches and parks, relieved to shake off some pandemic restrictions. Missouri’s health director issued a dire warning Monday after photos and video showed weekend revelers partying close together. One video posted on social media showed a crammed pool at Lake of the Ozarks, with people lounging and playing close together, without masks. Many of those seen in the video were young people, who may not experience symptoms.
“When they then carry the virus and transmit it to a more vulnerable person, this is when we tend to see the long-lasting and tragic impact of these decisions that are being made,” said Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson called such high-risk behavior “irresponsible and dangerous.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said she was “very concerned” about scenes of people crowding together. In the Tampa area along Florida’s Gulf Coast, the crowds were so big that authorities closed parking lots to stem the flood. In Texas, videos of people packed together tubing and drinking on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers also raised concerns.
Trump demanded that North Carolina’s Democratic governor sign off “immediately” on allowing the Republican National Convention to move forward in August with full attendance. Trump’s tweets about the RNC, planned for Charlotte, come just two days after North Carolina recorded its largest daily increase in positive cases yet.
At the White House, officials slapped a travel ban on Latin America’s most populous nation, saying it would deny admission to foreigners who have recently been in Brazil. The ban, which takes effect Thursday, does not apply to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. With over 363,000 reported infections, Brazil is second only to the U.S. despite limited testing.
Also Monday, the World Health Organization said it would temporarily drop hydroxychloroquine — the malaria drug Trump said he has been taking — from its global study into experimental COVID-19 treatments, after a paper published last week showed people taking the drug were at higher risk of death and heart problems.
Elsewhere, infections in Russia topped 350,000 — the third-highest toll in the world — as health officials reported 9,000 new cases and 92 new deaths, bringing the overall death toll to 3,633. Russia denies allegations that its death rate is suspiciously low, insisting that’s due to its effective containment measures.
Chinese state media reported Monday that more than 6.5 million coronavirus tests were conducted in the city of Wuhan — the country’s virus epicenter — over a 10-day period in a bid to test all 11 million residents.
No new COVID-19 cases have been reported since the 10-day campaign started, although some people with no symptoms tested positive. More than 3 million people had been tested prior to the campaign, the official Xinhua News Agency said.