Americans paid a mostly low-key tribute to those who died serving in the US Armed Forces on Monday, with many Memorial Day events cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak that has killed nearly 100,000 people in the United States alone.
In some places, scaled-down ceremonies were broadcast online. But the virus overshadowed the national holiday, which is normally a time of flag-waving parades and events to commemorate fallen soldiers, and is usually full of events to unofficially mark the beginning of the summer months in the US.
In Fort Walton Beach, Florida, a small group of veterans in uniform gathered in Beal Memorial Cemetery to recite the names of the dead and weave flowers into a wreath in a ceremony that was streamed online. Some of the attendees shook hands with each other and few, if any, wore the face masks that have been recommended as a key measure to stop the spread of the virus.
“Instead of parades or large memorial events, we can remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in a more private way,” Colonel John Sannes, the commander of the US Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, told the gathering.
Inside the rotunda of the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, a candle was lit and veterans took turns, two at a time, to silently stand sentry on either side of a wreath over the course of a 12-hour livestreamed ceremony.
In New York City, organisers of a usually large parade on Staten Island instead arranged to have a smaller convoy of vehicles drive the route.
New York Governor Mario Cuomo took part in a brief ceremony at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum on board an aircraft carrier in New York City’s Hudson River.
President Donald Trump, who has been criticised for initially downplaying the threat posed by the coronavirus, participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, a military cemetery outside Washington. He was joined by Vice President Mike Pence, their wives, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, among others.
Trump, who is eager to have the pandemic-stricken economy in at least somewhat better shape by the fall to bolster his chances of winning re-election in the November 3 vote, did not wear a face mask during his visit to the cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
Trump then travelled to Baltimore, to the chagrin of the city’s mayor, and noted that tens of thousands of service members and national guard personnel are currently “on the front lines 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 objected to Trump’s visit, saying it sent the wrong message about stay-at-home directives and the city cannot afford the added cost of hosting him when it is losing $20m a month because of the pandemic.
“That President Trump is deciding to pursue nonessential travel sends the wrong message to our residents,” Young said.
The Memorial Day weekend, which is a time when many head to beaches or outdoor barbecues, has seen Americans largely adhering to warnings to maintain social distancing guidelines, but some cities and towns witnessed large crowds, despite the warnings.
This year’s event is particularly sombre because of the rising death toll from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, and the economic devastation brought on by the lockdowns imposed in March and April to stem the pandemic.
Economic activity in April ground to a virtual standstill and more than 20 million Americans lost their jobs that month.
Total US cases of COVID-19 are more than 1.6 million, the highest in the world, and a total of 97,974 people have died in the US, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
Despite nearing that grim milestone, there are Americans who are eschewing the social distancing recommendations.
Some beaches in Florida and other nearby states were packed this weekend, forcing authorities to break up large gatherings. Videos posted on social media showed parties in other states where people crowded into pools and clubs elbow-to-elbow. Protests were also held in several cities, with some calling for the reopening of businesses and services.
All 50 states have relaxed coronavirus restrictions to some degree. In some states, like Illinois and New York, restaurants are still closed to in-person dining and hair salons remain shuttered. In many southern states, most businesses are open, with restrictions on capacity.
A plea by health officials and many state governors to wear masks in stores and in public is being met with protest and resistance from some Americans. Social media is filled with videos of businesses turning away a few angry customers who refuse to cover their mouths and noses.