BILLINGS, Mont. – Americans settled for small processions and online tributes instead of parades Monday as they observed Memorial Day in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced communities to honor the nation’s military dead with smaller, more subdued ceremonies that also remembered those lost to the virus.
On the weekend that marked the unofficial start of summer, U.S. authorities warned beachgoers 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 canceled 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.
Several ceremonies in New Mexico were done virtually, including events at the Santa Fe National Cemetery and in Rio Rancho.
“When I think about this Memorial Day, it has a very specific significance,” Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull said during the Rio Rancho event, which was broadcast on the city’s website. “While we are separated, we are still together. While we are staying apart, we are still remembering … those who paid the ultimate price.”
In Billings, Montana, Frank Groblebe and his wife placed lilacs on several graves at Mountview Cemetery, including those of his mother and father, who served in the Philippines as a Navy Seabee during World War II. Groblebe said he approved of plans to curtail the ceremony, which included a motorcycle procession and moments of quiet remembrance.
“This is our freedom. This is our history. It’s what they fought for,” Groblebe said, briefly choking up with tears. “Anything that shows respect for it is all right with me.”
Sharon Oakland, 78, placed mums on the grave of her father, also a Navy veteran of World War II. She watched from a distance as the motorcycles rolled by. “What they’ve done is remarkable given what’s going on with the virus,” she said.
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. In Minneapolis, several bagpipers and drummers lined up outside the Minnesota Veterans Home and played as a parade of cars drove past.
Woodstock, Georgia, held its remembrance ceremony online. American Legion Post 316 Commander Julian Windham recognized service members who helped in the global fight against COVID-19.
“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, were 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 rather than parades.
“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 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.”
Tens of thousands of Americans still headed to beaches and parks, relieved to shake off some pandemic restrictions.