Veterans Affairs officials will continue the tradition of holding wreath-laying ceremonies at department cemeteries on Memorial Day later this month but will not open those events to the public because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
However, visitors will be allowed to visit the cemeteries over the holiday weekend to place flowers or flags at the grave sites of loved ones, provided they avoid any large gatherings or close contact with other families.
The department is also scrapping plans to hold large-scale commemorative events to mark the holiday, set aside each year to honor individuals who died while serving in the armed forces.
In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the ongoing coronavirus restrictions will force this year’s observation to be “different” but pledged the spirit of the holiday will remain unchanged.
“While the department can’t hold large public ceremonies, VA will still honor veterans and service members with the solemn dignity and respect they have earned through their service and sacrifice,” he said.
Under guidance released by the department on Wednesday morning, each VA cemetery will conduct a brief wreath-laying ceremony, including a moment of silence and the playing of “Taps.”
Those events will not be open to the public, in keeping with federal recommendations limiting large gatherings in an attempt to stunt the spread of the coronavirus. More than 80,000 Americans have died from illnesses connected to the virus in the last two months, including nearly 1,000 patients in VA care.
All department-run cemeteries will be open from dawn to dusk on Memorial Day (Monday, May 25), but VA officials are asking for visitors to “adhere to health and safety guidelines and maintain physical distancing while visiting.”
They also recommend traveling to the cemeteries on Friday, Saturday or Sunday of the holiday weekend to avoid larger crowds.
The department is also opening its Veterans Legacy Memorial online site starting May 14 to allow families to leave tribute comments on a veteran’s memorial page. The site includes a section for every veteran or service member interred at a VA cemetery.
In keeping with past tradition, Wilkie will preside over the wreath laying at Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia on Memorial Day. Acting Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Pamela Powers will do the same at Culpeper National Cemetery in Virginia.
Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Randy Reeves will lay a wreath at Riverside National Cemetery in California on May 22, and another at Calverton National Cemetery in New York on Memorial Day. All of the events will be live streamed.
White House officials have not announced any schedule for President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence for the Memorial Day weekend. The commander in chief typically visits Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on the holiday.
Arlington National Cemetery, operated by the Army, will be releasing guidance on Memorial Day later this week. Access is currently limited to family pass holders in groups of 10 or less.
Earlier this month, officials from AMVETS cancelled plans to host a new “Rolling Thunder” event over the Memorial Day weekend. In the past, the event drew thousands of motorcyclists to the Washington, D.C., area to honor troops still missing in action, but the tradition was ended last year because of cost concerns.
Instead, AMVETS leaders have asked veterans supporters to ride their motorcycle for 22 miles in their local communities on May 24, in an effort to call attention to veterans suicides. And estimated 20 veterans and service members die by suicide each day, according to VA statistics.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.