Ahead of Memorial Day weekend, Veterans Affairs officials are lifting all restrictions on visitors to veterans cemeteries across the country provided that they have been vaccinated against coronavirus.
That means no masks, no social distancing and no limits on group size at any of the 155 national cemeteries, starting May 26. Individuals who are not fully vaccinated are expected to continue wearing masks and avoiding crowds, in keeping with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Officials at Arlington National Cemetery — arguably the best known veterans cemetery in America, but actually operated by the Army — are expected to announce new visitation rules for next week’s holiday soon. That site typically drew tens of thousands of visitors in the week before and after Memorial Day, but saw far fewer last year because of pandemic restrictions.
The mask and crowd size restrictions have been in place since last June, following a 10-week partial closure of the cemetery sites at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Funeral services have been ongoing but limited to small numbers of immediate family members. Public gatherings have been curtailed.
Officials said large-scale events typically held over Memorial Day weekend still will not be held at the sites this year, because of ongoing worries about mass gatherings. But individuals and families planning on visiting the cemeteries will be able to resume activities under the same protocols as before the pandemic began.
“For those of us in the VA and especially those in the National Cemetery Administration, Memorial Day is one of the most important days of the year,” acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Ron Walters told reporters on Friday.
“I’m sure many families will be happy to get the news that there will no longer be a limit on the number of people who can attend these services.”
VA officials could not estimate how many individuals may visit the cemeteries next week as a result of the loosened rules. Local staff have been conducting burial and committal ceremonies since last summer, and grounds crews have been maintaining sites throughout the pandemic.
“All of our district directors said that lifting [the restrictions] does not pose any additional challenges to the cemeteries,” Walvers said. “We’ve still had a cemetery representative there, the cemetery directors still needed to be there. Things were already kept up prior to the new COVID guidance.”
Families who interred a loved one without a funeral service during the height of the pandemic can request a memorial service now if they want to include a larger crowd in their mourning.
VA officials will not be checking individuals’ vaccine status, but are asking all visitors to use common sense and respect other families by following vaccine guidelines and staying home if they are feeling ill.
About 93 percent of all veterans in America today live within 75 miles of a national or local veterans cemetery, according to the National Cemetery Administration.
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.