Memorial Day Beckons, but the Coronavirus Pandemic Looms


BOSTON — A sailboat race from Cape Cod to the island of Nantucket has marked the unofficial beginning of summer for the last 49 years. But the Figawi regatta, which raises money for veterans over Memorial Day weekend, will not involve any actual boats this year. Instead, organizers will host a virtual cocktail party from a boathouse, among other online events.

At first, regulars vowed to sail from Hyannis to Nantucket anyway, said Shelley Hill, executive director of Figawi Charities. “But as time went on and everybody learned more,” she said, “that idea has gone away.”

Crowded parades. Mobbed beaches. Congested public ceremonies. Jam-packed backyard barbecues. Memorial Day, which has come to mark the beginning of hot weather across much of the United States, typically brings millions of Americans shoulder to shoulder, towel to towel.

But this year these first rites of summer are taking place as the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and cautiously emerges from two months of quarantine. Cooped-up Americans are eager for social interaction and fun. Yet public health officials warn that those impulses could result in an uptick in coronavirus cases.

Many traditional Memorial Day events have been canceled or replaced with socially distant formats. Elected officials and event organizers are struggling to bring back as much normalcy as possible without jeopardizing public health. The results have been hopeful, maddening and bewildering. But many Americans are pressing on, and trying to preserve what is important while letting go of what is not.

A Memorial Day parade from Vidalia, La., to the Natchez National Cemetery in Mississippi has roots going back to 1867. But instead of marching this time, people will motorcade in masks and gloves to let veterans know “that they have not been forgotten,” said Laura Ann Jackson, co-chair of the parade.

“It’s going be different this year,” she said.

Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Although the Memorial Day ceremony in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is still on, organizers are begging the public not to come. Instead of filling 500 chairs, the solemn event honoring fallen veterans will be livestreamed into residents’ homes.

“It’s been really difficult for us to say, ‘We really don’t want you there,’” said Tom Rice, chairman of the committee that sponsors the event, which will feature the national anthem and a benediction from a priest. “So far, there’s been no blowback.”

The iconic boardwalk in Ocean City, Md., opened on May 9 to throngs of people, but signs reminded beachgoers that contagion is still afoot, and that groups of 10 or more were discouraged.

In Massachusetts, beaches will be allowed to reopen for swimming on Memorial Day, but volleyball is banned and sunbathers must place their towels 12 feet apart. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio opted to keep the city’s beaches closed over the weekend and even threatened to cordon them off with fencing, prompting elected officials on Long Island to try to ward off a flood of would-be beachgoers from the city by restricting access to local residents.

In California, where tens of thousands have flocked to beaches in recent weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom had announced that he was shutting beaches down to protect public health, but then backtracked and allowed them to open for “active use,” which does not include lounging on beach towels.

Mayor Will O’Neill of Newport Beach, Calif., said the city was unlikely to fine or arrest sunbathers on his city’s seven-mile stretch of beach.

“At a time when tens of thousands of people have been released from jails, why are we being told to arrest moms on beach blankets and seniors under umbrellas?” he asked. “There was no data or science supporting the decision.”

He estimated that about 40,000 people showed up in late April on the first warm weekend of the year, but he said that beachgoers have generally followed social-distancing rules and that neighborhood complaints have gone down since the beaches have been open.

At this stage of the pandemic, people are beginning to feel the negative health effects of social isolation, which Steve Cole, a social genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, argued can increase the chances of chronic disease and other types of illnesses the longer it goes on. Over the summer, he is planning to take his children to the Grand Canyon as soon as logistically possible, and socialize in small groups with trusted friends.

“We should be able to find some equilibrium between those two extremes,” he said. “We don’t want to be packed like sardines in a crowd, but at the same time, a lone human being is a recipe for death.”

But across the country, many of the normal opportunities for fellowship and summer fun have been canceled or transformed beyond recognition.

On Lake Champlain in upstate New York, the cabins at Camp Dudley will be empty this summer for the first time since 1885. In neighboring Vermont, campgrounds will be allowed to open, but only at 25 percent capacity.

Both the Yarmouth Clam Festival and the Rockland Lobster Festival have been canceled in Maine, which relies heavily on tourism. But officials in Portland, the state’s largest city, are preparing to block off streets in June to give restaurants more space for outdoor dining, which is considered less risky than dining indoors.

“People who are looking to get out and about more are excited,” Mayor Kate Snyder of Portland said.

To protect the health of Mainers, state guidelines require out-of-state visitors to quarantine for two weeks before going out to eat.

“It’s confusing,” said Steve Hewins, president and chief executive of HospitalityMaine, which represents 1,300 hotels and restaurants. “Who is going to possibly come to Maine and quarantine for 14 days?”

Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times
Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times
Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

Nonetheless, he said, his group is developing a special training program for front-line restaurant and hotel workers to handle the new coronavirus-related health requirements, as hope for some semblance of a summer season builds.

Perhaps nowhere has the decision about how to handle Memorial Day weekend caused more angst and heartbreak than in Ironton, Ohio, an Appalachian town of 11,000 people that holds the holiday parade at the core of its identity.

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The town has hosted a parade every year since 1868, and lays claim to being the site of the nation’s oldest continuous Memorial Day observance. Tens of thousands of people flock there every year, forming crowds that can get 10 people deep.

But this year, Gov. Mike DeWine asked local officials to adhere to social-distancing guidelines that make hosting a normal parade impossible. Members of the parade committee in Ironton agonized. They did not want to be the first in 152 years to cancel.

The parade will go on, they decided, but the number of vehicles on the route will be cut back drastically. Instead of marching, participants will stay inside their vehicles. The crowd has been asked to stay on porches or watch online.

The changes have sparked outrage among some who want to honor their military dead by marching, as well as parents who have waited for years to watch their children in the high school band.

“Some of them just can’t take it,” said David Lucas, a volunteer on the parade committee who serves as its spokesman. “Everybody’s tired of being quarantined. They are stunned that they couldn’t watch their children graduate from high school. They are afraid that the whole world is going to get canceled.”

He chalked up the anger about the parade to the general frustration of a population that is tired of being cooped up at home. In quarantine, people yearned for summer, but now that stay-at-home orders are being lifted, they are realizing it still will not be like summers past.

Little League in Ironton is starting up in June, but baseball players will have to stand six feet away from one another when they are waiting to bat, and they will not be allowed to give high-fives. The fate of the county fair has not yet been decided.

Mr. Lucas predicted that a few renegades might come to town on Memorial Day anyway but that most observers “will quietly watch the parade on the internet and wonder what the world has come to.”

Jennifer Medina contributed reporting from Los Angeles.


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