WASHINGTON – Memorial Day 2020 offered an array of contrasts as some Americans sheltered in their homes, others flocked to beaches and pools, and the nation’s political leaders honored generations of war dead, with former vice president Joe Biden wearing a mask and President Donald Trump going without.
The disparate approaches played out as the country’s reported death toll from the coronavirus edged closer to 100,000.
Trump took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and later gave remarks at Fort McHenry in Baltimore to honor those who have given their lives in wars past and those fighting today on the front lines of the pandemic.
“As one nation we mourn alongside every single family who has lost loved ones, including the families of our great veterans,” Trump said. “Together we will vanquish the virus and America will rise from this crisis to new and even greater heights.”
Biden emerged from his neighborhood for the first time since mid-March to lay a wreath at the Delaware Memorial Bridge Veterans Memorial Park.
“Never forget the sacrifices that these men and women made,” said Biden, Trump’s presumptive rival in November, as he left the memorial. “Never, ever, forget.”
The somber gestures felt more removed than usual from the summer kickoff of crowds flocking to beaches and holiday resorts as Americans this year sought to loosen the shackles of public health lockdowns aimed at preventing the pandemic from claiming even more lives.
Across the country, a majority of states relaxed restrictions ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, prompting a new wave of challenges over public gatherings and sparking fresh warnings from state officials fearing new instances of community spread.
In Ocean City, Maryland, videos showed visitors thronging the boardwalk, only some wearing masks. From Newport Beach, California, to the Tampa area along Florida’s Gulf Coast, crowds were sometimes dense – in the latter case, leading authorities to close jammed parking lots.
In midtown Houston on Saturday, more than 100 partygoers packed into a swimming pool area at a club, flouting social distancing orders to maintain space or wear masks a day after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, eased restrictions on bars and restaurants.
Another weekend video showed a crammed pool at the Lake of the Ozarks reservoir, prompting Randall Williams, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director, to warn on Monday that such behavior could have “long-lasting and tragic” results.
Flags flew at half-staff at the White House and other public buildings to honor the Americans who have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus – the number now eclipsing the combined total of U.S. deaths from wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.
At Arlington National Cemetery, Trump touched a large wreath of red, white and lavender flowers before the Tomb of the Unknowns, then saluted. The cemetery has been closed to the public for months because of the pandemic.
At Fort McHenry, he likened the service of American soldiers who repelled a British assault during the War of 1812 to the “tens of thousands of service members and national guardsmen” who are caring for patients and delivering supplies during the pandemic.
Again, the president wore no mask, a deliberate defiance of guidance from his own public health officials, as he seeks to portray a picture of a country returning to normal despite the ravages of the pandemic. More than 38 million Americans are out of work, and Trump has said the economic recovery probably will not happen until after November.
Before heading to Arlington, Virginia, in the morning, Trump fired off some tweets, berating “The Fake & Totally Corrupt News” for reporting on his weekend golf outings despite the mounting death toll. He defended his recreation as getting “a little exercise” and as “my first golf in almost…3 months.”
He also took a swipe at former president Barack Obama, saying the media, which he attacked as “sick” and “deranged,” do not mention “all the time Obama spent on the golf course.” In 2014, Trump had criticized Obama for playing golf when there were two confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States.
In an earlier tweet Monday morning, Trump threatened to move the Republican National Convention from Charlotte because North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, is “still in Shutdown mood & unable to guarantee that by August we will be allowed … ..full attendance in the Arena.”
Trump had earlier suggested that the convention, scheduled for Aug. 24-27, could be moved to Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has begun reopening much of that state.
The president’s push to encourage states to relax restrictions – on Friday he ordered states to allow churches to reopen “right away” – has been met with words of caution from public health officials.
“With the country starting to open up this holiday weekend, I again remind everyone that the coronavirus is not yet contained,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said on Twitter on Sunday. “It is up to every individual to protect themselves and their community. Social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks protect us all.”
In New York, the state hit hardest by the coronavirus, Memorial Day was marked with car convoys and small ceremonies instead of big parades. In a year that marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, veterans wore masks and saluted while standing at socially distanced intervals. At the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, wearing a mask, honored veterans and essential workers on an occasion he called “especially poignant and powerful.”
Even before the busy holiday weekend, some experts were warning of increases in coronavirus infections across the Midwest and the South. A new study estimates that the virus, which has infected at least 1.6 million people in the United States, may still be spreading at epidemic rates in 24 states.
Democratic leaders in Congress said the national coronavirus testing strategy released Sunday by the Trump administration is “disappointing” and offloads wide-scale testing responsibility to the states.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee; and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, issued a statement Monday saying the administration still lacks a “serious plan” for scaling up testing to mitigate spread and facilitate the reopening of the economy.
“This disappointing report confirms that President Trump’s national testing strategy is to deny the truth that there aren’t enough tests and supplies, reject responsibility and dump the burden onto the states,” the leaders wrote.
In the report, federal health officials pledged to acquire 100 million swabs and 100 million tubes of what’s known as viral transport media – the chemicals used to preserve test specimens – to distribute to states to conduct their own testing. States would be tasked with finding additional testing materials if their needs outstrip what federal health officials supply.
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The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan and Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.