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Congressman urges VA to open cemeteries for Memorial Day

Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., right, wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, left, criticizing his decision to restrict public ceremonies at national cemeteries during Memorial Day weekend.

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 19, 2020

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WASHINGTON — Congressman Brian Mast on Tuesday criticized a decision by the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary to restrict public ceremonies at national cemeteries during Memorial Day weekend.

The Florida Republican wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie urging him to reverse his decision to hold only brief, private ceremonies at the 142 national cemeteries operated by the department. Mast argued Americans should have the freedom to recognize the holiday as individuals or in groups.

“While I understand your desire to limit large gatherings, the reality is that the government cannot manage the risks for each individual,” Mast said in a statement. “Every person in our country, especially on a day like Memorial Day, should have the freedom to mourn and pay their respects in the manner they judge is best for themselves and their groups.”

During a typical year, the day is marked with large public gatherings to honor fallen veterans and service members. There are wreath-laying ceremonies, and flags are placed at each gravesite. This year, there will be no flag placements.

“Restricting Memorial Day ceremonies and preventing the tradition of volunteers placing our beautiful flag on each grave flies in the face of the freedoms that so many have died to protect,” Mast said.

National cemeteries will open from dawn to dusk on Memorial Day for people to visit gravesites, but visitors cannot attend the brief wreath-laying ceremonies, the VA said. Those ceremonies will include a moment of silence and the playing of taps. Some of them will appear on livestream on the National Cemetery Administration’s social media pages.

Visitors are asked to distance themselves, and the VA is urging people to visit on the Friday, Saturday or Sunday before the holiday to avoid crowds on Memorial Day.

“This year, by necessity, will be different from past Memorial Day observances,” Wilkie said last week in a statement.

Arlington National Cemetery, which is operated by the Army, announced Friday that it would allow entry during Memorial Day weekend only to family pass holders for the purpose of visiting gravesites. Families must have masks with them in case they can’t maintain social distancing, and they won’t be permitted to visit any of the cemetery’s historical sites.

Mast represents Florida, which began reopening this week. Businesses such as restaurants, malls, libraries and gyms were able to reopen with restrictions, and some beaches opened – a decision critics have blasted as dangerous.

Mast argued it was “appalling” that beaches will be open on Memorial Day but full access to national cemeteries would be restricted.

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling
 

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