As many as 36 counties have received state permission to resume short-term vacation rentals, mostly to fellow Floridians.
Among entertainment complexes opening for Memorial Day is Island H2O Live, a water park attached to Margaritaville Resort Orlando, and Sparkman Wharf in Tampa.
But this Memorial Day won’t be like traditional three-day weekends of the past. According to the U.S. Travel Association, the COVID-19 emergency will dampen spending nationwide, estimating Americans will spend $4.2 billion this weekend versus $12.3 billion during Memorial Day weekend last year.
Also missing will be parades and public ceremonies honoring those who have fallen in the nation’s defense at 142 Veterans Administration (VA) cemeteries, including nine in Florida.
And that, said Florida U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Stuart, is “appalling.”
“With many parts of our country now in the process of a phased reopening, I find it appalling that beaches will be open for the holiday but that access to VA cemeteries will remain restricted,” Mast said in a Tuesday letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.
Mast has been lobbying Wilkie to lift the ban on public events at national cemeteries for several weeks. As of Friday afternoon, Wilkie had not done so.
The VA issued its policy prohibiting public ceremonies in national cemeteries in April. Under the policy, national cemeteries will open from dawn to dusk on Memorial Day for people to visit and place flags or lay wreaths at gravesites.
Public ceremonies, such as those traditionally staged by the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Affairs, are prohibited, however. Visitors can’t attend wreath-laying ceremonies that will include a moment of silence and playing of taps.
“This year, by necessity, will be different from past Memorial Day observances,” Wilkie said in a statement. “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.”
Mast noted the VA’s decision means veterans, their families and others who want to pay homage to those who served “will not be able to attend memorial services or volunteer to place American flags at the national cemeteries run by your agency.”
Mast, a 12-year U.S. Army veteran and recipient of the Bronze Star and Medal of Valor, lost both legs in combat in Afghanistan. He was elected to Congress in 2018, pledging to be a strong advocate for fellow veterans.
“While I understand your desire to limit large gatherings, the reality is that the government cannot manage the risks for each individual,” Mast said. “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 best for themselves and their groups.”
Mast said public ceremonies honoring those who served, and especially those who died in the nation’s defense, are not for the benefit of veterans, but to demonstrate national unity and “strength,” both of which are needed now
He recalled a Memorial Day when he asked his wife “to stay home with our two little boys so I could attend the ceremonies by myself. I made this selfish request because I didn’t want my boys to see me in pain, and I didn’t want my wife to have to answer the question, ‘Why is daddy crying?’
“I regret this moment,” he concluded, “because at the time, I mistook those tears for weakness. I now realize those tears represent strength.”