TAMPA — Barry Schone, 77, stood on the sidewalk along Dale Mabry Highway, a blue mask over his face and a red poppy in his hand.
The Air Force Veteran joined about two dozen others at the American Legion U.S.S. Tampa Post 5 for a Memorial Day tribute to the men and women who gave their lives in service.
But this year, no crowd joined the legion members for the 21 gun salute and playing of Taps. It was yet another sign of tough months brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 restrictions forced the legion post to cancel its regular meetings along with the weddings and bat mitzvahs that fill its hall — the main source of revenue for the post, said Charlie Bodishbaugh, 73. Without this, they’re hurting.
So Bodishbaugh solicited donations. too, while handing out the paper flowers along with coupons for a free hashbrown or fries at McDonald’s.
All across Tampa Bay, Monday proved to be an even quieter version of an already solemn holiday.
No elected officials spoke at the legion post. Park pavilions in Ruskin and St. Petersburg sat empty. Few gathered at the boat ramp in Fort DeSoto. Even the shoreline at Pass-a-grille had plenty of room left for beachgoers.
A mix of threatening weather and concerns over the continued spread of coronavirus kept many people home. Instead, they honored the fallen through virtual services streamed on Facebook and moved their family celebrations away from parks and beaches and closer to home.
On a gray day, everything seemed muted.
Still, Schone said, it was important to find ways to remember those who died in service of their country. Many are buried at the veterans cemetery adjacent to the legion post.
“I’m out here because I can be, because I have the freedom to do that," he said. “And that’s because of the people who are buried right here.”
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Across the bay, the usually crowded ceremony at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System turned virtual in the face of the fast-spreading coronavirus. The small group in attendance wore masks and sat in plastic chairs spaced several feet apart.
The proceedings had an air of normalcy anyway, or at least tradition: Colors were presented, music played, quotations were read from Roosevelt, Reagan and Lincoln (“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present").
Most of the audience watched via Facebook. A shaky camera, sometimes blocked by a stray finger, brought the ceremony to about 250 people live. In the comments, some viewers complained of technical errors. But others named lost loved ones, checked in from Dunedin, Clearwater and Fort Myers, or just posted an American flag and heart emoji.
Retired Marine Col. Thomas G. Bowman, former U.S. deputy secretary of veterans affairs, addressed the pandemic head-on. He talked about the importance of observing the holiday even under unusual circumstances. And he drew a connection between the service members honored Monday and today’s front-line medical workers.
“In fighting the war against COVID-19, the individuals who do so willingly put their lives and the lives of their families on the line,” Bowman said. “They demonstrate the same selflessness and sacrifice our men and women in uniform have always demonstrated in those earlier wars.”
• • •
For some, Memorial Day means time off for barbecues and beaches.
They were out of luck Monday. South Florida suffered a deluge during the holiday weekend, but just the threat of gray skies and a few showers across Tampa Bay kept people from showing up early to grab normally prized picnic pavilions.
No one was scraping the grills or setting out paper stars-and-stripes plates Monday morning at Seminole, Childs or Booker parks in St. Petersburg.
At E.G. Simmons Conservation Park in Ruskin, the Gilpin family of Orlando planned to fish, keeping their boat close to the dock as they eyed the skies.
Chris Gilpin, 38, said he felt safe celebrating the holiday weekend outside, where he could follow social distancing guidelines and avoid large groups of people.
“We understand that we are in the middle of tough times but we are very responsible and we enjoyed the nature," Gilpin said. “It is not a sunny day, but the winds are not too bad, so we are here enjoying our last day in this beautiful park.”
Across the bay, Jeff and Diana Miller pulled their boat out of the water at the Fort DeSoto boat ramp ahead of a storm predicted later Monday.
The Auburndale couple dropped in Saturday morning with friends when sunshine and temperatures in the high 80s drew crowds to the boat ramp. By Monday morning, the Millers were among the few hauling a vessel. They had plans to stay on the water longer but the rain threat and chop of three to four feet brought them in early.
The Millers, whose son is in the Coast Guard, said converting Memorial Day observances to virtual events wouldn’t change the meaning of the holiday.
Said Jeff Miller, “You don’t need a big event to be able to memorialize."
The sun peaked through the clouds at high noon on Pass-a-grille Beach, casting shadows of palm trees and pay-to-park boxes on the sidewalk along Gulf Way. At least half of the normally coveted parking spots were empty.
The narrow strip of sand, squished even narrower by the high tide at early afternoon, relatively few people, especially compared to Saturday when deputies had to turn people away.
“Look how slow it is today,” said Steven Reilly, 62, who lives on St. Pete Beach and was doing pushups against the sea wall at the Paradise Grille. “It’s just weather-related, I’m sure.”
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One group stuck with its plans for the holiday, regardless of the weather or the coronavirus.
Memorial Day sales drew plenty of shoppers to Tampa’s International Plaza.
Not every store was open, and some still are limited to “park and stay” carside delivery, but the corridors buzzed with cell phone chatter, cuddling couples, armies of teens and unmasked conversations in a number of languages.
Bain Wilson, 20, came from New Port Richey so he and his girlfriend, 18-year-old Gayne Viskup, could pick out his very first Gucci wallet.
“We’ve pretty much been living life as normal as we can,” Wilson said, sharing Chinese food during a rare date. “What else can you do? It is what it is, but it isn’t forever.”
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