Memorial Day events honoring service members who had made the ultimate sacrifice were kept tiny to stay safe, but veterans and families desperate to mark the day made their way into cemeteries to honor the dead while also social distancing.
James Mitchum, director of the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton and the Marietta National Cemetery, took part in small, private ceremonies held at both cemeteries on Monday morning. He’s used to having 2,000 to 3,000 people at a Memorial Day event with a band, choral music and a podium for remarks. Instead, a group of four people shared short comments about what Memorial Day is all about, while also conducting a wreath presentation and listening to taps. Mitchum said it was a powerful experience.
“The gratitude for those who gave their lives — I could feel it more in my heart than I had in years past,” he said. “We’re going through difficult times now, but the folks that we honor on this day, they are the folks who wrote the book on difficult times.”
Across Atlanta, Monday’s holiday marked a first step out into public settings for some.
Robert Conn drove to Atlanta from south Georgia on Monday to visit Zoo Atlanta, where employees were wearing masks and visitors had to get advance tickets to enter at set times to allow for social distancing inside the zoo. He said it was a spur of the moment decision to do something fun after being in lockdown.
“This is our first thing since all of this started,” said Conn, who planned to be careful not to get too close to others.
Flavia Pereira of Alpharetta said she works in a hospital and made plans with a co-worker to go to Zoo Atlanta, hoping to enjoy the holiday after spending weeks focused solely on being healthcare workers during the pandemic. “We’ve been working and not able to do anything fun and we decided to have a girls day out at the zoo,” she said.
It was the first time since March that she’d been able to go out and socialize. She said it made sense to do something outside, which experts say is safer.
Shoppers who hadn’t hit the mall in weeks were out, although crowds were lighter than normal at both Lenox Square in Atlanta and at Tanger Outlet in Commerce. At both Lenox and the Tanger Outlet, customers waited outside of Nike stores to get in, since these and other stores were limiting shoppers.
Kohn Kennerly, who just graduated from high school, was with friends at Lenox waiting in a line outside the mall to shop at Nike. He said they tried to go out for breakfast but had trouble finding a restaurant and hoped to spend the day shopping and hanging out.
For many Atlantans, celebrating the holiday meant finding green spaces. At midday on Monday, both Piedmont Park and Grant Park were dotted with families and small groups of friends having picnics. The Atlanta Beltline was busy with people walking and riding bikes.
Sisters Jodi Lucas and Kamari Morrow took a break along the Beltline on Monday with their dogs, King and Zoey, outside of Ponce City Market. They said they hadn’t ventured out much since the coronavirus forced Georgia into a lockdown. Lucas said she had been working at home, and Morrow’s high school closed and converted to home schooling.
They said their family had a Memorial Day cookout at home Sunday, and they decided to get out with their dogs on Monday.
John Tackett said he organized a group of about two dozen people who are part of a club to walk more than four miles round trip from a restaurant to the Marietta National Cemetery. The Atlanta Rucking Club gets together for walks carrying weighted backpacks. They hadn’t been able to meet recently for an event due to the coronavirus outbreak, but Tackett said Memorial Day seemed like the right time to get together.
He said those in the group brought about 200 small American flags to place on graves at the cemetery and timed their arrival with a flyover by military helicopters.
“We have all been cooped up for a long time,” said Tackett, adding he wanted to “bring some semblance of what our normal life used to be.”
Plus, he said, marking Memorial Day is important. “I wanted to give back to those who have given their lives for our freedoms.”