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USS Arizona Memorial walk-on access resumes but needs visitors to stay afloat

  • Video by Jamm Aquino and William Cole / jaquino@staradvertiser.com and wcole@staradvertiser.com

    Walk-on visitation to the USS Arizona Memorial resumed Friday after a nearly four-month hiatus. The memorial and visitor center closed March 16 due to coronavirus concerns.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                A vessel transports visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial on Friday.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    A vessel transports visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial on Friday.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                A sign requiring face mask usage is seen on a vessel used for visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial on Friday.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    A sign requiring face mask usage is seen on a vessel used for visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial on Friday.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Visitors are seen at the USS Arizona Memorial on Friday.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Visitors are seen at the USS Arizona Memorial on Friday.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Waikele resident Julie Vu and son Elliot, 5, look out from the USS Arizona Memorial on Friday.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Waikele resident Julie Vu and son Elliot, 5, look out from the USS Arizona Memorial on Friday.

For those who came out to the USS Arizona Memorial on Friday, nearly four months after it closed to walk-on visits, newly resumed access to the hallowed sunken battleship brought the usual emotional impact.

But with the new coronavirus keeping tourists out of Hawaii, there just aren’t nearly enough local visitors to support the larger nonprofit museum structure in Pearl Harbor, which is built to accommodate thousands of people a day.

The 10 a.m. Navy launch to the memorial had 34 people. The boat maximum, with coronavirus spacing, was set at 50. The boats carry a maximum of 150.

Blake Glasser, 41, brought her son, Fletcher, 5, to the memorial Friday morning on what was the Honolulu resident’s first trip out to the attraction.

“I’ve always wanted to, but of course, the crowds. This place is notoriously packed to the gills,” Glasser said.

But for her and her son’s visit, “It was really easy. I just made the reservation (Thursday) afternoon.”

There was “nobody in the parking lot when we got here, so I thought it was closed,” Glasser said. “It’s very unusual but it was great. Everything’s smooth. You can keep your social distancing.”

Glasser said the visit to the memorial was powerful. “You feel it. It’s definitely sacred,” she said.

By about 11:30 a.m., however, the visitor center and adjacent USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, which is completing a $20 million museum rebuild and other campus improvements, were virtual ghost towns.

Retired Navy Capt. Chuck Merkel, executive director of the Bowfin, said that “it’s been extremely slow.”

“We get a daily count. I don’t think we’ve been over 100,” Merkel said. “Maybe that’s about our peak since we’ve been open these couple of weeks. We’ve been below what we need to sustain operations.”

The Bowfin reopened June 19 along with the Arizona Memorial visitor center grounds and museum as COVID-19 looked like it was decreasing.

>> PHOTOS: USS Arizona reopens to public

The neighboring Battleship Missouri Memorial and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum reopened June 24. Boat visits to the Arizona Memorial itself resumed Friday as part of a phased reopening.

A total of 1,177 men were killed on the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941. Normal July visitation for the world-renowned battleship and grave is 5,000 to 6,000 people a day.

The park was on track for 300 to 400 Friday, an official said.

The nearby museums rely on the iconic structure’s gravity for their attendance, but an ongoing 14-day quarantine for arrivals has decimated tourism and, along with it, income for the Pearl Harbor nonprofit museums.

The Arizona Memorial, run by the National Park Service, is free to the public.

“If the quarantine requirements go beyond 1 August, that’s going to hurt us both for completion of our (museum) project and in terms of returning to visitation here,” Merkel said.

The new building “is just about done,” Merkel said, but with COVID-19 a Seattle exhibit fabricator is just getting back to work and won’t come out if the 14-day quarantine is still in place.

In the meantime “we’ve done what we can. We’re cutting our expenses,” Merkel said. “With our limitations, we’re going to have to start making more cuts on the staff and go down to bare-bones minimum here.”

The National Park Service has been trying to make the most of the reopened memorial.

“Once (visitors) do arrive, we have a contactless ticketing system,” said park spokesman Jay Blount. “We have hand sanitizer throughout the location, and we’ve reduced the numbers of programs and program max capacity so we can make sure there’s plenty of space for visitors to spread out.”

The historic sites rolled out a Pearl Harbor Family Kamaaina Pass that allows all kamaaina and military families unlimited visits for two adults and up to four children to the four sites all summer for $79.99.

“We have had a lot of families come out,” Blount said. “I saw a father and his teenage daughter (Thursday) in our museum, and it was really neat to see her with a note pad as her father kind of gave her a history lesson using our museum as a backdrop.”

Seven members of the Luna family, all wearing masks, visited the memorial Friday.

“We’ve been trying to get tickets for the longest time since we were here,” said Claudia Luna, an Army lieutenant colonel at Tripler Army Medical Center.

She opened the newspaper Thursday and saw that the memorial was reopening.

“We went to the website and were able to get tickets really quick,” she said.

Her daughter, Sarah, 13, said, “I guess it’s a reflecting time, where you just dwell on how many people lost their lives and putting their lives on the line.”

To obtain tickets for the Navy launch ride to the memorial, reservations have to be made at recreation.gov prior to arrival. A paper copy or digital reservation confirmation must be presented to staff for validation no sooner than 30 minutes prior to the program time, according to the park service.

Tickets for specific tour dates will be made available in two waves: seven days prior and one day prior to the selected program date.

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