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Memorial Day ceremony at Punchbowl goes hybrid

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It’s a hybrid Memorial Day observance that will be held this year at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific to honor veterans — as well as to keep in line with conflicting state and federal COVID-19 guidelines.

About 38,000 small U.S. flags will be placed on graves at the Veterans Affairs cemetery, also known as Punchbowl, for Monday’s commemoration.

That’s been done in the past, but not last year due to COVID-19, cemetery official Gene Maestas said.

A small ceremony involving the mayor and possibly the governor will be held atop the steps leading to the Lady Columbia statue and won’t be open to the public.

The public can come to visit graves — but only in groups of 10 or fewer, with social distancing needed for individuals not from the same household, according to Punchbowl officials.

Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, in groups of no more than 10 who will check in at a table at varying scheduled times, will put up 38,000 flags on in-ground graves, Maestas said.

“Of course, we always err on the side of safety, and we don’t know who’s been vaccinated, who hasn’t been vaccinated,” Maestas said. “But our policy here and with national (VA) as well is that if you’ve been fully vaccinated, you do not have to wear a mask. … I’m pretty sure the Boy Scouts are going to be wearing masks when they come in here this weekend — not 100% sure, but I know that we told them that they should be abiding by the local guidelines.”

It’s another area where state and federal requirements clash in Hawaii.

Fully vaccinated people “no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting” — except under certain circumstances, including local law and business and workplace guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said May 13.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige has kept mask requirements indoors and outdoors at all times when 6 feet of distance is not possible for all people who are not part of the same household.

Some federal entities have struggled to reconcile the new federal freedom with local law.

After the CDC announced its new policy, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks wrote in a memo that in support of the new guidelines, fully vaccinated defense personnel “who are at least two weeks beyond their final dose are no longer required to wear a mask indoors or outdoors at DOD facilities.”

The 25th Infantry Division announced a relaxation of mask rules, but then on May 14, U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii said it had published updated information “too soon.” On Thursday the garrison said on Facebook that anyone two weeks past completion of vaccination is no longer required to wear a mask indoors or outdoors at Hawaii Army facilities.

Some areas on base still require masks, such as at health clinics and public schools.

The VA nationally struck a more relaxed tone for this year’s Memorial Day observances.

“Veterans Affairs national cemeteries will allow mass flag placements across the U.S. to commemorate Memorial Day,” it said Monday in a release. “This is one of many events and ceremonies scheduled this year and consistent with the most recent” CDC guidance.

“Memorial Day is a sacred day where we remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a release. “We can never forget these heroes nor the families who continue to grieve the loss of their mother, father, son, daughter, sister or brother who stood in the gap for each of us to maintain the very democracy that we are able to treasure every day.”

On Thursday, Punchbowl officials said the public part of the annual Memorial Day ceremony sponsored by the mayor was canceled. An annual governor’s observance at the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe also was nixed.

Due to a “significant” amount of vehicle traffic expected from individuals paying respects at Punchbowl, the cemetery said it will be closed to bus traffic from 8 a.m. Saturday until 8 a.m. Tuesday.

“We’re glad things are relaxing,” Maestas said, “and hopefully soon we’ll get back to normal where we can continue to hold larger ceremonies and invite the public — because we certainly know how important it is, especially to the veteran population here and to the people of Hawaii. They love coming and celebrating the veterans.”

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