COVID-19 and Veterans Day: Remember your mask as you remember our vets

There will be a new uniform this Veterans Day – one that includes a mask to stem the spread of COVID-19. Organizations around the state are coming up with creative ways to honor veterans this holiday while accommodating social distancing, sanitizing and other health and safety measures during the pandemic. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Emmanuel Ramos/Marine Corps)

WASHINGTON – In addition to wearing the traditional red, white and blue, people watching the Veterans Day parade in Prescott are being encouraged to wear something else this year: a mask.

It’s just one of the ways that organizations across Arizona have responded to the coronavirus, trying to balance the usual parades and picnics with the need to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Those range from scaled-down events to virtual programs to Mesa’s plan for a parade “in reverse” – with select parade participants staying in place while spectators drive past.

“Obviously, there are a lot of things there that don’t work with COVID,” said Theresa Carmichael, a volunteer with the East Valley Veterans Parade that is organizing the Mesa event. “What we’ve done is decide how we can still honor veterans and socially distance.”

While different organizers came up with different solutions, they all had the same goal: honoring and recognizing America’s veterans.

“When you’re serving in the military, it’s not always easy,” said Paula Pedene, executive director for Honoring America’s Veterans, which runs the Phoenix parade. “To come back and to be welcomed home and to get a thank you just means the world to them.”

Pedene said in an interview with Arizona Horizon that the goal for her organization is to keep everyone safe, especially veterans who may be in the high-risk category. Organizers plan to do that with a virtual event Wednesday that will air on television and be livestreamed via social media.

The show will feature seven veterans picked to honor each conflict, from World War II to the present – six hot wars and the Cold War – as well as winners of an essay contest for area high school students.

It’s a change from the last 23 years, when people have lined the street to watch a Phoenix parade. But Pedene said the move has been in the works since the pandemic first hit in March.

“We had so many cases of COVID hitting Arizona early on,” she said. “In good conscience, we didn’t think we could have a large-scale special event at the beginning of the flu season, where the two were expected to collide.”

(Video by Cronkite News)

Prescott plans to go ahead with its parade but will be making some modifications, the biggest being that people will need to be responsible for the health of themselves and others.

“We have said since the beginning that we want people to practice personal responsibility,” said Prescott Community Outreach Manager John Heiney. “That means deciding whether or not they’re going to attend an event, if they feel that it’s appropriate for them to do so. But also masking up where they can’t social distance. And just being respectful of their fellow community members.”

The usual opening ceremony, with veterans and their families kicking off the parade, has been canceled to allow for social distancing, and because organizers felt it was unsafe to expose those attending to any potential harm.

“Many of our veterans are older, generally Vietnam-era veterans,” Heiney said. “We decided we didn’t want to create that situation where they would all be convening in one place like that.”

Other changes include the addition of handwashing stations and informational signage encouraging those in attendance to take the necessary precautions to avoid spreading the virus. Masks are not required but will be “highly encouraged,” Heiney said.

Carmichael said attendance at the Mesa parade will definitely be down from a normal year, when as many as 2,500 people might be in the parade and thousands more would line up to enjoy the passing floats and military vehicles.

Faced with the choice of canceling or adapting, the East Valley Veterans Parade went with the latter. But Carmichael said running a reverse parade is no easy task.

“It is like reinventing the wheel, because we’ve never done anything like this before,” she said.

Despite this year’s event being scaled back, those who attend can still expect to be entertained. Carmichael said the “parade” is expected to have various military vehicles, including a Huey helicopter, positioned along the road for families to enjoy as they drive past.

“We can use some of the skills that we’ve developed in doing the parade for years and years,” she said of the planning that went into Wednesday’s event. “But we’re telling everybody, our participants and our volunteers, you need to roll with the punches, because we can’t anticipate everything that’s going to happen.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Claire Chandler is an Arizona resident who expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication with a minor in digital audiences. Chandler is working at Cronkite News in Washington, D.C.