Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is appalled at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ decision to ban groups from placing American flags at national cemeteries Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s a perverse situation. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Bellone told Fox News’ Anchor Eric Shawn May 17 during America’s News Headquarters. “We’ve been at the heart of this and it’s been devastating economically, the loss of life, but we’ve begun to reopen. If we can do this it will be a real shot in the arm, lift people’s spirits, and send a message that we are coming back as a community, as a state, and as a nation.”
The National Cemeteries Administration said in a statement that Long Island has not yet met the state criteria for reopening, which is why limits on social gatherings on Long Island are still in place.
“Families and community members are welcome to visit national cemeteries through Memorial Day weekend and place individual flags on graves to honor friends and family,” the statement reads. “We ask that all visitors adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state, and local health, safety, and travel guidelines.”
“We can go to beaches in a safe way Memorial Day weekend, but we can’t go into cemeteries and place flags at the graves of our American heroes?” Bellone asked during his daily COVID-19 press briefing earlier in the day. “It doesn’t make sense. I’m still hopeful the VA will reverse its decision.”
The county executive announced a partnership with more than a dozen local cemeteries last week to place American flags at gravestones. The county will work with local Boy Scout troops and veteran organizations to conduct the group flag placement at non-veteran cemeteries Saturday, May 23.
“This plan demonstrates that we can safely conduct group flag placements to honor our veterans while protecting the public health,” Bellone said. “We are hopeful that the Department of Veterans Affairs will assist our efforts by donating flags that would otherwise be used for suspended activities at national cemeteries.”
Bellone wrote a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie with the request after the National Cemetery Administration’s decision to suspend group flag placement.
Suffolk County is home to more veterans than any other county in New York. Each year since 1995, thousands of volunteers have placed American flags at hundreds of thousands of gravesites Memorial Day weekend at Calverton National Cemetery and Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale. Those efforts are currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a total of 15 local cemeteries across 10 townships have agreed to partner with the county to honor fallen heroes.
Participating cemeteries include St. John the Evangelist Parish Cemetery in Riverhead, Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary Cemetery in Southampton, Shaarey Pardes Accabonac Grove Cemetery in East Hampton, First Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Southold, and Our Lady of the Isle Cemetery in Dering Harbor.
“While the weekend is the traditional kickoff to the summer season, what Memorial Day weekend is really about is honoring the men and women who have sacrificed for our country,” Bellone said. “That is important, and it is important that we always talk about that and instill that in our kids and instill that in the next generation.”
The Suffolk County Veterans Services Agency is working with local Boy Scout troops to identify the sites for flag placement and with the Suffolk County Department of Health to implement safety measures that meet the current guidance from the state and federal government. Among the safety measures is a six-foot separation for flag pick-up and mandatory face coverings.
Safety At Beaches
Bellone reiterated during his press briefing that beaches at Smith Point County Park in Shirley and Cupsogue Beach County Park in Westhampton Beach will be open to the public Memorial Day weekend.
He said while every municipality is making its own decisions, safety protocol for the county includes capacity limitations — with signage indicating a facility is full — and additional staff to ensure people remain socially distant, aiding visitors in picking spots along the beach to ensure groups are abiding by the 6-foot separation.
“When in a spot, there is no need for face covering,” Bellone said. “When going to other areas away from your spot is when you’ll be putting face coverings on. Added lifeguards will ensure people remain socially distant in the water, and extra staff members will be continually cleaning bathrooms in protective gear. The staff will also have their temperatures checked on a regular basis.”
National EMS Week Begins Today
Ahead of the holiday weekend, May 17 marks the beginning of National EMS Week, which runs through May 23.
“We want to say a big thank you to all the members of our EMS community for the incredible, incredible work that you have done throughout the COVID-19 crisis,” Bellone said. “You are literally on the frontlines. You are saving people’s lives each and every day — this is what you do —but this crisis really has put you to the test. It’s put us all to the test, but the way you have performed is absolutely incredible.”
In honor of the national recognition, Suffolk County will light the H. Lee Dennison Building blue in honor of EMS workers. Bellone said those who want to share positive stories can do so at ce.suffolkcountyny.gov/dashboardofhope. The theme for this year’s EMS week is “Ready today, preparing for tomorrow.”
“I can tell you that the way you have performed, the work that you’ve done, you’ve made it clear to all of us that you are ready for this crisis,” Bellone said. “The way that you’ve changed and reacted and adapted and adjusted to new protocols being thrown at you and changes happening on the fly that you’re able to handle anything. I can’t say enough about the great work that you’ve done.”
The Local Numbers
Positive tests in the county continue to rise. There were 175 new novel coronavirus cases reported yesterday, bringing Suffolk’s total to 38,117. This does not include the number of people who have tested positive for antibodies, who did not previously undergo a diagnostic test. That number is 9092.
“That’s a significant number of additional people who have had the virus,” Bellone said.
Hospitalizations went down 26 from May 16 to May 17, to 513.
“It’s very positive that that downward trend continues,” the county executive added.
Patients in Intensive Care Units on the other hand have increased 10 over the same time period, to 186. The number of ICU beds sits at 574, 190 of which are available, which puts Suffolk County — at 67 percent — below New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s metric for reopening. However, the 901 available of 2949 total hospital beds puts the county right at the 70 percent metric. Forty-two patients were discharged from the hospital from May 16 to May 17, but another 15 Suffolk County residents have died, bringing the total to 1748.
“Our thoughts and prayers to family members who grieve the loss of their loved ones,” Bellone said.