Masks off for the vaccinated

National veterans cemeteries lift COVID-19 restrictions ahead of Memorial Day weekend

By Nikki Wentling, Stars and Stripes on May 28, 2021

WASHINGTON - The Department of Veterans Affairs will no longer require masks or social distancing at its 155 national veterans cemeteries for people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The VA is also lifting its restrictions on gathering sizes at funeral services starting May 26. The new rules go into effect days before Memorial Day weekend, which is expected to draw many visitors to veterans cemeteries across the country.

"We are lifting the limits on the number of people who can attend a committal service at all of our 155 national cemeteries," said Ronald Walters, the acting undersecretary for memorial affairs at the VA. "I'm sure many families will be happy to get the news that there's no longer a limit on the number of people who can attend a service."

The restrictions have been in place at national veterans cemeteries since the start of the coronavirus pandemic last spring. During Memorial Day last year, the VA restricted all public ceremonies and barred groups from placing flags at veterans' headstones - a Memorial Day tradition.

Les' Melnyk, a VA spokesman, said plans are underway at many national cemeteries to hold mass flag-placement ceremonies this Memorial Day weekend. However, the cemeteries will not allow people to attend wreath-laying events this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its guidance on mask-wearing and social distancing May 16, which didn't give the VA enough time to coordinate large events for Memorial Day weekend, Walters said.

"We're unable to hold the large public ceremonies that we typically hosted prior to COVID-19 that often attract hundreds and sometimes thousands of people," he said. "Those require several months of advance planning and coordination. Even with the new CDC guidance, we can't do the logistics at this late date."

Masks and social distancing will still be required at national veterans cemeteries for visitors who are not fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. The VA will not be checking vaccination cards.

The National Cemetery Administration "does not have the authority - or frankly, the manpower - to check vaccination cards," Melnyk said. "It will be the honor system."