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A socially-distant Memorial Day on tap in Mass. as state reports 68 new coronavirus deaths

After placing flowers in front of the headstone bearing the names of her father Herbert K. Gustafson, and brother Karl R. Gustafson, Susan Gustafson of Stoughton kissed her hand and touched the stone.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

As Memorial Day dawns Monday, many local traditions for honoring the region’s military heroes will be put aside as measures to combat the coronavirus force communities to rethink how they pay tribute to those who gave their all in service to their country.

Instead, new ways to recognize service members are being tried: Ceremonies will move online, patriotic songs will be played on video, and even for the remaining public events, people may have to remember local veterans from the confines of their cars.

In Westborough, officials taped speeches, musical performances, and wreath-laying ceremonies as part of a special Memorial Day program that will be broadcast Monday morning, said Paul Horrigan, chairman of the town’s Veterans Advisory Board.

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“Even though we are not going to have the normal Memorial Day ceremonies, and parade, and speeches, we feel the sincerity will reach the people very well,” Horrigan said. “Despite the fact we are not able to get together this year, there is a lot of effort to bring us together on a virtual basis.”

A reminder of why the holiday is so drastically different this year came Sunday afternoon, when the state reported 68 new deaths from the coronavirus, bringing Massachusetts’ death toll to 6,372. The number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 also rose to 92,675, with 1,013 newly reported cases, the state reported.

The state’s three-day average of COVID-19 deaths was 69 as of May 21, which marked the seventh straight day of decline.

Another measure — the state’s seven-day average positive test rate — was 9.1 percent Saturday, the state reported.

Hospitalizations as a result of COVID-19 continued to fall. As of Saturday, the three-day average number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients fell to 2,243, from 2,319 Friday, the state reported. The number of hospitals using surge capacity to treat patients with the coronavirus dropped to nine Saturday, from 12 on Friday.

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This weekend was the unofficial start of summer, but despite steady sun, Sunday’s turnout at Carson Beach in South Boston and the neighboring M Street Beach was tame compared to Friday, said Jim Teal, 51, who lives within walking distance.

“It was packed,” said Teal, referring to Friday. “It was hot; it was a beach day. I think it’s too cold today.”

The pandemic has also upended many businesses that rely on seasonal tourists, particularly on Cape Cod.

US Representative William Keating, speaking on WCVB’s “On The Record” Sunday, said Cape Cod businesses are struggling under the economic impact of the coronavirus, but are working to ensure public safety for residents and visitors.

For businesses on the Cape, many of which rely on the summer business of travelers, the pandemic struck at the worst time, he said.

“It’s devastating to them,” Keating said Sunday. "And this is a seasonal business, this couldn’t come at a worse time for these businesses, they have to make their profits in the late spring and summer, and that’s it for the year.

“And so, there’ll be businesses, sadly, that will go under. We’re trying to keep as many alive, keep people employed, keep [as many] jobs there as possible, but the reality is, it’s hitting us hard,” Keating said.

Keating warned that public health outweighs business concerns: “If there’s a rebound [of COVID-19] and things fail, the economic aspects, as well as the health care aspects, are going to be greater.”

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In Boston on Sunday, some paid tribute to loved ones who had served their country.

At the Gardens of Gethsemane cemetery, Susan Gustafson of Stoughton kissed her hand and gently placed it on her Uncle Stanley’s headstone as she made her rounds the day before Memorial Day.

Military service runs deep in her family — her father and six uncles grew up in the West Roxbury area, seven brothers who were war veterans. And all seven brothers are buried here.

Gustafson’s father, Herbert, the little brother in the family, served in the Korean War.

Uncles Lenny, Willie, Vincent, Harold, Russell, and Stanley went to World War II.

“And they all came back; they all came home,” Gustafson said. “Now, everybody’s gone.”

“I just come out to put the flowers," she said. "Pay my respects, say ‘thank you.’ "

The men weren’t the only veterans in Gustafson’s family. Her mother, Patricia McNeil, signed up with the Women’s Army Corps “the day she turned 18,” Gustafson said. “She loved it” so much she served two rounds, Gustafson said.

Over at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Dorchester, Stephen Finn, 69, took final surveillance. It’s been his duty for 36 years to ensure that every veteran from John P. McKeon AmVets Post 146 who is buried at the Dorchester cemetery has an American flag planted in the grass next to the headstone for Memorial Day.

Since Thursday, Finn, a US Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, and 14 volunteers have prepped and placed 243 miniature red, white, and blues.

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“It’s peaceful for me,” Finn said. “But, I do it as a nice gesture, I guess.”

On Monday, there will be a variety of tributes to fallen service members.

At noon, the USS Constitution will fire gun salutes honoring crew members who died while serving aboard the ship from 1798 to 1881, according to a statement on the ship’s Facebook page. The ceremony will also be broadcast on Facebook live.

In Westfield, the 104th Fighter Wing is scheduled to launch from the Barnes Air National Guard Base and conduct F-15 Eagle flyovers across Massachusetts in honor of Memorial Day, according to a separate statement.

At the local level though, officials are concerned that large public gatherings could risk exposing people to the coronavirus, which has already upended jobs, the economy, and the routine of daily life.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, appearing in an interview with NBC10 Sunday, asked people to celebrate Memorial Day by reaching out to veterans or Gold Star families with a call, text, or post to social media.

He also encouraged residents to hang flags outside their homes and for children to create signs honoring the sacrifices of veterans. Because of social distancing and stay-at-home advisories, many events to honor veterans won’t be held this Memorial Day, including the placing of US flags on Boston Common.

“For me personally, it’s a special day. As an elected official, I’ve never, ever missed a Memorial Day acknowledgment, recognition, [or] ceremony,” Walsh said. “And tomorrow is going to be a little different, not having the actual ceremonies.”

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In Milton, the town’s Memorial Day ceremonies will be without a band, a chorus, or local students at Milton Cemetery, said Kevin J. Cook, Milton’s director of veterans services. Even the crowds of people who traditionally gather to honor fallen veterans won’t be there.

Instead, a group of eight or nine participants — including town officials and local veterans — will be at the cemetery, and the ceremony will be broadcast on local cable television beginning at 10 a.m., he said.

“Memorial Day is a sacred obligation to honor all those who have sacrificed their tomorrows for our todays,” Cook said. “Regardless of the coronavirus emergency . . . we will honor our fallen.”

In some communities, officials are working to honor the sacrifices of veterans while promoting social-distancing measures.

In Everett, Mayor Carlo DeMaria said he intends to implement those rules while conducting a public ceremony honoring veterans at Glenwood Cemetery at 11 a.m.

In order to ensure social distancing, participants are being asked to gather starting at 10:30 a.m. at the parking lot of Everett High School. Police will then lead a procession to the cemetery, according to the city.

Participants may remain in their vehicles during the ceremony, though anyone who can maintain social distancing will be allowed to stand adjacent to their vehicles while wearing masks, the city said. Speakers have been installed throughout the cemetery so people may listen to the ceremony.

“The decision to conduct a socially-distanced Memorial Day ceremony came from a place of recognizing and honoring the sacrifices that have been made by the brave women and men who served our country,” DeMaria said in a statement to the Globe Sunday.

In Weymouth, the town’s traditional Memorial Day parade and gatherings at the town’s memorials will be replaced by a “rolling ride to remember,” according to George Pontes, the town’s director of veterans services.

Passenger cars will replace parade floats, and veterans are invited to line the sidewalks along the traditional route, Pontes said in a video posted on the office’s Facebook page. In addition, prerecorded speeches and a roll call of veterans who died in the past year will be broadcast on the town’s local access channel.

The tribute, Pontes said, “will be unlike anything held in the past.”

Globe correspondent Lucas Phillips contributed to this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com. Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.