May 21, 2020 / 7:06 PM / 11 days ago

A U.S. Memorial Day weekend like no other, with parties and biker rallies on hold

(Reuters) - Tom McNamara had planned to ride his 2013 Harley Road Glide Ultra motorcycle through the heart of Washington on Sunday, joining hundreds of thousands of bikers in a Memorial Day weekend rally in the nation’s capital to raise awareness of U.S. veterans.

FILE PHOTO: A motorcycle rider with American flag fluttering passes crowds during the 32nd Annual, and possibly final, Rolling Thunder "Ride for Freedom" during Memorial Day weekend to support veterans and call attention to POWs and MIAs, in Washington, U.S., May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

But, like the rest of the United States, the coronavirus pandemic upended McNamara’s plans for the weekend that traditionally marks the start of summer, forcing him to cancel the event and come up with a safer alternative.

Even with all 50 states taking steps to reopen their economies, this Memorial Day weekend will not resemble any in decades. In many places, beaches and parks will be open, but groups will asked to stay six feet apart; restaurants will only be serving customers outside; and bars will be closed in what is customarily one of the year’s biggest drinking weekends.

“A Memorial Day party would be great,” said Michael Williamson of the Michigan State University Black Alumni, who is organizing an online kickoff party for his local chapter on Friday night. “Bars and clubs aren’t open right now, so we are doing everything virtual.”

Motorcycle rallies are a staple of the weekend. AMVETS, a veterans group, had been expecting up to half a million bikers at its Rolling to Remember rally in Washington. But it canceled the event, asking local chapters to instead organize 22-mile (35-km) rides to spotlight the estimated 22 veterans who die by suicide each day.

“This is something that is far beyond our control. We are disappointed, but we are not letting it go,” said Tom McNamara, AMVETS’ National Riders president and one of the event’s lead organizers.

Memorial Day, which falls on Monday, was established to honor and mourn American military personnel who died while serving.

The holiday weekend comes at a time of unprecedented economic and social upheaval. Over 93,000 Americans have died from the virus, and more than 38 million Americans have filed for unemployment claims since the lockdowns began in March.

A large swath of the country is expected to spend the weekend at home, in contrast with last year’s Memorial Day weekend when an estimated 43 million traveled, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA).

AAA is not issuing a travel forecast for this weekend, citing uncertainties due to the virus. Online travel company Tripadvisor Inc says it expects activity to vary by state, depending on how far each has relaxed social distancing rules.

New York, New Jersey and Delaware are opening their shorelines this weekend, although with various restrictions, including a swimming ban at New York City beaches. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he expected a 50 percent capacity limit to be reached by 10 a.m. due to pent-up demand.

“It’s Memorial Day weekend. People want to get out of their homes,” he told a daily coronavirus briefing on Thursday.

The northern New Mexico town of Red River will have an unusually quiet holiday weekend after canceling a motorcycle rally that had been expected to draw 20,000 riders and had been a reliable source of revenue for 37 years.

Red River’s tourism director, April Ralph, said the town had brought in portable toilets and set up picnic benches anyway. She said it expects visitors from Texas escaping the heat and that some bikers would come to tour a scenic byway called the Enchanted Circle and pay homage at a Vietnam War memorial, rally or not.

Since bars are closed, Ralph was not anticipating trouble getting visitors to follow social distancing guidelines. She said she has a stunt group known as the Busted Knuckles already booked for next year, when she hopes the virus will be under control.

“People are getting antsy to move and get out,” Ralph said. “We are hoping that next year will be a whole different ball game.”

Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, and Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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