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A Conflicted Summer Kickoff

outdoor table with umbrella and torches
photo courtesy PxHere

The Memorial Day holiday is always an incongruous combination of somber commemoration and joyous summertime kickoff, but this holiday weekend will be stranger than most.

Beach and mountain resort towns will be open – at least to a limited degree – in many parts of the country. After two months of pandemic-induced lockdown, they may have about as much business as they are prepared to handle this weekend. Although a lot of people are still not ready to risk even socially distanced contact with the outside world, many others are happy to take their chances with the coronavirus in exchange for gainful employment or something that feels like normal life.

Shawn Harman, co-owner of a restaurant in a Maryland beach town, surely voiced a common goal when he told The Wall Street Journal that his restaurant’s summer business plan is simply “to make it to next year to be able to open up again.”

We are all going to make a lot of compromises this summer. Foreign travel is pretty much a nonstarter. Theme parks may reopen at some point, but likely with limited attendance and with many attractions and activities like water slides roped off. We don’t know when we will be able to go to the movies, or whether there will be anything at the theaters to attract us with planned summer blockbusters on hold. Big summer parades seem out of the question, as do neighborhood street fairs.

So for the most part we will stay home with family members and maybe a few close friends. We will have more backyard barbecues and private movie screenings – perhaps in the street or yard, so the neighbors can join from a safe distance.

We may also pay a bit more attention than usual to Monday’s Memorial Day holiday. We will remember the nation’s war dead: nearly 1 million Americans, mainly young and male, who have perished in combat or in theater since the Revolutionary War. This year we should also remember the still-uncounted thousands of doctors, nurses, EMTs, transit workers, delivery drivers, police officers and grocery clerks who – with others too numerous to list here – put themselves at risk to keep the rest of us safe during these difficult months of lockdown.

There is no eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery, no somber memorial in Manhattan, to honor those among them who have paid with their lives. Not yet, at least. For their families, their loss is a fresh wound. For the rest of us, their sacrifice is a reminder that any of us may be called upon without warning to meet a life-and-death challenge. Those who rise to such occasions deserve to be remembered with gratitude and respect, even by those who never knew them. And the people who survived risking their own health and isolating themselves to protect loved ones deserve to see the rest of us behave responsibly and avoid undoing their accomplishments.

This will be a difficult, anxious summer. Large and small businesses are hoping just to survive until next summer. Meanwhile, tens of millions of workers who have recently lost jobs – and millions more who are still drawing paychecks from jobs with uncertain futures – wonder when they will again be able to count on a reliable income. The activities that we associate with the season, from sleepaway camps to swimming at community pools, will be absent for many of us. So too, for now, are most summertime sports. We will have to make the best of what we have.

I see an upside in the extra time we will get to spend with people closest to us and, on this Memorial Day holiday, in the relative quiet that lets us reflect on the sacrifices the holiday is meant to honor. We can make a special effort to be grateful and to be kind, recognizing that everyone is anxious about their health or their livelihood or the well-being of loved ones. Many people worry about all three. We should keep in mind that the goal for all of us this summer is mainly to get to next summer, safe and sound.

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