SUFFOLK COUNTY, NY — Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was incredulous Friday as he announced that only a last-minute action by President Donald Trump could save the long-standing tradition of Memorial Day weekend flag placement at national cemeteries, including Calverton National Cemetery.
Recently, Bellone said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, out of an "abundance of caution" due to the coronavirus crisis, decided that flag placement would not be allowed this year.
Last week, in light of the decision by the National Cemetery Administration to suspend group flag placement, Bellone wrote a letter to Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie asking for the directive to be amended.
"All we have asked from the VA is that they do not have a blanket, one-size-fits all policy for the whole country," Bellone said, adding that in Suffolk County, there are many volunteers who place and remove the flags every year at national cemeteries and are ready to step up.
On Friday, he said, despite a safety plan certified by county health officials, the request to hold the traditional flag placing event at the national cemeteries had been denied.
"The answer, it turns out, is 'no,'" Bellone said, adding that he'd received a letter saying that despite the county executive's numerous requests, the group placement and flag retrievals would not take place this year, with the "health and safety" of volunteers, visitors and others the prime consideration.
"There's not a word of that statement we do not agree with 100 percent," Bellone said. "That's why we put together a safety plan with Frank Bailey."
Bailey, the flag placement coordinator at Calverton, said the flag placement has taken place since 1995.
The plan was crafted with an eye toward proceeding with caution and adherence to social distancing protocols, Bellone said.
"It's just common sense," Bellone said. "If we can reopen our beaches and have thousands coming to those beaches, how can we not have Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts on over 1,000 acres at Calverton National Cemetery, that wide open, expansive cemetery."
He added: "It is a decision I cannot understand, cannot fathom. To me, this letter comes from a lower level bureaucrat, the kind of decision that was made by a lower level bureaucrat in an abundance of caution. We should be bending over backwards trying to figure out how to get this done and do it safely."
Bellone said he believed President Donald Trump would agree. "I am 100 percent certain that the president doesn't know anything about this," he said. "He is talking every day about reopening the country and the economy. We are talking about allowing flags to be placed to honor our heroes. I believe if the president were aware, he'd be appalled."
As it stands, without an under-the-wire save, the tradition will come to an end this year, Bellone said. "I think it is a shame, and a terrible thing," Bellone said.
Even if a last-minute decision was made to save the tradition Friday night, Bellone said, he was sure scores of volunteers would be ready to place the flags Saturday.
Flags will still be placed at more than a dozen local cemeteries across the county at the gravestones of the nation's heroes during Memorial Day weekend.
The county will work with local Boy Scout troops and veterans organizations to conduct the group flag placement at non-veteran cemeteries on Saturday, May 23 at 9:30 a.m. Bellone said.
Volunteers are needed; to register, click here.
As part of the effort, Bellone will join 18-year-old Eagle Scout Kieran Monaghan, a member of Boy Scout Troop 443 from Middle Island, to place a flag at a local, non-veteran cemetery in Babylon.
For a full list of participating cemeteries, click here.
County campgrounds set to reopen
Suffolk County campgrounds will reopen on June 1 for those with existing reservations. The reservation system will begin taking reservations at 7 p.m. Friday for future reservations, for those with self-contained units. No bathrooms or showers will be available and no tent camping will be allowed.
Virtual run to honor veterans
The annual Suffolk County Veterans Run Series kicks off on Memorial Day weekend with a virtual CpL Christopher G. Scherer Memorial“I Did The Grid” four-mile run / walk.
While there may be no bell rung at the end of the race as in other years, Bellone said the event will honor America's heroes, including Scherer, Chief Warrant Officer John W. Engeman, United States Coast Guardsman Nathan Bruckenthal, and Master Sgt. Chris Raguso of the NY Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton, who was an Air Force master sergeant, a lieutenant in the FDNY and a volunteer firefighter for the Commack Fire Department; he was one of four killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq in March 2018.
"When you finish the race, voice the names of these American heroes aloud," Bellone said.
Friday's numbers of new coronavirus cases
As of Friday, a total of 119 people tested positive in 24 hours, bringing the total to 38,672 countywide. A total of 12,013 individuals had positive antibody test results.
As of May 20, the number of hospitalizations across Suffolk County decreased by 28 to 425; the number of patients in ICU increased by two to 131 over a 24-hour period.
Hospital capacity stands at 3,009 with 882 hospital beds available in Suffolk County, or 70 percent, Bellone said. There are 547 ICU beds, with 193 available, or 65 percent, he said.
Over the past 24 hours, 58 patients went home to their families. And the county saw an additional 12 deaths, bringing that total to 1,814.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases by towns is as follows:
East Hampton: 276
Shelter Island: 8
County saves Southampton COVID-19 testing site
A pop-up COVID-19 testing facility that opened on April 30 in Southampton Village thanks to the efforts of Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren and Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman will continue to operate — Suffolk County agreed to continue to fund the free testing, Bellone said Friday.
The testing site was funded with private donations from the Hampton Health Society, which raised enough to set up the test site and operate it through May.
Schneiderman said he reached out to Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming and Bellone with the hopes of continuing testing with county funding.
The drive-thru COVID-19 testing site is operated by Hudson River Health Care and is located at the Kraus Family Health Center, adjacent to Southampton Hospital.
The Southampton COVID-19 testing site will continue to operate every Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.. To schedule an appointment, call 845-553-8030.
New testing coming
CVS, Bellone asid, will open 16 new drive-thru testing sites and provide self-swab tests to individuals. A CVC pharmacy team member will observe to ensure the individuals are administering the swab test correctly, he said.