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Americans Mark Memorial Day As U.S. Nears 100,000 COVID-19 Deaths; Wreath-Laying Ceremony At Arlington National Cemetery. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 25, 2020 - 10:00   ET


ERICA HILL, CNN NEWSROOM: To honor the men and women who gave their lives and the ultimate sacrifice.


This year's tribute, of course, will be unlike any other. Social distancing guidelines now playing a large role, and you can actually see it right here, live pictures for you now from Arlington National Cemetery. This is at the tomb of the unknowns, where any moment, President Trump, Vice President Pence and their families will lay a wreath at that tomb.

The public today is not allowed inside the cemetery, only families.

Joining us now with more details, CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, good morning.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Erica. The president now en route to Arlington National Cemetery to lay that wreath, a solemn tradition among U.S. presidents for many decades now.

This year is different, at least visually different, of course, because we see that social distancing, we know that for burials taking place at Arlington, the troops, the families are all wearing masks. We know there have been some changes. That iconic visual that we have seen over the decades of a flag being handed to a next of kin that moments ago was covering a casket, that is not happening at funerals.

Flags, folded flags are being laid on a small table next to the gravesite so there is no contact. There are no horse drawn caissons right now for funerals. The horses are still there, of course, being cared for, but because that requires so many troops to do that right, they have put a pause on those horse drawn caissons.

Still, very much paying attention to every detail, however, all the respect and dignity. And where we are seeing these images right now at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, additionally, troops are still conducting that very traditional razor sharp walk 24/7. U.S. troops have been at the tomb of the unknown actually since 1937. They have never left. They never left during hurricanes, during bad weather. It is said that one of those doing that walk watched, saw a plane go into the Pentagon just down the hill on September 11th. They continue. So there are some changes.

It will be interesting to see later this morning after the wreath is laid whether the president is even able to go down the hill to Section 60 where we usually are on Memorial Day where so many families of the fallen gather. Not at all clear with all of these restrictions, he'll be able to do that. Erica?

HILL: And also whether he'll be able to, as you pointed out to us earlier, Barbara, speak with any perhaps the members of the old guard or any other soldiers who are on hand. We'll be watching for all of that. Barbara, thank you.

And as we wait for the president to arrive, the holiday weekend, of course, is about remembering those who have given their lives. But we can't deny that it is also in this country the unofficial start of summer for so many and especially this year with many Americans restless after weeks of stay-at-home orders. We're seeing them venture out and venture out in large numbers.

A number of these scenes around the country that you're seeing on the screen right now showing little evidence of social distancing, crowded beaches, bustling boardwalks, health officials have been clear, super spread events should be avoided at all costs, which just makes these scenes perhaps all the more stunning.

Look at this. These are images from a pool party, hundreds of people jammed together at the Lake of the Ozarks pool party in Missouri. And we have live reports from across the country.

Let's start off in Florida. CNN's Rosa Flores is in Pensacola. So, Rosa, what is the scene looking like pn those Florida Panhandle beaches this weekend?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, it's been a bit mixed bag here in Florida. But let me start in Pensacola beach. During the -- yes, we were here yesterday and the beach that you see behind me, we observed social distancing. The umbrellas were set more than six feet apart, which allowed families to enjoy the beach while social distancing.

But that was not the case in Daytona Beach. Take a look at this video. You'll see there are large crowds, people not social distancing, not wearing masks. Here is what the mayor there had to say. Take a listen.


MAYOR DERRICK HENRY, DAYTONA BEACH, FL: Our residents are excited about having access to their beach, so we're going to have to figure out how we can control these crowds and largely how we can inform the visitors.


FLORES: Now, back here in Pensacola Beach, according to officials, more than 20,000 cars drove into Pensacola on Saturday. That's on par with 2019 but the infrastructure here is still not fully up and running. Two hotels are closed, and vacation rentals open on Tuesday, Erica, but with restrictions?

HILL: Rosa Flores in Pensacola for us, Rosa, thank you.

Let's turn now to Arkansas and Ed Lavandera. And, Ed, this weekend, Arkansas' governor, Asa Hutchinson, announcing an outbreak linked to a high school swim party and he was also warning about a second peak in the state.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's what the governor is talking about here.


This all started kind of coming to light last Thursday when some 450 new cases were reported then 150 on Friday, then 160 on Saturday. The numbers yesterday were much lower, but that could have something to do with test reporting over a holiday weekend. So we'll have to continue to see how this plays out over the coming days.

But the governor here is warning about this second peak. The first one came about a month ago. And, of course, Arkansas is one of the few states in the country that did not have a stay-at-home order issued by the governor. There were other restrictions for businesses put in place and schools were closed and that sort of thing. But, Erica, as you go around town here in Little Rock, very few people wearing their masks.

The governor here says he believes that the increase in coronavirus cases is attributed to more testing going on. He says the one silver lining that they see in all of this is that there's a relatively low positive infection rate. And the hospitalization rate also remains low as well.

But there is a great deal of concern as health experts will continue to closely monitor what is happening in Arkansas, because all of this can quickly spiral out of control.

And the governor talked about a high school pool party. We don't know much information about where and when all of this happened, but the governor has talked about a high school pool party that was responsible for what they believe is a cluster of new coronavirus cases popping up in the last few weeks. So that is of great concern here. Erica?

HILL: It certainly is. Ed Lavandera live for us in Little Rock, Ed, thank you.

Crowds rather also flocking to South Carolina's coast for the Memorial Day weekend. Natasha Chen joins us from Myrtle Beach. Last hour, visitors slowly starting to arrive. Are they social distancing this morning, Natasha?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Erica, a lot slower today than what we saw yesterday. And they are social distancing with the help of those chairs that you see spaced out from each other. Now, that's not necessarily the case with crowds in town though. The city manager has been telling me about the city's executive order that was giving police a bit more authority this weekend based on some problematic behavior they saw with social distancing.

And the city regulators who have gone around town making sure restaurants stay at 50 percent capacity, did see a couple of them go over that limit and asked them to show patrons out the door.

We can tell there is a demand with the tourists who came this weekend because one bartender told us that he was offered four times his regular pay.


BRAD ROSE, BARTENDER: I was asked to go back to work at a different employer for bartending and serving. Personally, I didn't feel comfortable doing that, because in other states such as like Georgia, Florida where you have a reopening, and then you come back, you kind of see a rebound effect.


CHEN: So he felt a bit uncomfortable returning to that situation, even if he wore masks and gloves and such. Because he said, after all, you're in a space with a lot of other people.

Just to be clear, the bars in this state are still closed, but if you're a business that sells food and beverage, then you can be open at 50 percent capacity. So a lot of those restaurants are serving drinks. Erica?

HILL: Natasha Chen live for us in South Carolina this morning, Natasha, thank you.

As we are waiting for the president's arrival there for the wreat- laying ceremony, there's encouraging news this morning about a possible therapy for coronavirus patients. It's a new small study. But it shows the patients appear to fare better after receiving transfusions of antibody-filled convalescent plasma. That plasma, of course, comes from recovered coronavirus patients.

Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins me now. So, a small study, not peer reviewed, not published but some promising results. What should we cautiously take away from this?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. I would say, some possibly promising results and that we should exercise a lot of caution as we do with all of these announcements.

Let's take look at this study. It was done at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. And what they did is they looked at 39 patients, which is quite a small number, 39 patients who received convalescent plasma, 13 percent of them died. Then they looked at a set of patients who were similar in age and the extent of their illness and all of that, and 24 percent of those died who did not get the convalescent plasma. As you noted, Erica, a small study, not peer reviewed and not published.

Now, the theory behind convalescent plasma is actually quite old. It's been used for quite a while. And it that when someone has recovered from a virus, from an infection, they develop antibodies. So if you give your blood to someone who is currently suffering, theoretically, those antibodies should go to work against the infection. Erica?

HILL: Elizabeth Cohen with the latest for us on that one. Elizabeth, thank you.

And stay with us. You can see in the lower corner of your screen, and that as we bring it full. These are live pictures from the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. The president will be arriving in just a moment for a wreat-laying ceremony.


Let's take a quick break as we wait for the president's arrival.


HILL: Let's go live now to Arlington National Cemetery where the president has arrived.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- commanding general of the United States Army Military District of Washington, the Armed Forces Honor Guard and the United States Army Band are formed and awaiting the president to move to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier to place the wreath.

HILL: If you're just joining us live, these, of course, are live pictures from Arlington National Cemetery at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We are waiting on the arrival of President Trump, we know, has arrived there but not in this exact spot at this point.

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr is with me as well.

Barbara, a number of dignitaries there. We heard Secretary Esper's name mentioned, the chairman of the joint chiefs. We can make out a number of secretaries as well on the steps there spaced apart for what will be a very different ceremony on this Memorial Day this year.

STARR: It is. We are seeing some very significant social distancing there, if you will.


I don't think we're immediately seeing within our camera range any of the troops wearing masks. They seem to be relying on social distancing.

For those who have been able to visit Arlington, these steps, this tomb of unknown is such hallowed ground. Normally in these summer months in Washington, those steps are full of tourists throughout the day who come to watch that very sacred walk as troops do that walk in front of the tomb to the unknown. It is around the clock 24/7. They are always there, those troops. Members of the U.S. Army's Old Guard Ceremonial Unit, they've been there since 1937, and for many decades now on site, on Memorial Day, specifically to assist the president of the United States, whoever that may be, of course, on laying that wreath at the tomb of the unknown.

I think on this Memorial Day, what is so significant is while Arlington and so many military cemeteries may be closed to the visitors who come all year long, the families are there, and this is so important to them. We speak to families all the time, and we know that what they really want is for their loved ones to be remembered, for their service to be remembered. This is not a day that anyone who has a fallen family member is really going to want to talk about politics. This is remembering their loved ones.

And after so many years, there are families that have not been able to make the journey to Arlington or perhaps to the cemetery in their hometown because of the virus, because of distancing measures, because people may be ill.

And we talked to some troops about this late last week. And they told us at Arlington, like so many, they're just so grateful that they can be on site and represent the families here even if they're not able to be here themselves. We know now that there have been some funerals where no family member has been able to attend because of the coronavirus.

So for the troops that are here today, it is so special for them and so significant for them to be able to perform their ceremonial duties. Not clear right now the president may be behind the scenes greeting some of these troops. We don't know. It is a very traditional thing that has been done but we expect him to appear and lay the wreath at any moment. Erica?

HILL: And as you point out, Barbara, the -- what has changed so much in just the last few weeks. And you talk about those you've spoken with, the honor and the privilege that they still feel and being able to continue to give the dignity and the respect to each of these fallen heroes that they deserve, even when their families cannot be there.

And another thing, so just maybe stop and think, you think about families who for years have made this trek on Memorial Day who cannot do that today. The added pain that that must bring them and in many ways to not be able to be there in person as they remember the person they love so much.

And as we watch, I believe President Trump is arriving, again, as Barbara pointed out, this solemn, important ritual, we see the first lady there as well. Which presidents have performed coming here to the tomb of the unknowns to lay the wreath, to pay their respects, to thank those who continue to serve -- and First Lady Melania Trump now approaching.


And as we await for the arrival of the president, you can see just who the -- the first lady, First Lady Melania Trump, of course, is there. And just to her right, the second lady of the United States, Karen Pence, who arrived with the first lady.

Barbara Starr is also with us, our CNN Pentagon Correspondent. And, Barbara, we know that this is tradition for presidents, of course, to come to the wreat-laying. And for the first ladies, not surprising that they would want to, the first lady and second lady of the United States, that they would want to be there to pay their respects as well?

STARR: Well, that's right. This is a very long tradition. Not clear at the moment, of course, if people are thinking about this, why the president hasn't appeared yet. He may be visiting some of the troops who are there today behind the scenes. There are rooms back there where they would be taking him. They may be giving him a run through or preparation for the ceremony because it will be a bit different this year. So, you know, not clear if there really is a holdup here or what that holdup may be.

Visually, it is very different. We are seeing the social distancing. The camera shot you're looking at for people who have not visited Arlington, this, of course, sits on a bit of a hill and it looks down over that beautiful panorama of Washington D.C.


It looks down over the grave of President Kennedy, his brother, Robert Kennedy, the late senator, Ted Kennedy, looks down over so many of the markers of the most junior troops who served in the wars since the civil war through Iraq and Afghanistan to some of America's better known generals, admirals, Medal of Honor recipients.

This is the thing about Arlington. This is the long line of American history of those who have served in the nation's wars. Arlington, of course, dating back to the civil war, and it was as, sadly, the casualties, the fatalities mounted from Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.

A place called Section 60 developed, which where so many of those young troops have been laid to rest. And on Memorial Day, when the cemetery has been open, we at CNN, of course, have been there so many years to visit with the families to watch them pay their respects.

We see some additional people assembling. So this may be a sign that they are finally -- the president and the vice president will conduct and participate in this ceremony as more people assemble there in the background.

But for the troops who are there, it doesn't matter. They stand watch. They stand duty 24/7.

HILL: It's such an excellent point, and it's such a moving ceremony for anyone. It is hard not to just stop as you watch, as you pointed out, Barbara, 24 /7, 365 days a year since 1937, the Old Guard has stood watch with their razor sharp moves as they stand watch over the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And it does really stop you as you watch no matter when you're there, but especially on this Memorial Day. While this is traditional for presidents to be there, there are other traditions that do happen on Memorial Day. Some of them we will see today and, of course, it is the wreat-laying. What else, Barbara, typically goes along with that?

STARR: Well, at Arlington, at least, I would say, it's family business. So many families who in the past may live in the area or have been able to travel here. But it's only -- you know, what Arlington is, is a symbol hopefully of paying respects across the country of all the large and small towns across this country, coast to coast throughout the Midwest, the south, where so many families are able to pay their respects.

This is one where we have television cameras, where we are able to show the world the respect that is paid. But there are cemeteries across this country where maybe -- you know, maybe there's only a small handful of military veterans buried there in perhaps a small town somewhere in the Midwest. But it makes no difference. The respect, the honor, the duty, the tradition, is for everyone.

Let me just say very quickly, we're at the tomb of the unknown. And one of the really positive things over the years is hopefully this country will never again have the Unknown Soldier. This dates back, of course, well before there was anything like DNA, and these days troops are -- give a DNA sample, so it is always on record. So there will be no tomb of the unknown.

There will hopefully never again be the Unknown Soldier, the soldier whose identity, as they say, is known only to God. This is something that the U.S. Military thankfully has been able to move beyond in recent decades with the evolution of DNA and the ability, thankfully, to know who the remains are of any troop fallen on the battle field. So that is something very positive.

But still, here, I think we see perhaps some signs that things, Erica, appear to be getting underway shortly. So perhaps we'll pause and watch.