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October 13, 2020 9:30 AM, EDT

Wreaths Across America Plans for December Event Despite COVID-19

Wreaths Across AmericaWreaths adorn headstones at the 28th annual Wreaths Across America event at Arlington National Cemetery in December 2019. (American Trucking Associations)

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Planners for National Wreaths Across America Day say the event that honors fallen servicemen and women will take place, albeit with modifications to keep the thousands of volunteers and staff safe.

Wreaths Across America Transportation Director Don Queeney told Transport Topics the organization faces potential logistical challenges before the Dec. 19 commemoration because of the pandemic. Still, his team has been making plans since spring for the wreath-laying event at military and civilian cemeteries nationwide.

“The biggest challenge will be if we have to deliver early, and we have to find a warehouse, and a friendly warehouse that will be willing to take in the wreaths,” Queeney said. “And then we get local people to deliver them later at the cemetery over a matter of days.”

Since 1992, millions of Americans have visited cemeteries and placed wreaths on the graves of military members, some of whose service dates to the American Revolutionary War. Harrington, Maine-based Worcester Wreath Co. has provided the wreaths since the program’s inception.

In 2019, more than 320 trucking companies and an estimated 500 drivers donated their vehicles and time to transport wreaths from Maine to Arlington National Cemetery and more than 2,100 other locations in all 50 states, at sea, and abroad. Some 2.2 million wreaths were laid at graves last year.

Because of COVID-19, it’s uncertain how many wreaths will be distributed this December.

“I just don’t know,” Queeney said. “COVID is causing a lot of concern, but those sponsors have said they’ll be with us in 2021.”

However, the number of trucking companies offering their services this year is virtually unchanged.

“We’ve had two carriers out of 384 drop out, and I don’t think it had anything to do with COVID,” Queeney said. “These were retirements, and in many cases, I’ll ask a carrier that’s been a friend for a long time if they would like to add a truck and they don’t tell me no. They want to make sure we’re a success.”

Queeney and his team have been working on COVID-19 protocols all spring and summer to protect the drivers.

“The revisions are coming. Everything you can imagine, where people gather together,” he said. “Whether it’s making the wreaths where we have to be careful, getting the drivers up to Maine, we’re going to spread them out. We have a driver’s lounge up there, and we will increase the size of the footprint of the lounge to spread them out. We’ll be following the Maine Health Department and Centers for Disease Control guidelines.”

Once the trucks are loaded, they begin the journey to the cemeteries. Often along the way, ceremonies are held as the trucks drive through a town or stop to make a delivery.

“At the ceremonies themselves, we will be spreading people out and giving the drivers and volunteers the time they need to get the job done,” he said.

Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington is the centerpiece of the Wreaths Across America operation. On a cold, rainy day last December, an estimated 70,000 people stood in lines for hours to get through security checkpoints before being allowed onto the hallowed grounds.

In a matter of hours, the more than 400,000 graves of America’s military heroes and political leaders, including presidents John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft, were decorated with the bright green and red wreaths.

This December, because of social distancing requirements, volunteers will be required to register in advance so officials can regulate how many people are on the 624-acre cemetery grounds.

“The volunteers to lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery will need to formally register,” Queeney said as registration details are being finalized.

Even though this year’s event will bring enormous challenges because of COVID-19, Queeney believes the group of paid staff and the hundreds of thousands of volunteers will be up for honoring those who served their country.

“I’ve been in transportation for 40 years, and this doesn’t compare to anything I have seen before,” Queeney said. “But the good people of America are still sponsoring wreaths, and we’ll get through this. We have had nothing but great response. It’s going to be a lot of work, but we’re going to be OK. I’m just glad we can honor the veterans.”

For more information, visit wreathsacrossamerica.org.

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