In a symbolic show of normalcy, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a commencement address to the U.S. Air Force Academy's 2020 graduating class on Saturday — a trip aimed at showing the country is on course to gradually reopening after weeks of the coronavirus shutdown.
Making only his second trip outside Washington in the last six weeks, Pence spoke at a scaled-down ceremony in Colorado Springs, where cadets marched 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart and sat 8 feet (2.4 meters) apart.
“I know we gather at a time of great challenge in the life of our nation,” Pence said as he began his remarks. “And while we don’t quite look like the usual graduation at the Air Force Academy, let me tell you, this is an awesome sight. And I wouldn’t be anywhere else but with the 62nd class of the Air Force Academy, the class of 2020.”
The event usually attracts a big crowd to Falcon Stadium, which has a maximum capacity of more than 46,000. But this year, the pandemic forced the academy to close the graduation ceremony to visitors, including friends and family of the nearly 1,000 graduates. Still, the ceremony was to feature its signature dramatic demonstration by the Air Force Thunderbirds as well as a lineup of speeches.
As the ceremony began, graduates lined up outside and silently saluted the vice president’s motorcade as he arrived on an empty campus shortly after 11 a.m. local time. They later filed into a stadium that was absolutely silent but for the drum roll and the rustling of starched pants marching in place.
“You knew your graduation day would be memorable. But did you imagine that your commencement would take place in mid-April? Or that each of us would have a face mask at the ready? Or that you would march a COVID-compliant eight feet apart to the terrazzo?” asked Barbara Barrett, secretary of the Air Force.
Pence spoke about the government's response, noting that, “we gather at a time of national crisis as the coronavirus epidemic impacts our nation and the wider world."
“Just like you, the American people have risen to the challenge. They, like you, have met the moment with courage, resilience and strength," he said.
Despite the starkly different visual's, Pence's day trip was meant as a signal to the nation that the pandemic response has entered a new phase.
It’s hardly “Mission Accomplished.” Hundreds of Americans continue to die every day from the virus. But White House aides believe that with the release on Thursday of federal guidelines outlining how states should reopen and an effort Friday to address testing shortages, what had been an urgent crisis is now transitioning to a period of sustained containment.
Pence was initially meant to speak to the academy’s graduates via recorded video, as military officials, who moved up the commencement because of the pandemic, doubted Pence would want to travel. But White House aides said Pence on Monday made the call himself to make the trip as the White House was finalizing its guidelines for reopening American again.
He planned to continue his travels with a trip to Wisconsin on Tuesday.
On Friday, the federal government’s top scientists leading the coronavirus response sought to dissuade Americans from the notion that everyone in the country will need to be tested before society can begin reopening.
But a far greater challenge awaits, officials said, as they prepare to try to convince a panicked populace, scarred by images of body bags and jammed medical facilities, to accept a new normal where the virus will be a part of, not a disruption to daily life.
Saturday's scaled-down Air Force Academy ceremony capped a trying semester of virtual classes and solitary meals in dorm rooms for the 967 graduates.
Academy underclassmen were sent home earlier this semester because of the pandemic. The graduating class stayed, but remained isolated from one another to prevent the spread of the virus.
Two cadets died in March from what were thought to be suicides, The Gazette reported.
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