WEST POINT, N.Y. — Less pomp, more circumstance.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the United States Military Academy at West Point on Saturday will graduate more than 1,000 cadets in an in-person ceremony, albeit one adapted with social-distancing measures aimed at preventing transmission of the disease.
The altered ceremony for the Army’s newest second lieutenants will also mark President Donald Trump’s first graduation address at West Point.
At least 15 West Point cadets from the class of 2020, which was brought back to campus for graduation, have reportedly tested positive for Covid-19. The U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, held virtual graduation ceremonies in May. Both events featured pre-recorded commencement speeches.
But Trump, who has pushed political leaders to lift their social distancing rules to revive the damaged U.S. economy, will appear at West Point, about 50 miles north of New York City, to deliver his address.
The ceremony defies New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s directive Sunday that outdoor graduations must not exceed 150 people, and that even those will only be permitted starting June 26. West Point, as a U.S. military facility, is not bound to those rules, the New York Daily News reported.
“Saturday’s graduation is about these incredible cadets and their amazing accomplishments, and as the Commander-in-Chief, President Trump wants to celebrate that and thank them for their service to our country,” wrote White House spokesman Judd Deere in an emailed statement.
The U.S. Air Force Academy held a socially distanced ceremony for graduating airmen and Space Force members, nearly six weeks earlier than originally scheduled.
More than 381,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in New York, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Cadets left the academy on March 6 when the pandemic hit and instruction shifted to remote learning. Only the graduating seniors have returned to barracks in recent days to prepare for Saturday’s event, which is closed to all guests.
The cadets, affectionately referred to as members of “The Long Gray Line,” will graduate on the Plain at West Point instead of Michie Stadium, the usual venue. Their families and other guests will not be allowed to attend.
Some of the traditional pageantry will also be scaled back for health protection reasons.
There will be no handshakes on Saturday and graduates won’t cross the stage to receive diplomas. Instead, diplomas will be handed out to the graduates before their name is announced and they will salute the official party from field level, rather than face to face.
Instead of long rows of gray-uniformed cadets sitting shoulder to shoulder, the Class of 2020 will be socially distant, with their chairs six feet apart on the Parade Field.
The ceremony, scheduled for 10 a.m. ET, will be livestreamed by West Point starting at 9:30 a.m.
Trump’s visit to West Point also comes amid growing calls to remove Confederate names and statues from public spaces – including calls from some West Point graduates to their own academy.
Three West Point grads from Richmond, Virginia, this week wrote an op-ed in support of the “peaceful removal” of five statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue honoring figures who fought for the slave-holding states in the Civil War.
The long debate over whether to remove or preserve symbols of the Confederacy was reignited by the nationwide protests against structural racism and police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed after a White officer in Minneapolis held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
Trump said Wednesday that U.S. Army bases named after Confederate generals will not change their names.
“Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!” Trump wrote in a tweet condemning the suggestion.