The symbolic gesture of lowering the American flag to half-staff has been historically reserved to recognize military line-of-duty deaths, first responder line-of-duty deaths or in special circumstances, to recognize the death of a notable public servant — as it was recently for Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
On April 8, Gov. Cuomo ordered all flags at state government buildings lowered in recognition of New Yorkers lost to COVID-19. The idea was to continue this while the state was “on pause”; the flags have now been at half-staff for seven months.
Our flag represents all the great things this country stands for. Subliminally, the message to New Yorkers is, “You have been beaten.”
With more than 32,000 deaths, New York state has been in a perpetual state of mourning since March. There have been service members, as well as law enforcement and firefighters, killed during this never-ending period of mourning. Recognition of their sacrifices has become a footnote to seeing the flag lowered.
In laying down COVID restrictions, Gov. Cuomo has completely controlled the state’s economy, industry, schools and houses of worship since March. By keeping the flags at half-staff, he is keeping New York in a perpetual state of misery — with our national flag as the ultimate symbol.
Now, it is time to raise spirits and raise the flag.
These are unquestionably unprecedented times. But the guidelines and protocols for the flying of the United States flag are quite straightforward.
Per US Code, the president can order the American flag — at all government buildings, offices, public schools and military bases — to be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the federal government and others.
(While the term “half-mast” is commonly used in place of half-staff, US law and post-WWI military tradition indicate that “half-mast” is reserved to usage aboard a ship.)
Compliance is voluntary, and any enforcement would be a violation of the First Amendment.
The guidelines are as such:
For 30 days after the death of a current or former president or president-elect.
For 10 days after the death of a current vice president, current or retired chief justice, or current Speaker of the House of Representatives.
From the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Justice and others including a secretary of an executive or military department, a former vice president, a former Speaker of the House or a governor.
On the day of death and the day after for a Member of Congress.
Certain days — including Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day and Sept. 11 — are annually marked by lowering the flag to half-staff. On Memorial Day, it’s only until noon.
But those are all by the president’s executive order. Governors are a different story.
According to the code, they are authorized by federal law to order all US and state flags in their jurisdiction flown at half-staff as a mark of respect for a former or current state official who has died, or for a member of the armed forces who has died in active duty.
The governor’s authority to issue the order is more restricted than the president’s and does not include discretion to issue the order for state residents who do not meet the criteria.
It is time to raise the flag high. Not doing so before Election Day gives the appearance of our flag being used as a partisan political prop.
Given that flags have been lowered for more than six months, what result, event or condition will be the factor to raise them fully?
Now more than ever, we need uplifting messages of hope and the strength of our great country. What better symbol than our flag at full staff?
Stephen Nevins of Hurley, NY, served 35 years with the New York State Police and retired with the rank of Major. His brother Gerry was a member of FDNY Rescue Company 1, who made the ultimate sacrifice at the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
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