In a year of restrictions, virus changes Sept. 11, too

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FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2017, file photo, the Tribute in Light illuminates in the sky above the Lower Manhattan area of New York, as seen from across the Hudson River in Jersey City, N.J. The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped how the U.S. is observing the anniversary of 9/11. The terror attacks' 19th anniversary will be marked Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, by dueling ceremonies at the Sept. 11 memorial plaza and a corner nearby in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)

NEW YORK – In a year when the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped countless American rituals, even the commemoration of 9/11 could not escape unchanged.

The 19th anniversary of the terror attacks will be marked by dueling ceremonies at the Sept. 11 memorial plaza and a corner near the World Trade Center, reflecting a divide over the memorial's decision to suspend a cherished tradition of relatives reading victims' names in person. Vice President Mike Pence is expected at both those remembrances in New York, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at the observance on the memorial plaza.

President Donald Trump and Biden both plan to go to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania — at different times. Trump is speaking at a morning ceremony, with Biden paying respects in the afternoon.

In New York, the double beams of light that evoke the fallen twin towers were nearly canceled in the name of virus safety, until an uproar restored the tribute. The Fire Department has cited the virus in urging members to skip observances of the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, among them almost 350 firefighters.

Some victims' relatives say they understand the ground zero observance had to change in a year when so much else has. Others fear the pandemic is making plain what they have feared was happening unspoken: that the commitment to “Never Forget” is fading.

“It’s another smack in the face," says Jim Riches, who lost his son Jimmy, a firefighter.

The father is staying home on the anniversary for the first time this year because he doesn’t want to take chances with the coronavirus after a prior illness. But he feels others should have the option of reciting the names of the dead on the memorial plaza, instead of listening to a recording.

Memorial leaders said they wanted to avoid close contact among readers, who are usually paired at the podium. But to Riches, a retired fire battalion chief and frequent critic of the memorial organization, the decision sounds like an excuse for sidelining the families’ role in commemorating 9/11.