Thousands of Elderly Legionnaires Will Gather in Downtown Phoenix Next Week, Delta Be Damned

20August 2021

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Image by Tom Kopetzky from Pixabay

The American Legion is known for many things: decorated military veterans, interesting hats, its thousands of community halls, or posts, that dot the landscapes of cities and small towns across the country.

One thing the largest veterans organization in the U.S. is not known for is its youthful vigor. The average Legionnaire is 67 years old.

A multi-day indoor gathering attended by thousands of people who fall in that age range might sound like a risky proposition, given the fact that the Delta variant is overwhelming hospitals in some parts of the country and three-quarters of those who have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. are 65 years or older. But the American Legion is marching ahead with plans for its 2021 convention, which is expected to draw 7,500 Legionnaires to the Phoenix Convention Center from August 27 to September 2.

Attendees will not be required to wear a mask, nor will they need to show proof of vaccination.

“The American Legion believes we can still have a safe national convention,” John Raughter, the group’s deputy director of media relations, tells Phoenix New Times. “Per CDC guidelines, we are recommending face coverings for all individuals and social distancing.” Raughter adds that masks will be included in the registration bags and that the American Legion is asking people who are not feeling well or are showing symptoms of the virus to stay home.

U.S. Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat, is scheduled to address the crowd on September 2. Kelly’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but Raughter confirmed that Kelly is still scheduled to appear.

COVID-related hospitalizations among seniors in some hot-spot states, such as Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, are nearing their previous January peaks, according to a recent Bloomberg report. Due to uncertainty about the risks posed by the Delta variant, many large-scale events planned for the coming months have been postponed.

The Fancy Food Show and the New York International Auto Show, both of which were poised to attract thousands to New York City in September, have been canceled. The popular New Orleans Jazz Fest, scheduled for October, is no longer happening due to Delta, its organizers announced last week. Four conventions headed to the Orange County Convention Center, in Orlando, Florida, have pulled out due to fears about the Delta variant.

Judy Welage, a publicist for next week’s convention, tells New Times that the Veterans Administration will be on-site providing vaccinations for those who may not have had the opportunity to receive one yet. “A lot of members come from rural communities,” she says. (Of course, vaccines take several weeks before providing protection from the virus.)

A press release promoting the event, sent Monday, predicts that “blue-capped Legionnaires” in town for the convention will inject $10 to $15 million into Phoenix’s economy through shopping, dining, and tourism during their stay.

“We are delighted to come back to Phoenix,” said Michael E. Walton, chairman of The American Legion National Convention Commission. “Many Legionnaires have fond memories of our previous conventions held there in 1991 and 2008. Arizona is home to seven active military bases and an estimated 500,000 veterans. The state is unquestionably patriotic.”

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