Crowds lined Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda Saturday morning in hopes of seeing a military flyover honoring first responders and health care workers, including those at Suburban Hospital. Credit: Photo by Mihoko Owada

Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks around Suburban Hospital in Bethesda Saturday morning to watch a flyover of military aircraft, despite social distancing restrictions and Gov. Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home order.

The festive crowd ultimately left disappointed: The flyover never took place.

Suburban on Friday announced on Facebook that the military aircraft would fly over Suburban and other Baltimore and Washington-area hospitals on Saturday to honor medical personnel treating patients with the coronavirus. In the post, Suburban urged people to “remember to maintain proper physical and social distancing from wherever you view the flyover.”

The Thunderbirds of the U.S. Air Force and the Blue Angels of the U.S. Navy are planning flyover tributes to first responders and health care workers across the country.

A Department of Defense press release issued Friday says the flyovers are to start next week.

“The two demonstration teams will fly over areas of the country hardest hit by COVID-19, starting next week,” the press release says, “as both joint and individual team flights occurring every one-to-two days until mid-May.”


However, the Thunderbirds posted on Twitter about tribute flyovers they had done April 11 in Las Vegas and April 18 in Colorado.

“We’re excited to fly over cities across America as our way of saying thanks to the healthcare workers, first responders, and all the people who selflessly run into the breach working to keep America strong,” Gen. Dave Goldfein, chief of staff of the Air Force, and Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, said in the press release. “This is also our way of showing that we are all in this together and that America’s spirit will prevail.”

“The Air Force and Navy have partnered with local governments and media outlets to help ensure spectators follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines,” the press release says.


Hundreds of people turned out in Bethesda on Saturday to witness the event, lining the sidewalks on the streets around the hospital and congregating in the parking lot. Dozens more could be seen on the roof of the Suburban garage and on the roof of the emergency room entrance.

Many people seemed to be following social distance rules, but others were not. Bethesda Beat saw several groups of people clustered together. Walking to and from the hospitals, scores of people passed close by others on narrow sidewalks. About half of the attendees wore masks.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen friends since all this went down,” said John Bergin of Bethesda, who was there with his wife, Jeannie, and daughter, Ali. Jeannie added that most people she had seen were staying with their families and apart from other people.


Eva Kanupke of Chevy Chase was standing in the hospital parking lot with her son, Adrian. “I thought it was ironic that we are standing in a crowd in front of a hospital,” she said. “Still, we want to live life, too.”

There was no apparent police presence at the event. A Montgomery County police spokesperson said police had had no calls Saturday relating to Suburban Hospital.

Officials at Suburban could not be reached for comment about the announced flyover and about the size of the crowds.


The hospital’s Facebook page said the flyover has been tentatively rescheduled for Thursday, with details to come. But that notice had been removed as of Monday.

A web page listing upcoming Thunderbirds events does not list one in the D.C. area. However, Lilia Calvillo from Air Combat Command said the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds usually publicly announce the cities where they are flying one or two days beforehand.

Alsy Acevedo, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins Medicine, told Bethesda Beat Monday morning that her understanding is that Suburban made the decision to distribute information on the military aircraft flyover. She referred all questions to the hospital.
Amy Shaw, a Suburban Hospital spokeswoman, could not immediately be reached for comment Monday morning.
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan’s office, wrote in a Twitter message to Bethesda Beat on Monday that the flyover celebration would be allowed under the stay-at-home order.
“We will communicate with local jurisdictions about this,” he wrote.

In response to a Bethesda Beat reporter’s question about the crowds and whether police would have a presence near the hospital at the flyover, Capt. Sean Gagen, commander of the police headquarters in Bethesda, wrote in a text message, “I urge people to use common sense and to find places around the Bethesda area to watch the flyover so they are practicing proper social distancing.


“People should obey the Governor’s Order on large gatherings when trying to find a place to view the salute to our healthcare workers. The officers from the 2nd District will continue to seek compliance from the public in regards to the Governor’s Orders.”

In another text, Gagen added: “We will be in the area but the point of the flyover is for people to see it.”

After initially limiting crowd sizes to 50 when COVID-19 started to spread, Hogan tightened the limit to 10 in a March 30 executive order.


The order says: “Social, community, spiritual, religious, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings and events … of more than 10 people are hereby prohibited at all locations and venues, including but not limited to parades, festivals, conventions, and fundraisers.”

The executive order also called for people to stay at home for anything not considered essential, such as buying groceries, getting medical treatment or medicine, and getting exercise.

Managing Editor Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.



For other Bethesda Beat coverage of the coronavirus, click here.

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