The mourners entering the plaza wore face masks, and the teary, intimate hugs of years past were replaced by awkwardly choreographed fist bumps. When the bells tolled at 8:46 a.m., marking the moment the first jet smashed into the north tower 19 years ago, those gathered stood at somber attention, trying to draw comfort from neighbors required to stand six feet apart.
The solemn ceremonies held at and near the Sept. 11 memorial in Lower Manhattan on Friday provided a poignant resonance in the face of a pandemic that has crippled the country for months and brought particularly devastating loss to New York City.
Outside the memorial plaza, a widow holding a picture of her husband admitted that the anxiety she normally felt on this anniversary was compounded by her fears over the coronavirus. A woman who lost her cousin when the Twin Towers fell equated the dedication of rescue workers in 2001 with the toil of health care professionals this year.
A retired firefighter said the lingering effects of the virus made him think of the continued ailments suffered by emergency workers who inhaled toxic dust, smoke and fumes at the site of the attack.
Even the notable politicians who attended, including Vice President Mike Pence and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic candidate for president, made concessions to the current threat. They, too, wore masks, gave no speeches and distanced themselves as they stood among the crowd.
It has been 19 years since passenger jets hijacked by terrorists slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost, some 2,700 of them in New York, in the deadliest attack in the country’s history, a blow to America’s psyche.
Now, the United States confronts a far deadlier calamity. During the pandemic, the United States has exceeded the death toll of Sept. 11, 2001, by orders of magnitude. In New York City alone, more than 23,000 people have died of the virus.
In both tragedies, the eyes of the nation turned to New York, looking to see how a city brought to its knees would stagger back to recovery.
“It’s two of the most traumatic things that have ever happened to New York City, and it’s probably changed it forever,” said Diane Massaroli, whose husband, Michael, was killed in the World Trade Center.
“We just have to find a different way to live now,” she said, her hands clutching a bouquet of roses and an old wedding photograph. “Like I had to find a different way to live then.”
Though the city has rebounded significantly from a spring when it was the epicenter of the pandemic and hundreds were dying daily, the crisis has not ended. The threat of Covid-19 still lurks.
Having already transformed so many aspects of daily life, the pandemic also injected a note of tension into one of the city’s most sacred commemorations.
Amid concern over gathering, there was no platform where readers took turns at a microphone, honoring the victims by reciting their names. This year, the list was read and recorded in advance, then broadcast online and at the plaza.
Frustrated by the change, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which honors a firefighter who died while responding to the attack, decided to hold a simultaneous memorial just blocks away.
When the 9/11 memorial said that it would do away with its annual Tribute in Light, in which two blue beams of light are projected over the city until the dawn of Sept. 12, its decision was quickly reversed after it provoked outrage from some victims’ families, elected leaders and police and firefighter unions.
Also planned for the day had been an F-18 jet flyover, an announcement that drew fierce backlash from city residents shaken from its echoes of the day when planes were used as deadly weapons. The Department of Defense later canceled the event after a request from City Hall, a City Hall spokesman said.
Still, politicians and civic leaders gathered at the 9/11 memorial in a display of unity at a time more often marked by bitter partisan division. That included Mr. Pence, Mr. Biden and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, who exchanged genial greetings despite their disagreements.
Mr. Biden stopped to comfort a woman in a wheelchair holding a picture of her son, who had died at age 43. The former vice president, who lost his own son to cancer in 2015, took the image and looked it over.
“It never goes away,” he said of grief. The woman, 90, echoed his words.
As is customary for presidential candidates on Sept. 11, Mr. Biden said he would be following tradition and suspending campaigning for the day, including pausing ads in the midst of a bitter contested election.
After the memorial in New York, he traveled to Shanksville, Pa., where President Trump and his wife, Melania, also attended a memorial service.
“Our sacred task, our righteous duty and our solemn pledge is to carry forward the noble legacy of the brave souls who gave their lives for us 19 years…