When you drive by a school or government office building, over the last year flags have been flown at half staff (mast) almost continuously in honor of all of the lives lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Who gives the order, and how does the order get lifted?

Wow, this is one complicated question, but here's what we've been able to figure out.

First, only the President of the United States and the Governor of each state can order the American Flag to be flown at half staff. Back in February, President Biden ordered all flags be flown at half staff for 2 days in honor of the 500,000 people who died of COVID-19. However, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo previously ordered the flags to be flown at half mast due to COVID and it seems they've been flying this way for quite some time. The President, or Governor, usually order and start and end date when they issue the order.

By the way, it's appropriate to use "half staff" or "half mast," as the two are basically interchangeable. "Half Mast" is normally used when at sea and "Half Staff" is used on land, however, both are considered appropriate no matter where you are.

Recently, when NYS Trooper Joseph Gallagher passed away in March from injuries he sustained 3 years ago when he was hit by a car while tending to a disabled motorist, Governor Cuomo issued a proclamation calling for flags to be flown half staff.

"Trooper Gallagher is a hero to all New Yorkers — he dedicated his life to public service and worked to keep us safe," Governor Cuomo said in a statement on his official website. "His tragic passing is a reminder of the selfless actions so many brave first responders take each day. We will never forget him, and to honor his memory, I am directing flags be flown at half-staff to honor his memory."

Flags continued to be flown in honor of the fallen State Trooper through his internment.

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There is also a more general, standing protocol for flags to be flown in honor of someone's passing. When Vice President Walter Mondale passed away last week, flags were automatically set to be flown at half staff. There are set durations for certain former government officials, as detailed at GettysburgFlag.com.

  • Thirty days after the death of a President or former President
  • Ten days after the death of a Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives
  • Until the burial of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, secretary of a military department, a former Vice President, or the governor of a state, territory, or possession.
  • On the day of, and the day after, the death of a Member of Congress.
  • On Memorial Day, the day set aside to honor all the people who have died while serving the United States. Originally called Decoration Day, the flag is flown at half-staff until noon, then raised to full staff until sundown.

There are also several other days set in stone for the flag to be flown at half staff and both a Governor or President can add to the process at any time, even for notable citizens who have passed away.

Additionally, if you fly a flag off the wall of your home, and the flag can't be flown at half staff, protocol directs homeowners to tie a black ribbon from the top of the flag pole during the half mast period.

For more information on the proper protocol, visit the Gettysburg Flag website and for notifications on new proclamations, the New York State Funeral Directors website does a good job of keeping up to date with current proclamations.

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