Flags are flying half-staff across the tri-state area Friday in remembrance of the thousands of lives lost to the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 — in full awareness of the tens of thousands of lives first responders helped save amid the pandemic and the many more thousands they could not. 

The governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut announced the flag measures a day ahead of the national remembrance ceremony at ground zero, where Vice President Mike Pence and his wife are in attendance. Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden is also at the New York City commemoration Friday, along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

A day earlier, the mayor reflected on the somber anniversary in light of its separate and solemn current reality.

“This is an anniversary that brings so much feeling and of course there is a lot of pain. I hope everyone remembers the heroism not only of our first responders but of our citizens as well,” de Blasio said. “It’s also another moment to say, you think back – think back to that generation of New Yorkers, you think back to those heroes, you think back to the compassion of everyday New Yorkers in that moment of crisis. People all over this country and all over this world watched, and they were in awe of New York City.”

“There was incredible feeling for New York City. There was respect. And people grieved with us, but they also admired New York City in that moment of crisis. And now we find ourselves in a new and different crisis,” the mayor added.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea was a lieutenant with the force when planes struck the twin towers. He said Friday it’s hard to believe it’s been 19 years since. 

“I just think about the people and the entire experience that day. A day that nobody could have predicted and was impossible really to describe if you weren’t there,” Shea said. “I could just continually come back to the loss of life and the sacrifice and that’s what important, to renew our vow that we will never forget their sacrifice.” 

Shea said anyone who was with the NYPD 19 years ago was involved in the 9/11 recovery effort in some capacity — and it’s something they struggle with still.

This 9/11 remembrance is unique, altered by COVID precautions and woven into the presidential campaign. Both President Donald Trump and Biden are expected to pay respects at the same memorial in Pennsylvania without crossing paths as Americans honor the solemn occasion.

Trump and Biden are both headed — at different times — to the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Trump is speaking at the morning ceremony, the White House said. Biden plans to pay respects there in the afternoon after the New York City ceremony. 

A scheduled flyover on the Hudson River near the Verazzano Bridge at 3:30 p.m. has stoked some controversy. The planned flight of an F-18 jet at 2,500 feet in the air on the anniversary of 9/11 received immediate criticism from Staten Island Rep. Max Rose who called for the event to be canceled.

Others on social media called the move “tone deaf” and that low-flying planes spark fear in the city. A spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio says the mayor wasn’t aware of the flyover and “frankly, it’s inappropriate.” It’s still unclear if the aircraft will take flight.

In short, the anniversary of 9/11 is a complicated occasion in a maelstrom of a year, as the U.S. grapples with a health crisis, searches its soul over racial injustice and prepares to choose a leader to chart a path forward.

“I know that the heart of America beats on 9/11 and, of course, thinks about that tragic day. I don’t think that people forget,” says Anthoula Katsimatides, who lost her brother John and is now on the board of the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum.

Friday will mark Trump’s second time observing the 9/11 anniversary at the Flight 93 memorial, where he made remarks in 2018. Biden spoke at the memorial’s dedication in 2011, when he was vice president.

The ground zero ceremony in New York has a longstanding custom of not allowing politicians to speak, though they can attend. Biden did so as vice president in 2010, and Trump as a candidate in 2016.

Though the candidates will be focused on the commemorations, the political significance of their focus on Shanksville is hard to ignore: Pennsylvania is a must-win state for both. Trump won it by less than a percentage point in 2016.

The New York memorial is changing one of its ceremony’s central traditions: having relatives read the names of the dead, often adding poignant tributes.

Thousands of family members are still invited. But they’ll hear a recording of the names from speakers spread around the vast plaza, a plan that memorial leaders felt would avoid close contact at a stage but still allow families to remember their loved ones at the place where they died.

But some victims’ relatives felt the change robbed the observance of its emotional impact. A different 9/11-related group, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, set up its own, simultaneous ceremony a few blocks away, saying there’s no reason that people can’t recite names while keeping a safe distance.

The two organizations also tussled over the Tribute in Light, a pair of powerful beams that shine into the night sky near the trade center and evoke its fallen twin towers. The 9/11 memorial initially canceled the display, citing virus-safety concerns for the installation crew. After the Tunnel to Towers Foundation vowed to put up the lights instead, the memorial changed course with help from its chairman, former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Cuomo.

Tunnel to Towers, meanwhile, arranged to display single beams for the first time at the Shanksville memorial and the Pentagon.

Over the years, the anniversary also has become a day for volunteering. Because of the pandemic, the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance organization is encouraging people this year to make donations or take other actions that can be accomplished at home.