VANCOUVER -- A few dozen masked attendees stood physically distanced at the Victory Square cenotaph in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday to observe a Remembrance Day like no other before.

The 2020 ceremony marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, during which more than a million Canadians volunteered for service – and more than 45,000 made the ultimate sacrifice.

"We remember, and we are free," ceremony director Cameron Cathcart told the crowd watching in person, on television and online. "Simple words, heavy with significance. Because on this day, we remember those who served and the many who gave their lives in the service of our country, in wars during the past century which ensured our freedom and helped to build our country."

Missing were the thousands of people who flood the park every year to pay their respects. Victory Square was closed off to all but 50 attendees to ensure COVID-19 safety precautions could be observed.

Cathcart lamented the fact that there would be no veterans' parade, military units, cadets or bands at the ceremony. The Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services band played O Canada from a separate location.

"Even the ceremonial vigil guard will be absent," Cathcart said. "All of which is unfortunate, but we must adhere to protocols and all remain safe."

Cathcart also took a moment to thank health-care workers, comparing the current global pandemic to the wars and their consequences remembered every Nov. 11.

"We Canadians are now engaged in another war, a new world war caused by an insidious virus that has taken the lives of thousands – and like all wars, it can often end in tragedy that results in sadness and grief," he said. "Therefore it is important that we salute our front-line medical workers in the current war against coronavirus. Their dedication and courage to help others survive reflects the accomplishments of the past and the new generation of our veterans."

Hundreds of smaller ceremonies were held across B.C. on Wednesday, but attendance was by invitation only. The Royal Canadian Legion said it was the first time the public at large has been asked not to attend Remembrance Day in person.

Given the threat of COVID-19, which is known to pose a greater risk of severe complications in seniors, health officials also recommended cancelling any indoor events planned after the ceremony.

Legion branches across the province are expected to be closed throughout the day.

B.C. Premier John Horgan said keeping communities safe and observing the sombre holiday from home is the "best way we can honour veterans" during this unique time.

"For generations, Canadians have bravely risked their lives to protect ours. They have sacrificed so much to build a better world. Let’s pay tribute to them today and every day by doing everything we can to keep ourselves and others safe – and build our province back stronger than ever," Horgan said in a statement Wednesday morning.