Memorial Day brings relief as COVID-19 pandemic recedes


Karen Warech and her husband Evan savored the holiday atmosphere Monday at the Santa Monica Pier — a hopeful sign that life as they knew it before the COVID-19 pandemic was finally coming back.

On any other Memorial Day, the scene would have been ordinary: Crowds flocking to the beach with umbrellas and towels as morning clouds gave way to blazing sunshine, children playing at the amusement park arcade, families posing for photos by the Ferris wheel and roller coaster as waves crashed on the shore.

But after more than 14 months of life torn asunder by the pandemic, the holiday weekend brought no small measure of relief as Californians cautiously resumed doing the things they normally do, starting with barbecues and trips to the beach.

The Warechs of Santa Monica dressed for the occasion, wearing American-flag shirts for their excursion to the pier and, later, a visit to a veterans cemetery. They relished the contrast with Memorial Day 2020.

“Everything was shut down,” said Karen Warech, 56. “The restaurants were closed. We couldn’t lay out at the beach if we wanted to. Now it feels like we have our freedom back.”

A sign in front of the pier — “Do not gather. Keep your distance. Safer at home.” — failed to capture the mood of this year’s holiday.

“It’s more relaxed,” she said. “Everyone is out.”

California now logs one of the lowest COVID-19 case rates of any state in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Statewide, 1,057 people with confirmed cases were hospitalized Monday, a 23% drop from two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.

The ebbing of COVID-19 infections is due partly to California’s relatively high vaccination rates. Nearly two-thirds of Californians who are eligible to be vaccinated — those who are at least 12 years old — have received at least one dose, according to the CDC.

Californians flocked to the beach in Santa Monica to celebrate Memorial Day.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

State officials expect California to fully reopen on June 15. People who are fully vaccinated will be able to stop wearing masks in most situations. Capacity restrictions and physical distancing rules will be lifted at almost all businesses.

For all the signs of a return to normality, caution was still in order Monday at the Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood, where the annual Memorial Day ceremony was canceled for the second year in a row.

“We just want to play it safe,” said cemetery director Temoc Meza, who noted that a recorded program was posted online.

The cemetery is the final resting place of more than 88,000 veterans and family members.

The placement of flags at each gravesite was spread over three days this year to cut infection risk. But the crowds, which began arriving just after sunrise, were still substantial across the 127-acre grounds.

By midmorning, Meza had counted “a few hundred people.” Some were visiting loved ones. Others were there to pay their respects to strangers.

“We’ve had people who don’t even have relatives at the cemetery who want to come out and place flags,” Meza said.

Air Force veteran Lee Revier, 53, looked out at all the tiny American flags that waved in the breeze on Monday afternoon — a welcome change from Memorial Day 2020, when there were not so many. A group of people stationed at the cemetery’s entrance had boxes of flags to pass out to visitors. He took a handful.

“I think it’s humbling,” he said. “Look at all these flags. It’s nice to know folks still pay respect. People go about their daily lives, and they don’t think about this.”

Revier‘s family members are buried at the cemetery. So is his commanding officer from his ROTC days.

Marcia Herrera, 49, clutched a small bag of pennies and crouched over a grave site. She placed one of the coins on a corner of the marker.

“It’s to acknowledge people that died for us,” said Herrera, who lives in Palms. “Freedom isn’t free.”

When she was a child, Herrera recalled, she would attend Memorial Day parades in Santa Monica and the Pacific Palisades. Now, she said, “it’s bygone.”

Her daughter, Harlie Stansell, 23, said she was glad to see families visiting the cemetery this year with fewer pandemic restrictions in place.

“It’s definitely more open now,” she said. “It’s more hopeful.”

At the Santa Monica Pier, crowds waited in line for churros at lunchtime. Some children ran past fruit vendors and into the water below the pier. Others built sand castles.

Maraiah Mitchell, 30, snapped photos of her godsister, Andrea Owens, who was striking poses on the scenic oceanfront. The pair of Texans decided to vacation in L.A. after an emotionally draining year mostly stuck at home.

“It’s great to be out,” Owens, 39, said as “Take on Me” by a-ha played on loudspeakers.

At Pier Tamales, Lupe Aguinaga, 42, reached for bottles of Coke and water in her red and yellow cart as she filled customers’ orders of esquites and tamales.

Wearing a black mask over her nose and mouth, Aguinaga said that even though the pandemic is not yet over, she feels comfortable working the cart nearly every day.

“I couldn’t work this time last year,” Aguinaga said. “I was home all day. It’s nice to be back.”

Times staff writers Anita Chabria and Luke Money contributed to this report.





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