Memorial Day 2021: U.S., emerging from pandemic, honors the fallen

A nation slowly emerging from social distancing measures imposed by the coronavirus pandemic honored generations of U.S. veterans killed in the line of duty on a Memorial Day observed without the severe pandemic restrictions that affected the day of tribute just a year ago.

Memorial Day parades and events were held in localities large and small across the country Monday, many resuming after being canceled last year as the pandemic hit with full force. 

At Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, President Joe Biden delivered a solemn speech honoring the 1 million Americans killed in service of the nation — and challenged that nation to carry on that fight by defending its democracy.

"This nation was built on an idea," Biden said. "We were built on an idea, the idea of liberty and opportunity for all. We've never fully realized that aspiration of our founders, but every generation has opened the door a little wider."

"The struggle for democracy is taking place around the world — democracy and autocracy. The struggle for decency, dignity, just simple decency," Biden declared.

Bethpage Air Show takes flight on Memorial Day

This year's remembrances were as painful, if less restrictive, as those held on Memorial Day 2020, when Americans settled for small processions and online tributes instead of parades. The pandemic last year forced communities to honor the nation's military dead with modest, more subdued ceremonies that also remembered those lost to the coronavirus.

With restrictions lifting, Americans paid tribute in public gatherings this year — and like last year, they also remembered the thousands of veterans who died from COVID-19. Still, there were some vestiges: An early morning wreath-laying ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona was shared virtually.

Flowers, flags and a framed photo decorate a soldier's headstone at Arlington National Cemetery

The headstone of Army Staff Sgt. Christopher William Swanson at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in Arlington, Va., Monday, May 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Veterans return to Memorial Day traditions as pandemic eases

Monday's commemorations were held as new data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that new cases of COVID-19 are plunging and that more than 40% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. With the declines, most states have been reducing or dropping most social distancing restrictions.

As of Saturday, the rolling seven-day average of new cases in the U.S. had dropped to 18,913, according to the CDC — the first time that average had dipped below 20,000 a day since March 2020.