NEW YORK - Americans mark their nation's 245th birthday on Sunday (July 4) with fireworks that may look brighter, hotdogs that may taste juicier and marching bands that may sound jauntier after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of nearly all celebrations last year.
As always, fireworks displays are the highlight of the July Fourth holiday.
Two of the biggest pyrotechnic shows in the country will blast off over the National Mall in Washington, and over a 1.6km stretch of New York City's East River, separating Manhattan from the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.
Some classic July Fourth events such as Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Brooklyn's Coney Island remain scaled back to allow for social distancing in recognition of the continued threat of the Covid-19 coronavirus, which has killed more than 600,000 Americans.
The more aggressive Delta variant has raised alarms about the potential for another surge among the unvaccinated.
Even so, this holiday is a time for Americans to show their patriotism and to celebrate a fresh sense of freedom in a personal sense by mingling with friends once again and enjoying summer's simple pleasures.
But this year's July Fourth is not entirely carefree. The United States Department of Homeland Security warned state and local police last week of a heightened threat of violence by domestic extremist groups amid relaxed Covid-19 restrictions and the approaching holiday.
This weekend is expected to be the busiest July Fourth road travel holiday on record - with an estimated 43.6 million Americans behind the wheel, or five per cent more than a previous record set in 2019, the American Automobile Association said.
Aleksandra Magidoff, a 12-year-old from Brooklyn, is headed to a New Jersey suburb to reconnect with a lifelong friend and her family.
They were among the more than 3½ million people who have moved out of New York, once the US epicentre of Covid-19, since the pandemic started in the spring of last year.
"I'm so excited - I can talk to them and celebrate with them and just socialise!" said Aleksandra, who was fully vaccinated under the enormous blue whale model at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The girls plan to gorge on "a bunch of hamburgers and hotdogs" before taking in the fireworks show at a New Jersey fairground, she said.
Last July Fourth she watched fireworks from her apartment building's rooftop while under pandemic lockdown, allowed to celebrate with only her immediate family.
In Washington, President Joe Biden plans a 1,000-person July Fourth celebration on the White House lawn with essential workers and military families.
In a sharp shift from recent months, the doors of the White House will be open to hundreds of invited guests, marking the largest event there of Mr Biden's presidency.
The attendees are looking forward to burgers and fireworks, a sweet dose of nostalgia for a country weary of coronavirus pandemic restrictions and hardship
"On Sunday, we'll celebrate our independence as a nation, as well as our progress against the virus," Mr Biden told a group of teachers on Friday. "In the days ahead, we have a chance to make another beginning."
At the White House on Saturday, smoke from ground-beef patties rose off of charcoal grills as workers prepared dishes for Sunday's event.
Mr Biden will make remarks and there will be a 17-minute fireworks display set off from both sides of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
The President's house has largely been walled off from public view in recent months, with Covid-19 protocols reducing access for tours and additional fencing installed after the Jan 6 attack on the US Capitol.
The event also is scaled back compared with prior years.
The President hosts the event three days after his visit to Surfside, Florida, to console families whose loved ones were in a condo tower that collapsed on June 24.
Several Florida communities have cancelled their July Fourth fireworks out of respect for those impacted by the tragedy, city officials said.
Traditional parade, fireworks
Elsewhere in Washington on Sunday, marching bands will return for a traditional parade on Capitol Hill's Barracks Row.
As darkness falls, the National Mall is expected to draw big crowds to the fireworks display set off from both sides of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
On New York's East River, 50 pyrotechnicians have spent days loading more than 65,000 shells on five barges to wow audiences watching the spectacular show either in person or on television.
The display is presented by Macy's department store.
Lighting up the night's sky not only delights crowds but also promises to restore a lifeline this year for the businesses that supply the 16,000 July Fourth fireworks displays that typically occur in cities and towns.
Last year, only a "scant few" went on with the show, said Ms Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.
"Approximately 70 per cent are scheduled to return, and many will be bigger and better than pre-pandemic levels," Ms Heckman said.
But for some July Fourth will be sombre.
In addition to the pall cast over the country by the pandemic and the Florida building collapse, the US West faces a heightened risk of wildfires after a scorching heatwave and extremely dry conditions.
And nationwide supply chain glitches tied to the pandemic have jacked up prices of everything from household items to fireworks.
"Approximately 30 per cent of the consumer fireworks needed for this Independence Day either didn't make it out of China, are sitting on ocean vessels in the Pacific Ocean waiting to berth at the ports, or they've been sitting at West Coast ports waiting to be put on the rail," Ms Heckman said.