LOS ANGELES – On a bright balmy morning in Santa Monica, Angelica Far lounged on a green deck chair, sipping a frozen coffee and taking in the sun.
The 43-year-old had just arrived from Chicago with her two kids and their puppy, a beagle named Bella.
When asked what brought them to Southern California, Far had three words: "Mental health break."
And she was not alone. With coronavirus cases on the decline, vaccinations increasing and temperatures warming, Santa Monica and other towns have been bustling in recent days with a bevy of tourists and travelers, skateboarders, beachgoers and brunchers.
After a year of business closures and travel restrictions that devastated the tourist economy, merchants and visitors say activities are starting to pick up.
"I do feel like the pandemic is over," said Kemuel Kendrick, 19, who was shopping in the Santa Monica Promenade with three friends from Charleston, S.C. "Obviously, we all have masks on, but otherwise, I don't really have that fear anymore."
But one person's carefree holiday is another's sleepless night.
And public health officials are growing increasingly worried that the next week or so – spring break combined with Passover and Easter Sunday – could unwind California's hard-won gains against the coronavirus. The confluence of events could spark increased travel, social gatherings and celebrations – all of which could, without precautions, heighten the risk of coronavirus transmission.
"What we're seeing now is more travel than we saw throughout the pandemic, including the Christmas and New Year's holidays," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a briefing Monday. "I think people have taken advantage of what they perceive as a relative paucity of cases, relative lull in where we were, to take advantage of their time of spring break and of holiday travel. And what I would just say is we've seen surges after every single holiday – July 4, Labor Day, Christmas – and we're seeing the uptick of that right now."
So far, the state has not seen the same kind of spike in coronavirus cases that has sparked alarm in other parts of the country.
But California has seemingly been an early outlier in the past, only to be hit later.
Health experts say the next few weeks will be crucial for California to keep COVID-19 infection rates down and allow many more people get vaccinated.
"I know it's been very lonely for a lot of folks. It's been hard," said Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, a distinguished professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "So there's a real temptation to bust loose just for one night because 'it doesn't matter.' Well, it does matter."
In many ways, this time of year seems tailor-made to test the resolve of pandemic-weary Californians.
It's spring break season, and many people – particularly younger adults – may be looking to forget about their upended lives for a while. Holidays like Easter and Passover are normally cause to celebrate with family, friends and fellows in faith.
Calls for continued vigilance may also be falling on deaf ears in a state like California, where COVID-19 appears to be in retreat. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are on the decline, and vaccinations are ramping up.
Things have improved to the point that some areas – including Los Angeles and Orange counties – are poised to further unlock their economies, opening up new opportunities for residents to socialize and let off steam.
Already, businesses are preparing for a boom.
David Hardie, manager of the Water Grill restaurant on Santa Monica's Ocean Avenue, said the number of diners has steadily increased over the last two weeks. On Sunday, the restaurant brought in $19,000 in lunch sales, he said. They would have been lucky to break $6,000 during the darkest days of the autumn and winter surge.
"Things are definitely coming back," Hardie said as servers ferried dishes to diners, including a handful who were sitting at tables inside. "And we're very excited."
All that rosy news, however, doesn't eliminate the agonizing thorn in the state's collective side.
"This is a deadly and serious virus. It's not taking spring break away, it's not taking the summer off. We have to defeat it," Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week.
As of Sunday, the seven-day national average for newly reported coronavirus cases was 61,632, up 13% from the week prior, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
California, however, is trending in the opposite direction – at least for now. Over the last seven days, the state has reported an average of 2,546 new coronavirus cases per day, a 24% decrease from two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.
CDC data show that the state's latest seven-day case rate per 100,000 people, 42.8, is the second-lowest among all states and well below the national rate of 130.
The comparable rate over the same period was 450.4 in New York City, 237.3 in the rest of New York state, 162.3 in Florida and 92.8 in Texas.
It's not exactly clear why California's numbers are so comparatively good at this point. However, some health officials point to the fact that other states have moved to rescind mask mandates and much more broadly relax pandemic-related business restrictions.
"I think the reason we're seeing this plateauing and a bit of a little increase that we hope doesn't turn into a surge is because we are really doing things prematurely right now with regard to opening up," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, said during a briefing Monday.
Others have wondered whether California may be benefiting from the fact that so many residents have some degree of protection against COVID-19 – either because they were previously infected or because they've been at least partially vaccinated.
"At the moment, we don't know what's driving our current good experience," Paula Cannon, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, said in an interview Monday. "But whatever it is, I hope we keep doing it."
But health officials are quick to point out that California doesn't exist in a vacuum.
"This past year indicates that often the East Coast experiences increases in cases before the West Coast and that, typically, L.A. County is a few weeks behind New York," Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week.