First lady Jill Biden opened Sunday’s Wawa Welcome America Celebration of Freedom on a joyous note of reunion and triumph after the nation’s year-plus battle with COVID-19 and the forced restrictions that kept family and friends from being with each other for so long.

“Here we are, back together!” Biden said from a podium at Independence Hall on Sunday morning. “And there is no place that this Philly girl would rather be than here as your first lady.”

Biden, born in Hammonton, N.J., and raised in Willow Grove, said that “this city has gone above and beyond,” naming some of the efforts by groups to help the region meet the challenge of the pandemic.

Biden acknowledged the difficulties and the struggles, but she reminded the crowd how far they had come.

“Doesn’t the air smell so much sweeter without our masks?” she asked.

The first lady was not the first Biden to participate in Philadelphia’s Celebration of Freedom ceremony. Her husband fulfilled the role in 2014, when he was vice president.

High on the list of honored guests at Sunday’s celebration was Ala Stanford, a physician who accepted this year’s Philadelphia Magis Award on behalf of the lifesaving Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium that she founded.

“Thank you to all the people of Philadelphia for trusting us and allowing the privilege to care for you,” said Stanford, a Philadelphia-raised pediatric surgeon who received a standing ovation from the audience.

The organization’s mobile testing and vaccination efforts received international recognition and were widely credited for having a huge impact in the city’s high-risk and underserved Black and brown communities. Members of those communities were being infected by the coronavirus and dying at higher rates than other groups.

By mid-March, the doctors consortium had administered 25,000 doses of the vaccine, with 82% going to people of color compared with the 24% citywide rate, according to Celebration of Freedom organizers.

The coalition’s work, along with the efforts of FEMA, the city public health department, and others are credited with helping Philadelphia exceed President Joe Biden’s goal of 70% of adult Americans getting at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose by July 4, said Mayor Jim Kenney, who presented the award.

This year’s Wawa Foundation Hero Award, also announced at Sunday’s event, was given to the Veterans Group, a West Philadelphia-based nonprofit.

The organization, which will receive $50,000, provides assistance with mental and physical health issues to veterans in need, as well as help with employment, housing and food insecurity.

The three other finalists were the Garces Foundation, which aids low-income Spanish-speaking immigrants in South Philadelphia, the Police Athletic League, and ABC Men (Able Body Christian Men), which serves seniors, people with disabilities, and young people in Southwest Philadelphia. Each finalist receives $10,000.

The final award recipient was voted on by the public.

Under a blue sky and brilliant sun, the downpours of Saturday night fortuitously gone, people were strolling through Independence National Historical Park or picnicking on the grass during and after the ceremony at Independence Hall — far different from last Fourth of July, when the city’s tourist destinations were off-limits because of the coronavirus and crowds were nonexistent.

”I feel more hopeful. I feel like things are heading in the right direction,” said Pat Walker, a nurse who lives in Old City. “Things are starting to feel good again.”

Her friend Barbara Hand, a paralegal, also from Old City, said having Joe Biden in the White House instead of Donald Trump has made a big difference. ”I think he realized [COVID-19] was a real thing, and he did what he said he was going to do. He got the vaccine out there.”

Norajean Flanagan of Philadelphia, a retired federal prosecutor, hadn’t caught the speeches but she, her husband, Bert Glenn, a federal prosecutor, their daughter Cristina Glenn, an incoming junior at Temple University, and Ana Padula, Cristina’s godmother and a doctor visiting from California, were sitting on the grass in the park enjoying the weather — and the absence of COVID-19 limitations.

”It’s definitely better,” said Flanagan. “You can get out and about.”

Her daughter, a criminal justice and psychology major, said she is enjoying getting back to normal college life again. ”As college students, the pandemic hit us pretty hard,” she said. “It’s great to see everything opening back up again.”