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What to salvage from the 2020 dumpster fire

The best insights and innovations from a year of crisis — and what the Globe editorial board will track in 2021.

Lesley Becker/Adobe (Custom credit)

Should auld acquaintance be forgot? Perhaps not, but some pre-pandemic traditions, like car-centric city streets, germ-infested handshakes, and long waits at the doctor’s office, went on life support in 2020 and ought to die hard in this new year.

In the spring, Globe Opinion started a project called Don’t Look Back to collect perspectives from our op-ed writers, editorial board members, readers, and community about what adaptations to this time of crisis and consternation might actually be worth keeping in the long run. (You can sign up for the newsletter here.) Here we recap a few of the best insights and innovations of 2020. And the Globe editorial board also looks ahead to what can make for a better year for our city, region, and nation.


Adobe/Lesley Becker

Goodbye to hugs and handshakes

It’s the smallest of silver linings in a massive COVID-19 cloud, but I’m ready to offer a heave-ho hallelujah to hugs and handshakes.... [A]ll this indiscriminate hugging — what is it with the desire to squeeze torsos together? Unless, say, you hope to earn a living guessing people’s weight with a traveling carnival and need some practice judging body mass. — Op-ed columnist Scot Lehigh

Adobe/Lesley Becker

Clinical trials should always include more people of color a lesson learned from COVID-19 vaccines

Diversifying clinical trials is a little-noticed but important challenge for a country in the midst of a racial reckoning. Success with COVID-19 should be the start of a larger overhaul for the industry — and a healthier future for people of color. — The Globe Editorial Board

Adobe/Lesley Becker

A fix for the housing crisis: Today’s vacated office buildings could be tomorrow’s apartments

Employers now will carefully evaluate who needs space in a fixed location and which jobs can be done remotely with better online tools. That leaves the following question: What do we do with the millions of square feet of surplus space in Greater Boston? The answer: How about repurposing it as housing? — Reader Dave Pill


Adobe/Lesley Becker

Invest in parks as health care

Our public parks are an essential public health infrastructure that warrants the protection and investment provided for our water, sewer, and electrical infrastructures. We must embrace the opportunity to curate safe enjoyment of our legacy parks by adapting their usage guidelines to reflect the best available science of health and disease prevention. — Op-ed contributors Julia Africa, Cheri Ruane, Gary Hilderbrand, and Chris Reed

Adobe/Lesley Becker

Revitalize local democracy through virtual meetings and more

The mayor of Newton is holding virtual office hours. The City Council in Biddeford, Me., is meeting on Zoom, the now-ubiquitous online videoconferencing platform. And officials in Missoula, Mont., recently held an online charrette, asking members of the public to help guide the conversion of a roughly 2,000-acre site dominated by hay fields into a new neighborhood.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced local governments to connect with the public in new ways and offered a rare opportunity to rethink public engagement — both online and off.

They should seize it. Indeed, the coronavirus disruption may be just the jolt that local boards, commissions, and municipal governments need to reinvigorate local democracy. — The Globe Editorial Board

Keep quarantine freedoms for those with chronic illness or disabilities

When it is time to ‘go back to normal’ after this pandemic, I am cautiously optimistic that there will be thoughtful discussions about how to continue to ensure access for those of us with chronic illnesses and disabilities. I hope we maintain the option to choose how we participate in activities, whether in person or via the Internet. That in our rush to return to a way of life that feels more like home, we aren’t afraid to make some changes. Because if these opportunities for involvement recede and things revert completely, it will leave many of us feeling deflated, facing a life that is suddenly smaller, narrower, and more difficult to navigate. — Ideas contributor Ruth Kogen Goodwin


Adobe/Lesley Becker

Make Boston’s comeback al fresco: Outdoor dining expansions should be permanent

Cities around the world are experimenting with better ways to use their streets, from shutting down miles of roads to cars and opening new bike lanes, in Milan, to inviting stores and cafes to turn parking spaces into “parklets” with expanded amenities, in San Francisco. The pandemic has created the need to rethink how urban centers can bounce back, but also the potential to revitalize them in ways previously not imagined. Boston has the chance to have its own renaissance, and one good way to start is to make it easier for restaurants to pour out into the sidewalks and streets. — The Globe Editorial Board

A renaissance of compassion in our communities


Adobe/Lesley Becker

The human impulse toward kindness is in full flower this dark spring. Volunteer sewing societies are springing up to stitch thousands of masks, like the bandage brigades of World War I. Charities like Feed the Frontlines create a benevolent cycle: Donors get to help their favorite restaurants survive; which then keep their chefs and waiters employed; who then cook hot meals for doctors, nurses, and orderlies working on the medical front lines. Even the commitment to stay home and not risk infecting others is a sacrifice made for the common good.

The question is whether these individualized acts of charity can be translated into a broader societal response. Can the imprint of this disaster help us build more compassionate policies as we recover? We can stitch together the safety net more tightly and recreate an economy where fewer people need to use it — but only if we can hold on to the lesson of communal responsibility that this pandemic is teaching. — Op-ed columnist Renée Loth

Adobe/Lesley Becker

Educators can find new ways to connect with students

As an educator of 27 years’ experience, I sit at home alone in front of a screen for the “school day.” Using Google video chat, I “student-fish,” hoping to get a bite from one of our mainstreamed kids in the Maine public school district in which I teach special education. We face-chat a lot. The kids seem to like the connection — they look for it, in fact. Every day, our principal, who used to spend his days with noncompliant students, sends out video “lifts,” funny homemade videos to remind us what is really important — like us, like the families, like the kids who miss hating their regular classes. This is school. And you know what? These amazing professionals are doing it.” — Reader Rita Pender


A chance for government to bring people back together

The pandemic … has been a marathon of social isolation for those who’ve taken COVID-19 seriously. And this has exacerbated an affliction that has been raging in America for years. It’s time to start thinking about how to bring Americans back together again, in the most literal sense — using the power of government to make two particular shared spaces, public transportation and housing, far more inviting, accessible, and sociable. — Ideas contributor Miles Howard

Adobe/Lesley Becker

Keep virtual doctors’ visits going

In the midst of the pandemic, tens of millions of Americans have used telemedicine for the first time, and it has been met with overwhelming patient acceptance. A recent poll of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries revealed a 90 percent positive response rate, and 80 percent of respondents indicated their intention to use telehealth for future medical services. Understandably, a service delivered to the comfort of one’s home is preferable to the inconvenience of driving to a clinic and possibly being exposed to illnesses carried by others. — Globe op-ed contributors Newton N. Minow and Rick Boucher

Adobe/Lesley Becker

Learn to love the winter — outdoors

The idea is to extend the innovations that many towns began this pandemic summer, when outdoor dining spilled from sidewalks into the streets and repurposed “parklets” shifted the dominion of public space from cars to people.... Of course, even hardy New Englanders are unlikely to linger over long outdoor meals in January, so the new winter spaces are designed for shorter, more widely dispersed visits, which also addresses the pandemic dilemma of creating appealing locations that don’t become crowd magnets. — Globe op-ed columnist Renée Loth

Quick reader reactions

▪ The pandemic has been a reminder to everyone that service workers are the backbone of a functioning society. — Kaitlyn Henry

▪ Consent culture is growing. Let’s keep it. If I’m going to meet a friend in person, I’ll ask them, are you comfortable if I don’t wear a mask while we’re outside? I would like us both to wear masks inside. How far should I stay from you while we are inside? They might return the favor, or not, but they are always respectful of my asking and my preferences. — Paula Randler

▪ I really appreciate how much easier it is to participate in club, school board and city council meetings. As a mom of young children all of these things are suddenly far more accessible to me. — Heather Snaman

Looking ahead to 2021: What you can expect the editorial board to cover

No surprise, but 2020 left some loose ends. In the next year, as the pandemic hopefully subsides, we hope to see our political leaders, institutions, and communities learn from what went wrong, revitalize the economy, and make up for lost time on other gripping issues.

At the local level, the mayoral race will take up much of the oxygen in 2021. But it’s crucial to keep up the pressure on police departments to reform, and to move Massachusetts more in the direction of root-and-branch reforms like eliminating binding arbitration for police and overhauling civil service laws. We’ll be keeping an eye on how the mayor — and the would-be mayors on the city council — handle the next police contract, which needs to make a clean break with the past. At the state level, we’ll look to Beacon Hill to build on its historic police reform package, and we’ll be watching to ensure that its commission to deal with officer discipline is set up credibly.

Municipalities need to move toward allowing more housing, especially near transit stations, and the Globe will keep up the pressure on those that don’t. Speaking of transit, how the MBTA responds to COVID-19 will help determine the region’s future. It needs to rebound quickly to pre-pandemic service levels —and if that requires new revenue, it will need to find a way to provide it. The short-term crisis should not cannibalize the need for long-run investment in transportation for the region.

The pandemic completely derailed the push for safe-injection sites in Boston, but overdose deaths remain far too high and the city needs to resume its harm-reduction strategy and find a humane solution for those suffering from homelessness and substance use disorder. Lastly, the mayoral candidates must grapple with the continuing achievement gap in the public school system, which will doubtlessly widen because of the pandemic. We don’t want bland generalities about the importance of schools: We will want specifics from the candidates for their vision for public education and how they plan to avoid the pitfalls of the recent past.

The momentum for racial justice across the city, Commonwealth, and country generated in 2020 cannot be squandered or forgotten in the new year. We’ll be tracking how government agencies, businesses, and beyond correct for the historic legacies of injustice and create more inclusive communities.

In a closely divided Congress, getting major legislation passed might be a struggle. But the economic crisis wrought by the pandemic should be seized by the Biden administration and Congressional leaders to pass bipartisan recovery packages that feed the hungry, provide for critical family needs, help people get back to work, and prioritize the revitalization of small businesses and state and local governments that support communities here in Massachusetts and around the country.

The need for large-scale spending at the federal level is also an opportunity to prevent the next disasters, by investing in public health infrastructure, clean energy, public transit, and climate resilience. We’ll have our eye on the new administration as it works to repair America’s reputation and standing in the world, reinvigorate gun control reforms, slash carbon emissions from the electricity, transportation, and agriculture sectors, and establish more humane immigration policy — including by answering for hundreds of children separated at the US border from their parents. We’ll also be tracking and advocating for national reforms to expand health care coverage and reduce costs and to make higher education more affordable, as well as other ways for dealing with the entrenched inequality gripping the country. And we’ll propose reforms and hold our leaders accountable for combatting the corruption and abuse of power of the highest office in the country. We’ll also be looking to our leaders to expand access to the ballot in Massachusetts and across the country given the resounding success (with virtually zero fraud documented) of mail-in voting and early voting in the 2020 election.

Of course, as 2020 proved, new crises can sneak up on us at any time and confound our hopes and expectations for the new year. But with a new president and the hard lessons learned from the last year, here’s to forging a better and fairer future in 2021.

— The Globe Editorial Board