America is entering a dangerous phase of the coronavirus crisis: jumping the gun.
Yes, three different vaccines against the disease have been approved. Millions of the most high-risk Americans have been inoculated. Both new infections and deaths are trending down, and statistical models are promising. The weather will soon improve, which should reduce infections.
But that doesn’t mean the country, or Massachusetts, should declare victory quite yet.
A cautious reopening, laser-focused on the unacceptable number of schools that remain closed, is going to require a bit more patience from a public that’s understandably tired of sacrifice. Leaders, including Governor Baker, should take heed of the warning from newly installed CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and put a temporary pause on business reopenings for just a little longer while vaccinations continue.
The next phase of the Commonwealth’s reopening, according to Baker, begins March 22 — the second day of spring. Baker says going forward with that phase is contingent on continued positive public health trends, but his office didn’t directly answer a question from the Globe about whether there were specific thresholds that the state needed to meet to proceed, saying in a statement that the administration “carefully monitors all available metrics to gauge COVID prevalence.”
In weighing those numbers, though, Baker should err on the side of caution. Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s top infectious disease adviser, said Wednesday it was “ill advised” for states to relax their limits.
Indeed, some public health experts were already uncomfortable with the last round of the state’s reopenings, which included loosening some restrictions on restaurants. The state got rid of its capacity-based limit while leaving rules on distancing and time diners could remain at a table in place. Those changes still left Massachusetts with some of the country’s strictest guidelines, according to a state-by-state guide maintained by the AARP. (As of next week, Texas, for instance, is lifting all its business restrictions.) But after the Commonwealth announced its latest step toward reopening, both Fauci and Walensky made statements urging states to hold the line.
The next round in Massachusetts, if it goes forward, would involve allowing indoor and outdoor stadiums to operate at 12 percent capacity, permitting dance floors at weddings, letting exhibition and convention spaces open with restrictions, and raising the maximum size of public gatherings.
Because the state has focused its vaccination efforts on its oldest and sickest residents (sometimes to the consternation of transit workers, funeral directors, and others clamoring for the vaccine), it’s arguably in a stronger position to ease back on closures.
But there’s a wild card: variants, mutations of the virus that spread more quickly and may respond differently to the vaccines. Healthy young people are not as likely to die from the virus, but the more of them that get it, the more chances it has to mutate. That’s a reason to keep limits in place; the protections that vaccines provide to at-risk populations won’t mean much if vaccine-proof variants get a chance to emerge and spread.
None of which is to minimize the real harm done by closures and other restrictions on businesses. Since the pandemic began last year, states have been forced to make no-win trade-offs between public health, the livelihood of millions of their residents, the viability of thousands of businesses, and the civil liberties of everyone. This has at times felt arbitrary, confusing, and unfair. What made liquor stores so critical to society that their employees had to accept the risk of going to work, but not day-care facilities? Is a dinner that lasts 90 minutes really safer than one that lasts two hours?
But for all the confusion, shutdowns have worked, saving millions of lives across the globe.
What the ultimate exit strategy from the pandemic lockdowns looks like is still unknown. Waiting for zero infections isn’t realistic; it’s unlikely that COVID-19 is going away, even when the vaccines are fully distributed. At the same time, shutdowns can’t go on forever. The grim reality is that, like flu deaths and traffic fatalities, this is going to be a constant threat we may have to learn to tolerate to get on with life.
For now, though, the state should ask residents for just a little more patience. Delaying further reopening, to buy time for more vaccinations and to limit the spread of variants, will be worth the sacrifice.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.