It was a moment that remained out of reach for more than a year, through the emergency shutdown last spring, the deadly outbreaks and waves of grief, through the second surge and long winter, through the desperate scramble for vaccines.
Just days after federal health officials said people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus could shed their masks in most indoor settings, Governor Charlie Baker announced that nearly all pandemic restrictions in Massachusetts would be lifted on Memorial Day weekend, two months ahead of schedule.
It felt exhilarating and cathartic, like floodwaters finally receding. But to many, it also felt jarringly sudden. After all this time living with worry, many people are hard-wired to see danger signs flashing in crowds, on the streets, and above every stranger’s face without a mask.
“I’m half horrified, and half grateful,” Lisa Besse, 63, said Tuesday at the Littleton Cafe. She expressed concern that some people who aren’t vaccinated might not wear masks in stores, and that there won’t be any way to know.
“I don’t like the honor system,” Besse said. “People do lie. Who are we kidding, right? People will tell you that they’re fully vaccinated.”
Under the new state guidelines, vaccinated people will not be required to wear masks in most indoor situations, but unvaccinated people have been advised to continue wearing them. It’s a transition that promises to be a gradual, uncertain one, even for those fully immunized, medical specialists said.
“We’ve gone through more than a year of a trauma, if you will. In any sort of traumatic experience, you want to tiptoe back into life,” said Dr. Michelle P. Durham, vice chair of education at Boston Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry. “It’s normal for us to feel a little anxious, a little worried about our surroundings, worried about who’s wearing a mask.”
The coming liberation from COVID-19 restrictions comes as the long counterattack against the pandemic makes dramatic inroads in Massachusetts and the nation. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to decline, and more and more people are vaccinated, with 60 percent of US adults having received at least one dose
Baker announced Monday that all remaining COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted effective May 29. Businesses will be allowed to reopen fully. Fenway Park and TD Garden can return to full capacity.
Face coverings will remain mandatory on the MBTA, as well as in schools, health care facilities, and places with vulnerable residents such as congregate-care settings.
In the Back Bay, Stephanie Couchell, 29, paused on Newbury Street and said she was comfortable with the restrictions being lifted for vaccinated people.
“For others,” she added, “it feels like a rush. I’m going to try to trust that people are thinking this through.”
In Roxbury, former teacher Richard Nichols, 66, sat on a park bench and said he believed it was past time for Baker to lift the restrictions.
“People will start being able to live like normal people,” he said. “It’s time to start living again.”
Elsewhere in Nubian Square, Shirley Jefferson, 63, said she had just seen her seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren for the first time in more than a year. Although fully vaccinated, she said, she remains “scared to trust” others and is “quick to slide on” her mask when she walks past someone without one.
Dr. Manuel Pacheco, a psychiatrist and chief of government advocacy and public policy for the Department of Psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, said people ultimately should do what they feel most comfortable with.
“The anxiety and the negative feelings people have are because they feel powerless. But people have a lot more power than they think they have,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco, who is fully vaccinated, said he was at a restaurant without a mask last weekend with his wife, who wore one. When a woman approached them, he briefly thought she might be upset with him for not wearing a mask, but quickly realized she was upset at his wife because she still had one covering her nose and mouth.
“There are a lot of people who are on both sides of the issue that are confrontational, and it’s probably because of their anxiety,” Pacheco said.
Karen Schneider, 63, who lives in Littleton, said she planned to still wear her mask to the grocery store, even though she is fully vaccinated.
”Because we were so strict, now it seems like we’re going a little bit fast to get to where there’s no restrictions,” she said.
For communities hit hard by the virus, the excitement to get back to normal is tempered by caution as positivity rates remain higher than the state average, while vaccination rates are lower.
Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa, a nonprofit social service organization in Chelsea, said some people are afraid that not everyone is vaccinated, while others fear that a return to normal means many of the supports for people who lost their jobs during the pandemic will disappear.
“I’m very nervous about transitioning everyone when not everyone is ready,” Vega said. “I just wish that we’re not rushing into anything that causes other issues.”
Vega said many people in Chelsea lost their jobs during the pandemic and have been relying on government assistance to avoid being evicted from their homes. Those jobs haven’t returned to the community yet, and people are fearful that “nobody’s going to remember us,” she said.
Hodan Hashi, cofounder of the nonprofit organization Black Boston Inc., said that although people want to move past the pandemic, she wonders whether state officials gave enough consideration to the needs of the most vulnerable communities in phasing out restrictions.
Hashi, 22, said residents in Black and brown communities had less access to information about vaccines, and have been at greater risk of contracting the virus throughout the pandemic as front-line workers.
“I don’t think that the conversation of this pandemic is going to end anytime soon if we are not taking care of the people who are getting sick,” Hashi said. “And those people are Black and brown people at the moment.”
Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, said that people who continue to remain wary about venturing out should feel protected if they wear a medical-quality mask.
Cases are on a dramatic downward trajectory, she said, which should counter any added risk from unvaccinated people who flout the governor’s recommendation that they continue to wear masks after Memorial Day.
Dr. Cassandra Pierre, acting hospital epidemiologist and medical director of public health programs at Boston Medical Center, said she has typically believed it was too soon to loosen restrictions. But not this time.
“I am oddly content,” she said. “I feel like we actually have enough science . . . to show that this downward trend of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that we’re seeing now really can be reliably sustained with ongoing vaccinations.”
Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff and correspondents Charlie McKenna and Diana Bravo contributed to this report.
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