At 11:59 p.m. on May 28, in the final seconds of the indoor mask mandate in Massachusetts, dozens of patrons inside the Harp, a downtown sports bar, eyed the clock as if it were New Year’s Eve. When it struck midnight, they threw their masks into the air with the bravado of graduating seniors, letting them flutter to the ground like dystopian confetti to be trampled on en route to the dance floor.
And yet, two weeks later and two miles away on the sidewalks of Cambridge, where 62 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, easily two-thirds of those in Central Square still wore masks, even as the sun sweltered and the temperature crept toward 95 degrees.
Depending on their coordinates and crowd, Massachusetts residents have spent early June living in two vastly different realities. One, a post-COVID era of raucous revelry, the opening act of “hot-vax summer.” The other a tenuous toe-dip into the waters where a shark attack once occurred.
Another midnight milestone arrived Tuesday when, as much of the state slumbered, Governor Charlie Baker lifted Massachusetts’ state of emergency, bringing to a close a 462-day era of mandated vigilance sparked by a contagion that last March brought the world to a standstill. Remaining guidance has ceased, including, at least for now, eviction protections, remote public meetings, and even to-go cocktails.
The end of the declaration poses symbolic questions: How exactly do nearly 7 million people emerge from a state of emergency after 66 weeks? How does a state that suffered the third-highest per capita COVID-19 death toll in the nation return to normalcy when the clock strikes midnight? A tour through the streets of Boston reveals the process is a bumpy, boisterous, and bifurcated endeavor, filled with moments of elation and joy, as well as anxiety and grief.
The apprehensive giddiness is most apparent in the spaces that once topped the epidemiologists’ pandemic blacklist. Empty just a few months ago, these gathering spots have magically been revived, mimicking a resurrection plant, which shrivels into a lifeless brown ball to survive almost complete desiccation but can unfurl into a vibrant green fan when provided with water again.
Take the salad bar at Lambert’s Rainbow Market in Dorchester, a kaleidoscopic buffet of fresh fruits and vegetables so beloved it commanded a reopening countdown on Facebook. At lunchtime on Friday, a staffer struggled to fill the romaine lettuce tub fast enough as a hungry crowd of Bostonians grabbed for the tongs and serving spoons. A plumber sprinkled shredded carrots while an Army cadet fished for a cherry tomato. Two firefighters contemplated the dressing options. A woman in a cheetah print top piloted a puppy around in her shopping cart. In between hugs and high-fives, proprietor Bill Lambert was beaming; the store was averaging 700 more customers a day since the salad bar reopened.
“It feels good to be back in my natural habitat,” said longtime customer Connor Gillen of Needham.
At the intersection of Beacon and Washington streets in Somerville, the doors to Dali — locked tight for months this winter — are flung open once again, luring passersby with the intoxicating aromas of sizzling garlic shrimp, deep-fried Spanish cheese, and ham croquettes. The intimate corner haunt introduced Spanish tapas to Boston in 1989 and has endured the opening of countless competitors. But the past year brought an “uphill, anxiety-ridden struggle” that sent owner Tamara Bourso into business debt for the first time in her career. (Cuchi Cuchi, Bourso’s slightly younger passion project in Cambridge, was shuttered for good last summer. “When we can no longer live up to our maxim of ‘2 kisses and a hug,’ it’s time to say goodnight,” wrote Bourso in a farewell post.)
Besides buffets and cruise ships, few spots seemed more maligned in the pandemic era than dive bars, gloriously dingy institutions beloved equally for their $4 Miller High Lifes and lack of proper ventilation. Cash-only and perennially adorned with Christmas lights, Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain fits the mold handsomely. When the pandemic shuttered the Midway in spring 2020, owner Jay Balerna figured he’d put a coat of polyurethane on the wooden bar each day until they opened back up. Three weeks and 20 coats later, the bar was shiny as a sailboat, and the pandemic was raging. He scrapped the routine. Over the ensuing 14 months, by Balerna’s estimate, the bar accrued over $100,000 in debt.
“I couldn’t pivot. Midway can’t do what it does best in a pandemic,” he said.
Nowadays, the bar is back in full force, reintroducing many Bostonians to their first indoor live music show since March 2020. A bust of Michelangelo’s David perched on a ledge near the stage is outfitted in a mask and a face shield.
“Last Friday, I was on the bar for eight hours and midway through, I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ, I’m 58 years old and my legs are on fire,’” said Balerna, who opened the bar in 1987. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I rallied, but at 1 o’clock, I’m signaling to the band to say that’s that and I need to go to bed. I’m out of practice.”
For every person who is breezily funneling into these reanimated institutions, many others cannot shake the chains of pandemic life.
Some are Rip Van Winkling into these surreal summer weeks, such as the bewildered woman in a K95 mask at Loyal Nine in East Cambridge who looked around the coffee shop Friday with her eyes wide. She asked the barista why no one was wearing a mask and, after a crash course on the latest state guidance, the woman glided away maskless with a latte in hand, grinning as if she’d learned some fantastic secret.
Each day of the pandemic, Jess Hatzipetros, an ICU nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital, has taken a photo of the hospital’s COVID-19 census, a grim scrapbook of names and figures. During the bleakest days, more than 130 critically ill virus-stricken patients filled makeshift units. But last week Hatzipetros noticed there was just one patient on the census.
“The comparison really struck me, and it felt really, really good,” she said.
Largely, though, the return to normal has happened slowly. No clock striking midnight will eliminate the trauma Hatzipetros witnessed nonstop for a year. Her three children have yet to be vaccinated. And COVID-19 patients are still returning with complications related to the virus. “How do I break this feeling of crisis? How do I heal from all of this?” she asked.
A Cambridge resident named Magaly was part of the sidewalk crowd in Central Square on a sweltering day early last week. Masked up and alone, she was heading to the store from her residence in Washington Elms, a public housing development that sits in the shadows of Moderna and Pfizer’s Kendall Square outposts. “The old world is never coming back for me,” the newly vaccinated 64-year-old said from six feet away. “But everyone seems to be moving back to it without me.”
Days earlier, she had boarded the MBTA and watched with paralyzed horror as the subway car filled up with more and more people. Another rider, perhaps noticing the panic in her eyes, coaxed her to a nearby seat where she huddled until her stop, staring at the shoes of tightly packed strangers.
“For some of us, the pandemic is never going to truly pass. I have been permanently changed by it, personally and professionally,” said Bill Hanage, a Harvard epidemiologist who lives in Cambridge. “Some of us will be endlessly anxious about it, but I have a suspicion that for a lot of other people, it is going to slide into the rearview mirror. Humans have a way of asserting themselves, of being happy again, a resiliency to them.”
The “Twilight Zone” quality of this current moment only grows more acute with a look beyond American borders. As wealthy nations vaccinate their way into normalcy, scores are dying daily in South America and Asia. More people have died globally from COVID-19 already this year than in all of 2020.
“If I cover one eye and look at the situation around Massachusetts, I feel pretty positive. And if I cover the other, I think about the rest of the world and the worrisome delta variant I feel pretty depressed,” Hanage said. “As a colleague of mine put it, it feels like we are in a little mRNA castle, watching all the poor countries burn.”
There is a puzzle in philosophy called the sorites or heap paradox. It starts with the assumption that removing a single grain from a heap does not make it not a heap. But, eventually, as more and more grains are removed from the heap, a tipping point occurs.
The same dilemma appears to play out in this last chapter of the pandemic in Boston. At what point does a pandemic come to an end? How few cases? How few deaths? For those chowing down on free popcorn again at dive bars and chanting cheers at TD Garden, the threshold was met at midnight, or soon thereafter.
But for others, it may never be achieved. The old world, as Magaly coined it, cannot be restored. Even one grain will still be a heap.