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As the Delta variant surges in Mass., that familiar sense of dread is coming back. And it’s exhausting

From therapists to business owners to retail workers, a new round of pandemic worry is building

Kate Hausler served a milkshake through the window at Earnest Drinks in Kendall Square, one of many restaurants wondering what the rise in COVID-19 cases will mean.
Kate Hausler served a milkshake through the window at Earnest Drinks in Kendall Square, one of many restaurants wondering what the rise in COVID-19 cases will mean.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

As the Delta variant surges in Massachusetts, that jubilant sense of relief many felt this spring is quickly dimming.

Mask advisories are back. Business owners are sweating another slowdown. Even many of the already-vaccinated worry if their one-shot Johnson & Johnson protection will be enough, or if they should go get another round.

That familiar sense of dread is coming back. And it’s exhausting.

It’s true, New England remains safer than almost anywhere in the country right now. The vaccines are a medical wonder that have largely prevented vaccinated people from the worst outcomes of COVID-19. But they were supposed to end this miserable episode.

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Even for the vaccinated, the uncertainty — the countless small decisions that can feel like life or death — can be a lot right now. Elaine Espada, executive director of Beacon Therapy Group, said she’s seeing a spike in therapy referrals, with clients expressing a new wave of anxiety.

“People are exhausted with navigating the pandemic,” Espada said. “There’s only so much that we can take until the body just gets tired and shuts down.”

Espada said her clients wonder now if they were too optimistic too soon. Many have reached “a true absolute exhaustion: ‘I can’t think about this anymore,’ ” she said.

This past week, Chris McClelland got a COVID test for the first time in months. McClelland, who co-owns Earnest Drinks bar and restaurant in Kendall Square, is fully vaccinated, and had been with a fully vaccinated friend who later got sick.

“They told me they had a breakthrough case and that [stuff] is scary,” he said. “I was like, [shoot], how do I even get a COVID test these days?”

Kendall Square’s been a ghost town during the pandemic, but Earnest Drinks, squeezed between offices and a movie theater, is finally starting to see things pick up. “I don’t see people changing or going back at this point,” McClelland said.

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Chris McClelland, co-owner of Earnest Drinks in Kendall Square.
Chris McClelland, co-owner of Earnest Drinks in Kendall Square.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

But the new mask advisory in Cambridge — and its implications for his own health — has him nervous that the momentum might stall. For restaurant owners like him, there’s a gnawing sense that growing public uncertainty could once again upend his ability to do business, at a moment when running a restaurant is as hard as it’s ever been.

Shore Gregory, the co-owner of Row 34, said chatter about Delta among his staff picked up over the last week.

“We just were sort of pondering, ‘Wow, maybe this is going to be something that we’re going to need to deal with in a more realistic way,’ when 60 days ago all the writing was like we’ve got COVID on the ropes,” he said. While Gregory hasn’t seen any slowdown in demand for indoor dining, he doesn’t know what might happen next. “We’re in the first week where people are talking about this as altering their behavior.”

Event planners, and their clients, are uncertain too. Myriam Michel, the founder of Waltham-based M&M Elite Events, has been planning (and replanning, and replanning) a large September event. Initially it was supposed to be half in-person, half-virtual — already a tall order. Then in May, Governor Charlie Baker announced the entire state would open up. Michel and her colleagues scrambled to secure the vendors and workers to make it live.

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Now, her clients are reconsidering.

“We felt relief back in the end of May through all of June, and now we’re like, some of these events just might make the cut in September,” Michel said. “It’s a little nerve-wracking.”

The devastating rise in case numbers tied to the Delta variant over the past few weeks is shifting public sentiment across the United States. An ABC News/Ipsos poll released this week found that just 45 percent of Americans now say they’re optimistic about the year ahead, down from 64 percent two months ago.

Tracy Mayor counts herself among those feeling a bit less free and easy.

“There was this sense of elation,” she said, thinking back to April and May, when seemingly everyone the 59-year-old Hamilton resident knew was getting their shot. But recently she started wearing her mask indoors again after learning that the J&J shot — which she received — was deemed slightly less effective against the Delta variant.

“Once there’s aspersion cast on your vaccine, you’re kind of like, ‘Ugh,’ ” Mayor said. And she worries what could be coming next. Will we have to learn the whole Greek alphabet?

Sharon Zitser and her friend Elaine Broatman donned masks while at Roche Brothers at Arsenal Yards in Watertown on Friday. The septuagenarians said they’d started venturing back out to restaurants in the past few months. But now, because they both received the J&J shot, they’re taking more precautions.

“I’m really nervous,” Zitser said. “I don’t know about Johnson & Johnson.”

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“They say it’s not as good for the antibodies,” Broatman added as she chastised Zitser to pull her mask up over her nose. “And I’m upset because we’re older.”

But in one way, all this anxiety could pay off: For some, the Delta variant is the tipping point. They’ll finally get their shot.

Hana, an unvaccinated retail worker at Arsenal Yards who asked that only her first name be used to protect her privacy, said the variant scares her enough that she’s ready to get vaccinated. It’s not that she didn’t understand the severity of the virus: She lost her father to COVID-19 and contracted it herself back in January. But she assumed she had antibodies, and was concerned about vaccine side effects. And she’s been so busy with work that she couldn’t take time off.

Now, Hana said, she has a vacation coming up, and she’s planning to get her vaccine during her break.

“Especially because of Delta,” she said. “I will take it. I want to take it.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos. Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.