For the first time in its more than 40-year-history, First Night Boston was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year the city’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration should be canceled again.
Of course, few want to hear that. Busy with the holidays and getting back to normal (even though we’re nowhere close to it), many people are relishing the return of the Dec. 31 tradition like the reappearance of a beloved friend. Its giddy presence would be an affirmation of progress, another sign of reclaiming our pre-pandemic lives.
Here’s the daunting reality: Across Massachusetts, COVID cases are exploding as Omicron has surpassed Delta as the dominant coronavirus variant. While its severity is still being determined, its transmissibility is exceeding previous strains. On Tuesday, the state recorded 5,531 new cases, 37 percent higher than last Tuesday. Hospitalizations are up, and state officials have directed hospitals “to postpone or cancel all nonessential elective procedures starting Dec. 27 that are likely to result in inpatient admission” to better prepare for an expected spike in COVID patients.
With Boston’s positivity rate nearing 7 percent, tens of thousands of people jammed in the streets and in indoor venues for 12 hours of First Night events isn’t just a bad idea. It’s a potential super spreader disaster. But at this point Mayor Michelle Wu isn’t canceling the city’s grand plans to usher in 2022.
“We are still hoping to strike the balance of people being safe and protected, encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, that when you’re at an outdoor event you’re able to be spaced out from other people, and also to recognize the value of being in community and being together in person to enjoy our holiday season,” Wu told the Globe editorial board last week. “We’ve seen folks out at many of the celebrations the city has hosted, staying safe, staying distanced, talking about the need for COVID protections to be on everyone’s mind, and also rebuilding community and healing by being together.”
I’m sure other cities also want to rebuild their communities by being together. But they’re still scuttling their year-end extravaganzas.
On Monday, Los Angeles officials canceled in-person spectators for its New Year’s Eve fireworks show. Paris shut down its fireworks show and other events to slow down the city’s Omicron-fueled spike in cases. London halted plans for its Trafalgar Square celebration. Mayor Eduardo Paes of Rio de Janeiro had promised his city’s biggest ever New Year’s Eve party; last Saturday, he canceled it. Other cities in Brazil, second only to the United States in COVID deaths, followed suit.
Even the fate of New York’s famous Times Square ball drop, which drew more than 1 million in 2019, remains up in the air. “We will have a final decision on what we can do ahead of Christmas for sure, and we’re working closely with the folks who sponsor that event to figure out the right way to proceed,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday.
To be fair, this December isn’t December 2020. A year ago, only the Pfizer vaccine had been federally approved and few were eligible in its first week of availability. Now, with three vaccines and boosters — let’s call it a three-shot vaccine and redefine what it means to be “fully vaccinated” — millions are now protected from the serious illnesses that can lead to hospitalization and death. Yet the unvaccinated continue to prolong this pandemic and our miseries. In Boston, about 68 percent of its population have received two shots, while only 31 percent have received a booster shot.
Wu clearly understands what’s at stake. She’s also aware of pushback from those who care more about fact-free ideology than a pandemic that has killed more than 808,000 people nationwide. Her announcement Monday about a citywide vaccine requirement for some indoor businesses that goes into effect Jan. 15 was nearly drowned out by singing, yelping, whistle-blowing anti-vaccine protesters in City Hall’s lobby, including Geoff Diehl, Donald Trump’s anointed Republican candidate for Massachusetts governor.
In sticking with First Night Boston plans, Wu, still in the nascent afterglow of her historic election, may want to avoid more noise as she tries to navigate this latest COVID crisis. After all, business owners, still trying to regain their footing, and spectators anticipate this Dec. 31 as a day and night to remember as a symbol of the city healing itself.
Yet COVID thrives on timid responses as much as mutating variants. Omicron’s alarmingly swift spread leaves no room for half measures. Healing the city also demands bold action like canceling First Night Boston 2022. Wu can prevent it from being potentially remembered for all the wrong reasons — as an ill-fated event branded by a pandemic’s disruption, sickness, and death.