fb-pixel Skip to main content

As Omicron wanes, hopes rise to travel and socialize again

It’s been a winter of compounded discontent — a paralyzing blizzard, bouts of bitter cold, and yet another COVID variant sweeping through a virus-weary populace. But as the days lengthen, and Omicron cases continue to fall, a sense of hope appears to be emerging.

It’s a fragile but growing sense that the worst of COVID-19 might finally have passed, and that the coming months could bring more than a longing for pre-pandemic routines.

That hint of optimism is seen in record advance bookings at some New England inns, a stream of tourists to Boston and beyond, and restaurants and clubs where tables are hard to reserve.

Advertisement



“I think that Omicron is signaling a change toward more normalcy. The time for cowering in fear is really over,” said Jacquelyn Wehtje, a 57-year-old Fitchburg woman who is yearning to visit the library without being required to wear a mask.

“I didn’t get vaccinated to wear a mask forever to protect people who can protect themselves by getting vaccinated,” Wehtje said.

But is it over? The curve of the pandemic has been frustrating: a surge of COVID cases, followed by a sharp drop in infections, followed by a new round of sickness. From COVID’s arrival in spring 2020, to its Delta variant last year, to the spread of Omicron in December, the virus has shown that it does not disappear.

Still, a desire by many to travel, go out to eat more, and gather with friends and family seems to be broadening in New England, which has a high vaccination rate. Other factors in the risk-tolerance equation are that Omicron generally is less severe than its predecessors, and many people have had the virus and built up some immunity.

New England’s traditional inns, where strangers often interact in snug quarters, is one good barometer of the region’s comfort level.

Advertisement



“We’ve been running busier than we’ve ever been,” said Brian Mulcahy, who operates the Rabbit Hill Inn with his wife, Leslie, in Lower Waterford, Vt. “There is a lot of COVID fatigue. People are tired of talking about it. People want to start living their lives again.”

Their customers, Mulcahy said, are coming from farther away than the traditional 250-mile radius of the 19-room inn.

“I have a couple here from Delaware staying for eight nights, and they drove in,” Mulcahy said on Wednesday. “There are none of the normal ebbs of business that you normally see.”

The Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport, Maine, also is seeing signs of a boom this year, innkeeper Jean Ginn Marvin said.

“Our pre-bookings are super strong, as strong as they’ve ever been. The phones are ringing off the hook,” said Ginn Marvin, whose resort will reopen in mid-April. “People are too frightened to travel to the Caribbean or to Europe, so there’s just an enormous drive market in the Northeast. I just think people are climbing the walls.”

At the Manor on Golden Pond in Holderness, N.H., pre-bookings are up about 30 percent compared with 2021, owner Mary Ellen Shields said.

“A lot more New England traffic has kicked in. I really do think people are traveling now, especially when they’re vaccinated,” Shields said.

“It’s like someone pulled the plug on travel concerns and people are hitting the road again in waves,” said Marti Mayne, marketing coordinator for Distinctive Inns of New England.

Advertisement



Despite such optimistic signals, longer-term prospects for 2022 remain difficult to gauge just a few weeks past Omicron’s peak in Massachusetts. Much forecasting has been based on anecdotal evidence, and well-founded wariness remains.

That caution extends to Gillian Ganesan, 25, a Brighton woman with multiple sclerosis who has been isolating for the entire pandemic with her partner and cat.

“I don’t really see myself getting back to normal for a long time, especially now that they’re saying it’s endemic,” Ganesan said. “I don’t really have any way to know if my vaccinations worked, and I just don’t want to risk taking that chance.”

On Friday, Massachusetts health officials reported 4,195 new COVID cases and 63 new deaths. The caseload data and other key indicators have been in overall decline since early January, suggesting the region is heading for less COVID stress and more peace of mind.

However, infectious disease specialists are watching the course of a new variant, dubbed “stealth Omicron,” that preliminary information suggests may be more contagious and better at evading vaccines than the original version of the variant.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced Friday that the state had detected its first case, involving a fully vaccinated Middlesex County woman who had traveled out of state and did not need to be hospitalized.

“If you’re waiting for COVID to be ‘quote-unquote’ over, that is never happening,” said Dr. Shira Doron, hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. “You need to ask what is your risk tolerance, and what are the conditions that you are comfortable with.”

Advertisement



However, Doron added, “things are getting incrementally better, even though it sometimes seems we take one step forward and two steps back.”

Vaccinations and booster shots remain the key to COVID protection, and to enjoying a spring and summer with relatively low infection rates.

“We need to take advantage of the upcoming lull precisely because we don’t know what’s around the corner,” Doron said.

John Lydon, a 36-year-old attorney from Milton, is eager to get out and about again.

“Most of my family lives in Ireland, and I haven’t seen them in three years. I have two daughters, aged 1 and 3, and my 3-year-old has never seen her teacher’s face,” Lydon said. “I feel like it’s safer to go out because, frankly, everybody I know has had it.”

Martha Sheridan, president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that leisure travel to the city is strong — about 70 percent of overall visitors — although numbers are lagging for the business and convention sectors.

“January was a tough month with significant cancellations, particularly of meetings and events. But as the [COVID] numbers continue to drop, I think the cancellations will recede,” Sheridan said.

For some, a greater desire to travel also brings greater frustration with public restrictions such as mask mandates and proof of vaccination.

Lydon said that he wants to revisit the Children’s Museum, the New England Aquarium, and the Museum of Fine Arts, but that Boston’s “mask mandate has made it not pleasurable.”

Advertisement



At the Stockyard Restaurant in Brighton, general manger Gerry Lynch said business has been hurt by Boston’s requirement that diners show proof of vaccination.

“The problem is that the Stockyard draws not only from Boston, but from places like Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, and Arlington. So, you have situations where people come in, and they’re not aware” of the mandate, Lynch said. “It presents some difficulties for the restaurant, absolutely.”

Although mandates and restrictions vary from community to community, some health guidelines transcend boundaries, according to the vast majority of medical professionals.

In the hierarchy of COVID protection, “vaccination is numbers one, two, three, and four,” said Doron, the Tufts epidemiologist.

“Individuals have always been pretty safe if they were vaccinated, and especially if they were boosted,” she added. “And we are getting safer and safer.”

For Sheridan, of the convention bureau, the traveling public will continue to adjust to the pandemic’s lessons.

“We’ll just be learning to live with COVID and taking the precautions that are necessary, and getting on with our lives,” she said. “I do think there is greater confidence among leisure travelers.”

Globe correspondent Grace Gilson contributed to this report.




Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.