Remember those old rock lyrics, “I fought the law and the law won”? I’m starting to feel that way about the pandemic-induced law of inertia.
For example, last week, I did something unusual. I went into the office. I unpacked boxes that had been moved to new quarters, set up my desk, and had a fun and interesting conversation with two colleagues who happened to be there too. After a few hours, I walked to North Station and got on the commuter rail for the first time since March 2020. It felt great, and I swore I would be back. I will. Maybe tomorrow.
Multiply that inertia around Greater Boston and it presents a real problem for the city’s comeback. If the question of the day is, “How will Boston bounce back from COVID?,” the answer is: only when the office workforce bounces back. From a policy perspective, Mayor Michelle Wu is rightly trying to find the off-ramp from pandemic crisis to pandemic or endemic normalcy. The privileged laptop users of the region must locate the same off-ramp, or the city can never bounce back to what we knew and loved. This is a downtown-centric view, for sure, and probably an unpopular one with people who are happily working from home. I know, because I am one of them.
I am quite comfortable writing from the desk with a treetop view and less enthusiastic about writing from the one that looks out on State Street — even though I know the hassles of getting there come with some rewards. They include workplace friendship and collaboration and all the psychic energy associated with a city. Being in Boston provides a package of benefits, with some downsides; in return, Boston gets our spirit and Apple Pay. That’s the classic bargain that COVID-19 disrupted for what is now almost two years. It’s time to get back to some version of it. And yet, that morning coffee break in my kitchen is hard to give up.
Nationally, the dam of pandemic restrictions is starting to break. It began when Democratic Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey announced plans to lift mask requirements in schools, and the governors of Connecticut and Maryland quickly followed his lead. The governor of Oregon, who is a Democrat, said she was lifting indoor mask requirements, including in schools. On Wednesday, Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, said the statewide mask mandate for schools will be lifted Feb. 28. According to The New York Times, Governor Kathy Hochul of New York also plans to drop her state’s indoor mask mandate, which calls for businesses to ask customers for proof of full vaccination or require mask-wearing at all times.
This week in Boston, Wu laid out benchmarks for when the city would lift proof-of-vaccine requirements if hospitalizations and case numbers continue to drop. She is not yet lifting the indoor masking requirement. With that approach, Wu is caught between business interests represented by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, who say there are still too many restrictions, and public health advocates who remain worried about the next variant. However, I think she’s doing the right thing by nudging the city back to life in a responsible way.
When it comes to requiring proof of vaccination in restaurants and other specified indoor settings, Boston is a virtual island. Only Brookline and Salem have had proof-of-vaccine requirements in place, and the Salem Board of Health just voted to end them. Cambridge, Somerville, and Arlington did not follow Boston’s lead, putting Boston’s restaurant businesses at a real disadvantage. It’s not that public health isn’t important. But an open society requires a balancing of interests and risk. Omicron changed the equation. While the unvaccinated were at the greatest risk for serious illness or death, people who were vaccinated got it and were able to spread it. If there’s no way to stop the coronavirus, people started reaching the reasonable conclusion that they are going to have to live with it. I’m fully vaccinated and boostered. But at this point, I know the unvaccinated are not changing their minds. That leaves the vaccinated with a choice. Go out or stay home.
I’m going out. Some day, to the office.
Correction: A previous version of this column misidentified the governor of Maryland. He is a Republican. It also misidentified the governor of Oregon. She is Kate Brown.