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As Boston celebrates, new anxiety over COVID creeps in

Boylston Street was crowded with people as Sara Beth Keough posed at the Marathon Finish Line on Friday.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

It is a rare thing in the pandemic age: a weekend of citywide celebrations in Boston. It will also be a big test of where we are — and where we’re going — with COVID.

Thirty thousand runners are converging on the city for Monday’s Boston Marathon, and spectators are expected to pack the bleachers and sidewalks along Boylston Street to cheer them on. Churches and synagogues are opening their doors for Easter and Passover services. Ramadan iftars — nightly fast-breaking meals — are continuing through the weekend. The Celtics start their playoff run Sunday, and the Red Sox are in the midst of their first homestand. Mother Nature appears prepared to cooperate, with spring temperatures and clear skies predicted for the race Monday.

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It has been three years since a proper Marathon weekend. (Last October’s race was a scaled-back, COVID-conscious affair.) It is also the first time since the pandemic began that the city’s springtime rituals will occur with a majority of the population vaccinated.

“We truly missed” the Marathon, said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association. “You can feel the energy starting to ramp back up in the neighborhood.”

But as the city emerges from darker days, there is a hint of anxiety in the air. After a lull in COVID infections in the early spring, case counts and hospitalizations have risen in recent weeks, suggesting that a modest resurgence of the coronavirus may have begun. In Boston, positivity rates on COVID tests have nearly tripled since early March.

So, what comes next: a new crisis, or simply a new normal?

Health experts said the latter appeared more likely. Dr. Paul Biddinger, chief of emergency preparedness at Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest hospital system, said he is cautiously optimistic the increases in COVID indicators will not come to resemble the winter’s Omicron spike of the virus.

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Fans dined behind the Green Monster during the Red Sox home opener.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

“The ebb and flow of COVID numbers is what we would expect to see going forward,” he said. “We will have to learn to live our lives.”

On Boylston Street Friday, residents and visitors seemed to be doing just that. Red Sox fans streamed toward Fenway for the team’s home opener. Runners lined up around the block to enter the Boston Marathon Expo at the Hynes Convention Center. Bicyclists whizzed by in short sleeves, enjoying the sun and temperatures in the mid-60s.

Inside the convention center, the expo was packed, with runners and other attendees jostling shoulder to shoulder and trying on Marathon-branded gear. Face masks were optional, and it appeared that somewhat fewer than half of attendees chose to wear them.

Runner Rhea Chatterjee, 25, a software engineer from the Washington, D.C., area, said the Marathon was the first big event of any kind she had attended since the start of the pandemic.

“Everyone is ready to keep living,” she said. “We’re enjoying the spring weather and walking around mask-free.”

A spokesperson for the Boston Athletic Association, the organizer of the Marathon, said masks will be required on buses that shuttle runners out to the start line and in medical tents. All runners must also show proof of vaccination.

The coronavirus resurgence was reflected in data released this past week. COVID hospitalizations have increased to 343, from 216 on April 1. The percentage of those hospitalized primarily for COVID-related illnesses has held steady, at about a third of the total. But as the overall number has climbed, so too has the number who are being treated for COVID.

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Meanwhile, the level of coronavirus in Boston-area waste water has more than quadrupled since March 15, according to data published last week by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

Across the city, community leaders are wrestling with balancing safety against the desire to get back to normal life.

In announcing the rise in the positivity rates on Thursday, the Boston Public Health Commission advised residents to take precautions this weekend, including wearing a well-fitting mask, testing before indoor gatherings, and moving social engagements outdoors whenever possible. However, City Hall refrained from reinstating a mask mandate, as the city of Philadelphia did last week.

At Temple Israel of Boston, masks are optional, though worshipers at Passover services this weekend must be vaccinated, with virtual participation available for anyone not comfortable with in-person attendance. Rabbi Elaine Zecher said the synagogue’s COVID policies are open to change and informed by the advice of a panel of public health experts and her own monitoring of data.

“I pay very close attention to where [in the country] cases are rising and falling, but also where the deaths are,” Zecher said. “In New England, there may be a higher incidence of cases, but there is also a much lower incidence of deaths. That’s an important piece of information.”

She doesn’t expect to ever return to a pre-pandemic normal. “Would I like to think COVID is gone? Yes, but it’s not. That’s not being realistic,” she said. “Still we can do this, we know how to do this, and we can’t let fear overcome us.”

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Even as she monitors case counts, Zecher said, her congregation is trying to look to the future with a positive outlook — especially at this time of year.

“The themes of Easter and Passover are moving from darkness into light. For Passover, it’s the idea of dignity out of degradation,” she said. “Right now we are in the light of spring and these holidays represent life and life-giving force. If there’s anything that drives that home, it’s the Marathon, seeing people running by the thousands.”

Wind briefly blew the shroud off the cross carried by David Santaniello during a pilgrimage by members of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Boston Common on Holy Saturday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Some experts sounded a note of caution about the weekend’s events. Daniele Lantagne,a Tufts University professor of environmental health and infectious disease, expects a jump in COVID cases in the wake of Marathon weekend, with so many visiting the region from out of state and overseas.

She pointed to new data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, which found that people who reported traveling abroad during March were more likely to test positive for COVID than those who had not.

“If I was going to [a hotel or restaurant] I would choose to mask,” Lantagne said. “Or maybe it’s not the weekend to go to a restaurant in downtown Boston.” She added that she is “much less worried about the Marathon itself,” since it is outdoors.

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Dr. Syra Madad, an infectious disease expert at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said that in today’s climate of increasing cases, masks — in particular, high-quality ones — are your friend. She called on institutions that are open to the public to hand out high-quality masks, such as KN-95s or KF-94s, at the door.

That’s exactly what the Rev. Gregory Groover of Charles Street AME Church in Roxbury has decided to do. As congregants arrive for Easter services on Sunday, volunteers will offer an N-95 mask to anyone not already wearing one. (Masks are required to enter the sanctuary.) In addition to limiting attendance to one-third of the church’s capacity, Groover views masking as a necessary condition for holding in-person services — even though it comes with a cost.

“We think smiles are a gift from God, so we miss seeing them,” he said. Masking also affects participation in services.

“My congregants have said they can’t sing as forcefully, as joyfully, because they are inhibited by the mask,” he said. “But we think we should be as safe as possible.”

Vaccination is strongly encouraged, but not required, Groover said, adding that he believes a large majority of his congregants are vaccinated.

Groover believes that the confluence of Easter, Passover, and the Marathon this weekend is not a coincidence.

“It’s God telling us that maybe we’re never going to be fully released from COVID,” he said. “Maybe it will remain in our midst for many days and years ahead. But so will God, and so will the presence of new life and hope. They will move us into better days ahead.”

At the expo Friday, Chris Anderson, 74, from Nova Scotia, said, “We’re working our way back to normality.” And if anyone would recognize a normal Marathon, it’s Anderson, who will run on Monday for the 32nd consecutive time. And as before, he traveled to Boston with his children and grandchildren.

For the Anderson clan, this weekend marks a return to a cherished tradition. “Most families get together at Christmastime,” he said. “Our family gets together at Marathon time.”


Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com. Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.