Few aspects of life in pandemic times have been predictable over the past two years, yet one pattern seemed clear: As the spring weather warms in Massachusetts, cases decline.
But not now. Much of the state is back in the red zone — with high levels and increasing COVID case numbers in seven Massachusetts communities, including Boston, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitalizations are rising, too.
That means people in these red-zone counties should wear masks in indoor public spaces, the CDC says. They include: Berkshire, Franklin, Worcester, Middlesex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Barnstable counties.
The elevated risk prompted several large school districts in Greater Boston, including Belmont, Cambridge, Lexington, and Somerville, to dash out notices to families over the weekend and Monday, urging parents to, once again, consider masks for their children in classrooms. Some said they would be testing children more frequently, and others indicated they were weighing whether to bring back temporary mask requirements.
So what does the red-zone risk mean for everyday life? The Boston Globe reached out to readers and their responses were wide ranging.
Several older people said they never ditched their masks, and are sticking close to home — even if many of their younger neighbors and colleagues have left precautions in their rearview mirror.
“I am risk averse, in part because I am 70 and because I know too much,” said George Allen, an aerosol scientist who has been working from his Swampscott home since the pandemic began.
Allen closely tracks every scrap of data, including COVID levels in waste water, new cases, and hospitalizations, and concludes that risk of infection now in Massachusetts is nearly as high as it ever was, outside of the winter surges the past two years.
He also is in good health, vaccinated, and double boosted. But Allen has been wearing his mask when he goes to any indoor places, and severely limiting where he goes, which means no more dining in restaurants, something he and his wife enjoy.
“I am still at an elevated risk just because of my age,” he said, adding that being vaccinated is an imperfect protection against infection.
“I don’t want to risk long COVID,” he said.
Age is one of the strongest risk factors for complications or death from COVID. The risk may also be increased in people of any age who have other serious health problems — such as diabetes, obesity, a weakened immune system, or preexisting heart or lung problems.
Mary Hopkins, a 67-year-old Everett resident, also considers herself healthy. But she said her age, in addition to her daily subway commute to her library job at a Boston-area university, has convinced her to stay vigilant, and that means masking. A lot.
“I am really good at catching colds and forming really good relations with them,” Hopkins said. “I had one this winter I was coughing for a month. I had four PCRs [molecular COVID tests] and all were negative.”
Hopkins and her husband have grandchildren and the youngest, who lives nearby, is too young to be vaccinated. Already, the child’s dad, who works in a local grocery store, has had COVID. Twice.
“I don’t go to the theater. I was tempted by a couple of [classical] concerts recently but I decided against it,” she said. “I just decided that is not my priority right now.”
Others who responded are taking a more middle-ground approach: avoiding large indoor events and spacing out the number of days between small gatherings, as well as testing after any such events. One 73-year-old retired health care professional said she feels “marginally safer to resume selected activities. This includes seeing fully vaccinated family and close friends in their homes and in mine.”
But several younger people, like Terry Waldron, a 38-year-old Beverly resident, said he is done with precautions. He has been vaccinated and boosted and got infected with COVID-19 in December, but it was mild, just some fatigue.
“I just had a cold this past week where I felt much worse,” he said.
“I am young and do not feel at risk if I do catch it again,” he said. “I feel we need to start living life again and socializing face to face, and if you feel you are at risk, then please feel free to take the precautions you need.”
The issue of COVID precautions has become a pandemic lightning rod, often drawing heated comments from all sides. Among those who have felt the brunt of the heat are school administrators. Several who are grappling with rising cases sent notices to families Monday and over the weekend recommending – and in some cases strongly urging — children to mask up again. But the correspondences noted they were not requiring the face coverings, at least for now.
“We recognize that many families have welcomed the lifting of mask mandates and other restrictions, but we have also seen the impact that the lessening of personal mitigation strategies has had on our classroom communities,” read the notice from Somerville’s school district on Friday.
The notice “strongly encouraged” all students and staff to mask.
But it made clear that the district “may institute a temporary mask requirement in specific classrooms with multiple cases to decrease the chance of transmission.”
Lexington’s superintendent, Julie Hackett, started her correspondence to families Sunday noting the district was experiencing staffing shortages at one of its middle schools because of COVID.
“It is my understanding that the Lexington Board of Health has no immediate plans to reinstate the mask mandate,” she wrote.
“Given the increase in the number of cases in Middlesex County and our high vaccination rates and many other layered mitigation strategies in place, I will stop short of a mask mandate,” she said.
But Hackett “strongly recommended” all students voluntarily mask-up until rates subside in Middlesex County.
Belmont’s Superintendent John Phelan’s notice to families on Monday was more muted.
“Consider having your student wear a mask while in school,” he wrote. “We are not mandating but simply recommending this added layer of protection.”
The rise in cases across Massachusetts comes as schools approach graduation time. And despite staying close to home and avoiding large indoor gatherings, Allen, the Swampscott scientist, is not about to miss his son’s upcoming graduation from Montserrat College of Art in Beverly.
Even if it is indoors.
“We will go, but I will double mask,” Allen said. “It will be the highest-risk event we will go to ever since this whole thing started.”