Memorial Day weekend is usually heralded as the unofficial start of summer. This year, though, it’s a bit more official — not just a small seasonal step but a giant leap in the battle to overcome COVID-19.
Massachusetts is set to lift all COVID restrictions, save for some minor mandates to be retained in certain settings like health care facilities and public transportation. In nearly every corner of daily life rocked by the pandemic over the past year, the fully vaccinated can now reclaim the precious pleasures we likely often took for granted before we had to give them up to beat back a viral threat. For those of us who’ve received their shots, we can now remove the masks to breathe a sigh of relief, and forgo distancing measures to celebrate together once again.
While SARS-CoV-2 will likely stick around in a less dire form like its coronavirus relatives, we have come a long way against this scourge. Nearly 600,000 Americans have succumbed to COVID-19, tens of millions more have been sickened with the possibility of “long-haul” symptoms well into the future and millions more have had their lives and livelihoods disrupted or worse. But as the nationwide vaccination campaign continues its full court-press across the country and in the commonwealth, we now appear to have the upper hand.
Deaths, hospitalizations, positive test rate and new cases all continue their steady trend downward in Massachusetts. This is thanks to one of the quickest vaccine development turnarounds in human history. Locally, it’s also a credit to those in Berkshire County, whether medical staff or volunteers, who have rolled up their sleeves and put in long hours in an unprecedented coordinated effort to protect their neighbors in a crisis.
Bay Staters have earned this stride toward normality through their encouraging vaccination numbers. But, as Gov. Charlie Baker pointed out at a Friday news conference on the state’s transition, it’s highly unlikely that we’re all going to be on the same page psychologically right away. Some people are going to want to immediately take advantage of gathering limits and other strictures being rescinded, but some might not be up to that just yet. All state-imposed capacity restrictions and COVID rules for businesses are set to expire, though it’s possible certain stores might wish to keep mask rules for a bit longer. To be sure, Massachusetts’ moves are data-informed, and it’s a welcome development that we have a safe chance for a somewhat typical summer experience, from barbecue blowouts to Tanglewood shows. Still, let’s try to be patient and kind with the members of your community. This has been a traumatic experience for the entire country, but it’s been disproportionately harder on some. Give those folks some time, if they need it. We’ve got the whole summer to grapple with getting back to normal.
As is usually the case on Memorial Day, we have reason for celebration, but also for solemn gratitude — not just for the health workers who have held the front line against COVID, but those who gave their lives in defense of our nation. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the end of the Civil War, but the last year has added a painful new layer to its significance as many older veterans faced increased COVID risk and fell victim to the cruel virus.
Truly honoring the sacrifices of our military means doing everything feasible to protect members of our armed forces, even after they’ve returned from the line of duty. We spend a lot to put them in harm’s way, but not nearly enough on protecting them afterward — whether it’s last year’s tragic and unjustifiable losses at the Holyoke Soldiers Home or the veterans who sleep on the street or struggle with addiction and other mental health crises stemming from their service.
Remember them in addition to the war dead this Memorial Day, that we might act to prevent these shameful tragedies in the future.