The end of the pandemic in the United States isn’t going to be marked by a solemn announcement or a celebrity-studded fundraising event on TV. There are too many uncertainties.
Even as the situation improves in Massachusetts, the numbers are much higher — though dropping — in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and elsewhere. And, of course, the virus is causing unimaginable suffering right now in India and South America. We need to do all we can to help.
But even though there won’t be a clearly defined endpoint, I’m declaring an end to COVID-19 this week. Just about every adult in the U.S. who wants to be vaccinated has now done so or will be able to soon. Masks are coming off outdoors. Schools are filling up again — safely. Indoor restaurant dining is coming back. Our long national nightmare isn’t over, but we’re slowly beginning to wake up.
When was the first day you realized that COVID-19 was going to disrupt our lives — even though we didn’t know until later how long and hard that disruption would be?
In its anniversary package, GBH News decided on March 10, 2020, the day that Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency. I wrote about covering a COVID news conference in Mendocino County, California, on March 5.
For me, though, the real anniversary is today. On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, we learned at a faculty meeting that classes would go remote the following day. That evening, the NBA shut down and Tom Hanks announced that he had COVID.
And in what would prove to be our final in-person meeting, my graduate ethics students and I watched Donald Trump deliver an Oval Office address that night about the coronavirus that was so unnerving it sent the Dow futures tumbling.
Sometime in the evening on Thursday, March 5, 2020, I settled in at the bar of the Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah, California. I’d had a long day of interviews, driving out to the Pacific coast and back through the redwood forests of Mendocino County, and I wanted dessert, a glass of wine and a chance to decompress.
Throughout the week, the news about the novel coronavirus had been getting more ominous. Flights were being canceled, and I told my wife I was concerned about making it home. But at that early stage of what would become a worldwide pandemic, I wasn’t worried about getting sick — not even when a half-dozen laughing, inebriated young women pressed up behind me.
I’d begun my day at the county offices in Ukiah, where officials held their first coronavirus news conference. The World Health Organization had named the illness “COVID-19” several weeks earlier, but my memory is that no one was calling it that yet. I was there to catch up with Kate Maxwell and Adrian Fernandez Baumann, the founders of The Mendocino Voice, a community website in the process of transforming itself into a news co-op. I was reporting on the Voice as part of a book project, and this was a chance to see them in action.
The county generally held its news events outside, I was told — not out of health concerns but just because the weather was usually nice. It was quite nice on this particular morning, but for some reason about 50 of us were crowded into a brightly lit, windowless conference room.
“We have been working 24/7 since January,” said Dr. Noemi Doohan, the interim public health officer. Up to that point, no coronavirus cases had been reported in Mendocino County. There were no masks and no thought of masks. But still, she urged “no more handshaking for a while.” She displayed a poster recommending fist bumps — which would soon look hopelessly naive — along with stocking up on nonperishable food, getting to know your neighbors and staying six feet away from each other.
I made it back to Boston on a half-empty flight, just before the entire country shut down during those early, terrifying days of the pandemic. And I’m grateful that I have been far less affected than many people.
I’m on the journalism faculty at Northeastern University. I’ve been teaching partly in person since last September, getting tested twice a week and, so far, remaining healthy. My wife teaches in the public schools and is in person four days a week. She, too, is healthy. I’m 64 and she’s 63, so we haven’t been able to get vaccinated yet. Soon, though, we hope.
But what a strange, lost year we’ve all lived through. Even though the end is in sight, we’ve got months to go — and we still don’t really know what the new normal will look like. It’s been an especially difficult experience for our students. Hers are elementary-age kids who have been in school half-time while trying to keep up on Zoom the rest of the week. Mine are undergrads and grads. In one of my classes, they have the option of attending in person, but often just one or two show up, the rest coming in on a big screen over — yes — Zoom. (After this is over, I never want to Zoom again.)
We know we’ve been relatively lucky, even though a member of our family died of COVID-19 last year. So many people have suffered even worse losses, such as the deaths of multiple family members and lingering illness. So many people are unemployed and hungry. We’ve donated to food programs, and we drive around our community restocking pop-up food pantries. It’s not enough. I just hope President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package will carry us all through until most of the pandemic restrictions have ended.
Spring break at Northeastern is usually the first week of March. That’s why I was in California last year. I’ve taken advantage of spring break over the years to schedule reporting trips, preferably in warm places (I wholeheartedly recommend Orange County, California), although I’ve also spent the week in New Haven after a historic snowstorm and in northern Vermont, where a friend’s mother had lent me the use of her cottage so I could finish writing the last two chapters of a book.
This year there was no spring break, as school started a week later in January to avoid the post-holiday coronavirus surge. So that’s one more experience my students will miss out on. Last year, a dozen of them went on a reporting trip to Panama. This year they got ready for midterms.
The Mendo Voice, fortunately, seems to be going strong. The site now has a Report for America fellow and is chock full of stories about the pandemic, the pot industry and the seemingly never-ending wildfire season.
As for my book project, well, that got put off a year. My research partner and I had planned out an ambitious travel schedule, all of which had to be delayed. I hope we can resume this summer, at least with a couple of places that are within driving distance.
A year ago at this time I was recovering from the worst cold I’d had in years. Later, I thought maybe I’d had COVID-19 without realizing it. But it was impossible. I was with a lot of people. I would have become my very own super-spreader event.
And here we are at 500,000 deaths. On Monday I watched a video of President Biden, Vice President Harris and their spouses paying their respects while a military band played “Amazing Grace.” And, just as I had during the inauguration, I briefly got choked up.
At some point, I’m sure we’ll become accustomed to simple human decency at the White House once again and will start asking questions about Biden’s actual management of the pandemic. But I’m not there yet.
I messed up the time and missed the train this morning, so I took a Lyft instead. The driver, Dave, told me that his business is down 40% since the start of the pandemic. He hasn’t been called to Logan in months. It’s also been quite a while since he picked up a student.
These are the costs of COVID-19 — and it’s going to get worse, and there’s no sign that Prime Minister Mitch McConnell will deign to bestow upon us another round of stimulus spending.
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I’m writing this on Tuesday of Week Two at Northeastern University. I’ve taught five classes — two via Zoom, three in person. I’ve taken three COVID tests. I’ve been rear-ended on the Zakim, taken the commuter rail, gotten on the Orange Line and walked the three miles from North Station to campus. I’ve ordered coffee, including my first Starbucks since last March, which I’m drinking right now.
And yes, I’ll admit, it’s good to be back.
Was I skeptical? Of course. Across the country, many employees are being told to work from home until next January at the earliest, even though working in a socially distanced office seems pretty low-risk. By contrast, college faculty are exposing themselves to young adults who, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, are going to spend some of their time partying, drinking, having sex and spreading whatever viruses they may be carrying, including COVID. Northeastern has already kicked out 11 freshmen, and Boston College is in the midst of what may be the early stages of a surge.
So far, though, I’m impressed with what I’ve seen. Mask-wearing is universal. Most people are conscious of not getting too close to anyone else. And though I’m teaching one of my classes in person, precautions are being taken. In a room in which as many as 19 students are sometimes assigned, I have a class of nine, and only seven of them can attend on any given day. We have a cart loaded with audio-visual equipment so that those attending remotely can see and hear us, and vice-versa. I’m impressed with the quality and how easy it is to use, although I needed some help from one of our brilliant students to get it up and running.
COVID has accelerated an upheaval in higher education that was already under way. Costs are out of control. Too often, young people and their families are left with unaffordable debt once they’ve picked up their degrees and launched their careers. Increasingly, we are being told that students would be better served by online education at a fraction of the cost.
Thus the return to campus this fall, at Northeastern and across the country, is driven by economics. We’re determined to show that there is value to the full in-person, on-campus college experience. As Harvard and MIT chaplain Greg M. Epstein wrote in The Boston Globe this past Sunday, “educational institutions and those who care about them risk everything if we forget that non-academic student activities help students become fully human.”
Less altruistically, colleges and universities need the money if they are going to continue with the faculty and infrastructure they have now. I’m not opposed to that. After all, one of the many things Northeastern does with the money it receives from students is pay my salary. I could have chosen to teach from home. At 64, I’m in the vulnerable age group. But I wanted to give the students who are enrolled in my in-person class as normal an experience as possible.
But only if it’s safe. At least at the moment, it’s looking good. The university is testing everyone — faculty, staff and students — several times a week. The most recent seven-day average of positive test results is just 0.05%, well below the state’s own admirably low rate of 0.8%. (Apples-and-oranges alert: Yes, I realize that not everyone in the state is being tested, and that a disproportionate number of those seeking tests have symptoms. Still, there’s no question that Northeastern is doing well so far.)
Still, the picture nationwide is unsettling. The New York Times is tracking COVID at campuses across the country, and the picture at some institutions is disturbing indeed. USA Today reports that “of the 25 hottest outbreaks in the U.S., communities heavy with college students represent 19 of them.” The University of North Carolina and Notre Dame are among the schools that shut down almost as soon as they reopened. Maybe things will be different in the Boston area given that COVID is more or less under control in the city and the state. We’ll find out soon enough.
As I walk around the campus, I see students everywhere — not as many as usual, and all of them masked. It’s not ideal. But for young adults learning how to make their way in the world, it’s got to be better than holing up in their parents’ basement for months at a time.
We wedged ourselves between the concrete Jersey barriers that were separating the parking lot from the outdoor dining area and approached a server. “Would you like a table inside or out?” she asked. “Out!” we replied with some alacrity.
It was a beautiful recent evening — the third time we had ventured to restaurants since the COVID-19 restrictions had eased. There was no way we were going to eat inside; frankly, we would have been reluctant to use the restrooms if nature had called.
But eating out provided us with a blessed sense of normality that had been missing in those locked-down days of spring. It helped that the restaurants we visited were all doing it right — masked servers, tables spread apart, customers and staff friendly and chill. We’ve also had friends over a few times, outdoors, socially distanced, masked up when getting food or drinks. It was almost enough to make you think that life as we knew it was gradually beginning to return.
Now it’s starting to look like a fantasy — a lull before the next wave of pandemic restrictions rather than a sign of real progress.
We all know what’s going on. Nationally, the situation has been disastrous for many weeks, as the number of cases and the death toll have been rising in southern and western states that had been largely unaffected by the early wave. Over the weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, who is overseeing the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, called the current surge “extraordinarily widespread.”
In Massachusetts, where our early, terrifying outbreak had been brought under control, the numbers are creeping back up. “What we’re seeing are the indicators that a surge is coming,” Northeastern University epidemiologist Samuel Scarpino told The Boston Globe earlier this week.
Scarpino is urging Gov. Charlie Baker and other officials to reimpose some of the restrictions that had been in place earlier in the pandemic. At the same time, thousands of college students are about to descend upon the area, many of them from states like Florida and Texas, where mask-wearing is seen as something that only socialists do.
It’s now clear that plans made during May and June, when some green shoots of optimism began sprouting from the barren soil, are no longer realistic. The return of Major League Baseball has been a five-alarm disaster. Office workers are being told to stay home until January at the earliest. Hopes of reopening public schools this fall, either fully or in part, have given way to demands from the teachers unions that classrooms remain closed until safety concerns can be addressed. Colleges and universities — including Northeastern, where I teach — are for the moment sticking with plans they made months ago to reopen for at least some in-person classes, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely.
What’s also been clear for some time now is that President Donald Trump’s abdication of leadership transformed a situation that would have been bad in any case into something infinitely worse. “Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus,” writes Ed Yong of The Atlantic near the top of his massively researched overview of the Trump administration’s failures.
And the respite we’ve been enjoying in recent weeks will begin to fade. Soon we may no longer have the option of going to restaurants and sitting inside — it’s either the parking lot or nothing. There will be rainy days. And it will start to get cold. And more and more restaurants, struggling to hang on since March, will shut down.
Public schools will struggle once again with Zoom classes as parents try to balance their kids’ education with their own need to work. Higher education may have to return to online-only, and hard-pressed families will start to demand answers to why they’re paying massive tuition bills for a University of Phoenix-style experience.
And those lazy evenings of al fresco dining will start to look like a fond memory rather than a harbinger of better days to come.
A little after 11 a.m. this past Saturday, I eased myself onto my bike and headed toward Boston. My destination was Northeastern University, where I teach in the journalism program. I wanted to see if it was realistic to commute by bicycle once in-person classes resume this September.
What prompted this experiment was a story in The Boston Globe. According to Steve Annear, even as ridership begins to recover from the pandemic, more passengers are refusing to wear masks — and the MBTA is taking a decidedly laid-back approach to enforcement.
“What I’ve been doing as a rider whenever I see people not wearing a mask is I’ve been getting off in between stations and running to the next car, hoping the people on the new car will all be wearing their masks,” a rider named Victoria Kroeger told Annear.
For more than 20 years, I’d commuted to Boston from the North Shore by car, a soul-sucking ordeal that grew worse every year. Then, in 2014, we moved to West Medford, returning to a neighborhood where we’d lived for a few years in the early 1980s. I discovered the joy of walking to the train station and then hopping onto the subway at North Station. Commuting became almost a pleasure. We all love to complain about the T, but it rarely let me down.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I want to get onto sealed trains and subway cars with hundreds of strangers, any one (or dozen) of whom could be carrying the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Especially if maskless morons are spewing aerosolized particles of disease into the air.
Which is why I was on my bike Saturday, maneuvering on side paths and urban streets. From the Alewife Greenway I picked up Mass. Ave, then headed toward Harvard Square. From there I followed the Charles River to Boston and back to Mass Ave. I turned right onto St. Stephen Street at Symphony Hall and from there pedaled to my office, which I couldn’t actually get into because of pandemic restrictions.
I’d covered 8.9 miles in 53 minutes, a little faster than it would take by public transportation. I was no worse for the wear; but it was a hot day, and I was sweating freely. If this had been an actual commute, I’d want to take a shower — but the locker rooms at the campus recreation center are closed for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic. (And I wouldn’t take the risk, anyway.)
I’d proved that I could do it, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I would do it. After shattering my elbow in an encounter with a wet speed bump 10 years ago, I didn’t ride a bike again until last year. So I’m ever wary about the hazards of urban biking. I’m also not going to ride in the rain or in the dark. For me, biking to work is a maybe option under perfect conditions, but hardly a comprehensive solution.
So what am I — what are all of us — supposed to do?
A couple of years ago, we decided to become a one-car family. My wife takes it for her short drive to work, and she has no other options. I’ve thought about trying to lease a car until V (Vaccine) Day. But I’ve heard from many of my colleagues that they’re also thinking of driving because of concerns about the T, so it seems more than likely that parking will be a nightmare. I’ve thought of relying on Lyft, but I’m not convinced that would be a COVID-free experience, either.
The message on the MBTA website is simple and direct: “All riders and employees are required to wear face coverings while riding the T.” But will the T start doing a better job of enforcing it? What about social-distancing? What about air quality? What happens when a subway car stops, the electricity goes off and air circulation is cut off?
These are things we all ought to be concerned about, especially when thousands of college students from all over the country — most definitely including states that are surging now — arrive in Boston a few weeks from now.
It had been a couple of months since I’d been on campus, so I spent a little time looking around. I was surprised by how many students were sunning themselves on Centennial Common — not huge numbers, but enough to make the campus feel at least semi-populated. Then I headed home, this time skipping the river route and taking Mass. Ave from Hemenway Street into North Cambridge, shaving a half-mile off my trip.
It was fun. But I couldn’t help but notice how light traffic was compared to what it will be like on weekdays after Labor Day. Maybe some hardier, younger folks than I could make the transition to commuting by bike. But I’m almost certainly going to have to depend on the T, and I’m not going to be alone.
Multiply my story, and my concerns, by tens — if not hundreds — of thousands, and you’ve got an idea of what challenges the region is going to face this fall. According to the T, there were 1.16 million trips taken in February, the last month before the pandemic hit. Safe public transportation is indispensable to our economy and to the well-being of our community.
We can’t let the T become a vector for a new COVID surge. We have to get this right.
We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.
One of the best parts of moving back to West Medford five years ago was that we were able to reduce our dependence on driving. When one of our cars died, we decided not to replace it. Now my wife drives literally 10 minutes through residential streets to get to her job, and I rely on public transportation, supplemented by Lyft and an occasional Zipcar.
COVID has upended that. As all of us at Northeastern ponder how we’re going to return to campus this fall, I’m wondering how I’m going to get there. Will I feel safe on the commuter rail and subway? What about possible virus left behind by previous Lyft riders? I’ve thought about riding my bike, but that’s not a comprehensive solution — I’m not going to do it when it’s raining or dark, and I don’t want to wrestle with cars and trucks on a regular basis, either.
As for what Northeastern is going to look like this fall, that still feels a bit up in the air, even though plans are being made to open on time in September. I’ll be teaching one class entirely online. The other will be taught using what’s being referred to as the hyflex model — or, in Northeastern-speak, “NUflex.”
With hyflex, you’re dealing with three separate groups of students. Some of them are in the classroom with you. Another group — maybe they had visa problems, maybe they’re on quarantine — joins the class via video conferencing. And a third group watches a recording of the class at a later time, possibly because of illness or time-zone differences. It sounds like quite a challenge. Our student newspaper, The Huntington News, has the details.
Some faculty members at Boston University are up in arms over the idea of returning to campus at all, according to The Boston Globe and CommonWealth Magazine. I haven’t heard any similar dissension at Northeastern, but maybe I’m not listening in the right places.
What I do know is that COVID is surging nationally once again — and the numbers in Massachusetts don’t inspire a lot of confidence, either. People make plans, but the virus makes its own, abetted by human folly. We’ll see whether anyone is actually back on campus this fall. I hope we are, but it’s hardly a given.
We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.
This was the week that everything seemed to come apart. The death toll from COVID-19 passed 100,000. And yet, briefly, that terrible milestone has been overshadowed by the latest in a long series of reckonings over what it means to be Black in America.
The day began with Omar Jimenez, a Black Latino journalist for CNN, being arrested by white police officers in Minneapolis even as a white CNN reporter stood not far away, unmolested by cops. The journalists were there to cover the protests that have broken out over the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white officer. That officer, Derek Chauvin, has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. No word yet on the fate of the three officers who stood by and let it happen.
The day ended with televised images across the country, from Minneapolis to Atlanta, from New York to California, as thousands of people protested against racist violence against African Americans. Sadly, some of those protests turned violent. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” This week the unheard were intent on being heard — not just on behalf of Floyd, but also many others, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and, yes, even Christian Cooper, who was not physically injured but who was humiliated by a privileged white woman when he asked her to leash her dog.
I was struck last night by David Brooks’ demeanor on the PBS NewsHour. I’d never seen him as agitated and upset. I thought he might start crying — and who could blame him? And I was moved deeply by the African American scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. of Princeton University, who was interviewed earlier in the NewsHour by Amna Nawaz. I’ve embedded it above, and you should watch it all. Speaking of Floyd’s killing, Glaude closes with this:
He cried out for his mother. She’s been dead for two years. She’s been dead. He basically told someone to tell my kids that I love them, because I’m going to die. And that man, that moral monster kept his knee on his neck. I didn’t — I couldn’t process it. It broke me.
I’m currently reading John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” his 2004 book about the deadly flu pandemic of 1918. You might think that wouldn’t be the most relaxing thing to curl up with in the midst of the current pandemic. But the 1918 flu eventually ended, which is a good reminder amid what seems like an endless tragedy.
Last week was the worst in our country’s history since 9/11. Before that, you’d have to go back to the war, assassinations and riots of 1968. Back then, our political leadership was not up to the task. Today, the president and his fellow Republicans are actively making things worse.
We have to hope that there will be better days ahead — and, to the extent that we can, work to make those better days happen.