From the Beacon, May 2021

Fourteen months after COVID-19’s exponential spread triggered an international pandemic that washed over Massachusetts and disrupted nearly all aspects of our daily lives, we are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

We have lost so much during the past year. Thousands of our neighbors have perished. Hundreds of thousands have become ill. Millions have changed their lives, limited their activities, and suffered loss of connection with family, friends and colleagues.

At the same time, we must recognize that our region has been spared even more devastating impacts, due to the remarkable leadership of public officials at the municipal and state level, strong collaboration and support between local and state government, and now rescue-level funding and vaccines from the federal government. Massachusetts is a true leader in protecting its residents and laying the groundwork to move ahead to the last stages of the public health emergency.

Just a short while ago, the Baker-Polito administration outlined the projected calendar for lifting most of the public health restrictions that have been in place for a year. If the infection rate continues to fall, vaccine delivery continues to rise, and key health metrics confirm that the COVID-19 threat is low, then we could reach a “new normal” stage on Aug. 1. At that time, the administration envisions removing almost all restrictions on the public and businesses, except for face covering requirements indoors and in close-contact situations.

This is great news for all of us. Yet the coming transition period will not be easy for local leaders. It is likely that the public will be divided, with differing perspectives on how fast we should reopen, how safe it will be, and whether enough people have been vaccinated to provide an appropriate level of protection. Because we are still living with uncertainty, with few definitive answers to these questions, you will soon be forced to make decisions about municipal operations, public events and local health requirements, all without perfect information.

In short, while there is light at the end of the tunnel, there’s still a lot of dimly lit ground to cover before we emerge from the crisis.

For example, while the state has announced its timeline for easing public health restrictions, with different stages of activity allowed as of May 10 and May 29 (see related information in this Beacon and on the MMA website), some municipalities may opt to move more slowly and make decisions based on the health data that accumulates after other regions open up.

In the case of public events, the outdoor gathering limits will soon increase to 250, and festivals and parades can be allowed at 50% capacity. But many of these caps will be unenforceable, such as limiting the number of people who line up on sidewalks to watch parades, or show up to attend large block parties or cultural festivals. It may be infeasible to allow Memorial Day and July 4 events to move forward, depending on the format and density in many cities and towns.

Are communities really going to have a fireworks display if only 250 people can attend, or if the crowd needs to be pared back to 50% of those who showed up in 2019? And even if you try to go ahead, how will you deny access to the overflow if they show up anyway? Regardless of your decision locally, there will be people on both sides of the issue, and lots of opportunities for flare-ups.

Beyond public events, there will be lots of questions about how and when to reopen senior centers, libraries, and city and town halls for normal operations, public hearings, and other events. You will make these decisions based on input from your local health staff, the comfort level of your employees, the concerns and desires of your residents and businesses, and other factors. Yet developing consensus may be difficult, especially since many communities may adopt different timelines and protocols, which is expected when local decision-making is empowered.

Vaccine delivery is another area where the pandemic challenge will become more difficult in the coming weeks and months. It’s likely that the 80-20 rule will apply here. After a slow and balky rollout, the vaccine delivery process is now humming along in most regions of the state, and Massachusetts is on pace to vaccinate almost everyone who wants a shot (or two) in the arm before summer. It may turn out, however, that vaccinating the final 20% of eligible individuals will take as much effort and resources as vaccinating the first 80%. This will move the public conversation beyond “vaccine hesitancy” into “vaccine resistance,” or even outright opposition.

Right now, the governor and president are saying that they do not envision vaccine requirements or mandates, yet many members of the public, local employees, businesses and others may ask you to make different decisions or establish local rules to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. These are highly charged issues, and there is no gold standard or established best practice to guide us other than public health and science. Yet, as we have seen in so many other settings, the public can be quite polarized even when the facts are not in dispute.

The best practice is to engage in these local conversations now, in advance of when you need to make these decisions, agree on the factors that will guide your decisions, consult with peers in other communities to share information, and build consensus on your process as early as possible. The MMA will be doing our best to be a resource on these thorny issues, as we have throughout the pandemic, yet the ultimate decisions and hard choices will be in your hands.

The good news is that we may get our lives back to near-normal in a few months — although the road that will get us there will certainly include some tricky hills, curves, bumps and potholes along the way.

This next stage of the pandemic will provide further proof of how essential municipal leaders are to the well-being and success of our communities and our nation. That’s because local leaders are the ones who will smooth out the path ahead and get us there safe and sound.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO