From the Beacon, December 2021

In 1862, French journalist and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” popularly translated as, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Alphonse Karr was applying his acerbic wit to the political and social forces around him, penning a phrase that has remained remarkably relevant for more than 150 years.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Unfortunately, it’s also an apt expression to describe the roller-coaster ride that cities and towns have been on during the COVID-19 pandemic, with news of the Omicron variant providing another round of widespread concern and uncertainty.

We’ve seen a huge amount of change since that fateful day when Gov. Charlie Baker declared the COVID state of emergency on March 10, 2020. In the past 630-plus days, local, state, and federal officials have engaged in a full-on, nonstop battle against the most deadly and crippling pandemic of our lifetimes.

As an unabashed admirer of government and public service, I’ve often chafed at the portrayal of local and state government as slow and reluctant to embrace change or innovation. Much of the caution that municipal leaders display is a respectful reflection of the public’s own ambivalence to sharp-angled change. When it’s necessary, however, local officials can pivot, make swift decisions, and innovate at a scale that matches the vision and determination of our most intrepid entrepreneurs.

It’s breathtaking to think about how much has happened here since the pandemic became an official event, more than 90 weeks ago. Unprecedented testing and contact tracing capacities were implemented. Universal masking and social distancing protocols were created and enforced. Emergency measures were established to ensure life-saving medical treatment for the very ill during surge and overflow conditions. Rules were created to continue essential public and private services and programs. Temporary quarantine quarters were established for first responders and the homeless. Public education went from in-person to remote to hybrid to in-person again. Massive protections were put in place for those facing housing and food insecurity. Unemployment benefits were expanded for displaced workers. Municipal workforces went from in-office to all-remote to hybrid to in-person again. The economy was shut down and restarted in phases while maintaining a laser-like focus on preserving public health and implementing flexible and innovative frameworks to support local businesses. Vaccine clinics and delivery systems were created and coordinated to make Massachusetts the national leader in vaccination rates for all age levels. Boosters are now being delivered to all adults.

Millions of people have perished across the globe and here at home, including 19,000 in Massachusetts alone. The scars of COVID-19 will be with us for generations, and we will always remember and treasure those whom we have lost.

At the same time, it is appropriate to recognize and applaud the efforts of public leaders at every level of government. You and your colleagues have saved countless lives, and the energy and effort you have given to this task has been simply extraordinary. Without municipal, state and national leadership and mobilization, millions more Americans would have lost their lives, and the added agony would be incalculable.

Communities have endured and even thrived during the deepest public health crisis of the past 100 years because of two remarkable traits that are on display in every one of our 351 cities and towns: perseverance and resilience.

Perseverance is the quality that allows someone to continue trying to do something even though it is difficult, especially if the outcome or timeline is uncertain.

Resilience is the ability to become strong, healthy or successful again after something bad happens. It is the ability to absorb, adjust and rebound from hard times.

There are no better words to explain how local government officials have led the way for their residents during the past 20 months.

And still, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Over the Thanksgiving break many families (including my own) were able to gather safely to celebrate the holiday for the first time since 2019, a hopeful moment across the nation. Yet hours later a “more they stay the same” reminder emerged in the form of the Omicron variant. Every news outlet responded in disproportionate fashion, stoking the fires of uncertainty and worry. The first few pages of the pandemic’s Omicron chapter provide solid evidence that while things have changed so much over the past 20 months, the underlying story has mostly remained the same.

Over the next several weeks the key questions will be answered. Is Omicron more transmissible than Delta? Will this variant create higher or lower illness severity? Will our vaccines provide adequate protection?

In the meantime, city and town leaders will continue to monitor community transmission rates, oversee health and safety protocols in schools and municipal buildings, work with stakeholders to plan for the worst and hope for the best, and — most importantly of all, according to all public health experts — strive to deliver vaccines and boosters to every eligible resident.

There is no doubt that municipal leaders are up for this latest challenge. Your perseverance and resilience will carry our communities, state and nation forward.

In a more recent turn on Alphonse Karr’s quotation, Bon Jovi released “The more things change,” as a new song on its 2010 Greatest Hits compilation album. The lyrics seem written for this precise moment in the pandemic (look for the subliminal vaccine message): “Even though this world is reeling, you’re still you and I’m still me. I didn’t mean to cause a scene, but I guess it’s time to roll up our sleeves. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO