Living in Boston’s Summer of Euphoria—with a Dash of Dread

Putting the grimmest era of the pandemic behind us feels good. But what are we to make of Delta and breakthrough cases lurking in the shadows?

A summer crowd walks in downtown Provincetown in Cape Cod, Massachusetts

This summer has been like no other. Boston’s low case counts and high vaccination rate, the reopening of bars and nightclubs, and relief from the constant fear that more vulnerable family members might get sick have all made this season a euphoric one. Every party, dinner table, family get-together, or wedding reception feels somehow supercharged. People seem atypically excited to be alive, healthy, and simply in the company of other people, worry-free after a year of angst and despair, making up for lost time. I find myself telling friends, in ways I never have before, how lucky I feel to have them around.

So the news out of Provincetown this week was a shock to the system. Reports of “breakthrough cases” and the smoldering of the Delta variant in less-vaccinated corners of the country hit home over the weekend, as visitors to the oceanside destination were urged to monitor themselves for COVID symptoms after a “handful” of people tested positive for the virus despite being fully vaccinated. Plus, case counts have been ticking back up in the state, leading the Globe to publish a “Should you worry?” piece recently, starring a lineup of health experts who shared varying levels of alarm, some of whom recommended scaling back indoor gatherings with large crowds. It’s all brought back memories of the early days of the pandemic, when spreader events were monitored closely and discussed widely—before the scale of the thing made doing so all but pointless. For the first time in what seems like a while, I feel a familiar and unwelcome twinge of dread lurking in the shadows, like once again this might all be taken away.

There is no reason to overdo the dread, of course. Experts have told us to stay vigilant, and to get vaccinated if we haven’t already, but not to fear the Delta variant if we’re fully vaxxed. At the same time, we do need to be realistic about the fact that people are still going to catch this virus, and that we may need to occasionally be on slightly higher alert about symptoms if we cross paths with someone who later tests positive. “The vaccine works,” as Provincetown Town Manager Mayor Alex Morse put it in a statement on Facebook Monday, but given how popular P-town is this time of year,  “it’s inevitable that cases will continue to pop up over the summer.”

What I’m supposed to do with this inconvenient truth, I’m not sure. It felt good, once the vaccines became widely available around here and case counts plummeted, to give up some old habits like, say, keeping a mental diary of every close contact with a mask-less person, or compulsively sticking my nose over a candle every now and again just to make sure I could still smell it. I will not revert to those rituals willingly.

It has also been nice to enjoy being in crowds without feeling guilty about it. As far as I can tell, the number of mask scolds still stubbornly walking the streets of Boston with their mouths covered in multiple layers of cloth has plummeted. Even amid troubling Delta developments, few if any Bostonians are spending their days kvetching online about mask-free get-togethers, or calling for a return to indoor dining bans. Pressure from peers to be “together, apart” has vanished, as have tedious cocktail parties over Zoom. Good, good, and good. Still, a frightening new thought has begun nudging its way past the geyser of serotonin in my brain: Will this last?

Forgive me if I’m newly prone to downward spirals, but this past year and a half has shown how it does sometimes pay to brace for the worst case scenario. As for what might happen if the unthinkable happens, there have been some mixed messages about how readily Boston would revert to COVID-era precautions. This city rejoiced at the end of the state of emergency and the lifting of most of its restrictions on masking and distance. Yet while no-masks-required music venues have resumed admitting sold out crowds, acting Mayor Kim Janey said recently that she personally believes many Bostonians should keep wearing masks. Face-coverings are still compulsory on the T. Not wanting to contribute to the risk (however small) of contributing to a COVID backslide, a few Boston shops—like a Allston vintage clothing store I visited while Hawaiian-shirt shopping a few weeks back—have kept their mandates in place. Nagging reminders all that the bad old days are not that far behind us, and could still lay ahead.

It’s painful to imagine such an outcome, given all the freedoms we now enjoy. But a few more Provincetown-type news cycles, and who knows? To say the whiplash of a return to stringent coronavirus safety measures would be a lot to endure is an understatement: A recent nationwide survey showed fewer than half of Americans would go back into lockdown if the virus spiked to uncontrollable levels again. It’s not clear how that would play out in a place like Boston. Let’s hope we never have to find out.

But part of my inability to relax fully into this summer of euphoria is the fact that there are continuous reminders that we’re not really through this. I’m constantly confronted by the possibility of less serious, but still majorly disruptive outcomes. If an upcoming COVID test comes back positive, even the world’s mildest “breakthrough case” could keep me off an upcoming cross-border flight I’ve been looking forward to for months, or force me to give up two weeks of the vanishingly brief Boston summer back in quarantine. In this, the summer of a zillion rescheduled weddings, I still have two more on the calendar, and a sudden case of the chills could keep me off the guest list. These are less doom-filled concerns than the fears of last summer, but given how painful the experience of abruptly having access to friends and loved ones cut off was last time, I can’t help but do at least some mental preparation.

Anxieties aside, I for one refuse to let this creeping sense of unease keep me from a good time this summer. We should do what the health experts say should the need arise for their guidance again, but not jump the gun. In the meantime, these latest developments should reinforce just how much we ought to appreciate our good fortune to live in a highly vaccinated state and to have made it this far. Let this be a reminder that, vaccinated or not, we are not invincible and nothing is permanent. We never were. It never was.