As of Monday, lower-risk communities in Massachusetts were legally permitted to proceed with the next step of reopening plans. The City of Cambridge has chosen to remain in Step 1 of Phase 3 while other municipalities with comparable COVID-19 rates are moving forward.
Whether this reluctance is warranted is complicated.
Cambridge is delaying its advancement out of fear that virus transmissions will increase. Local governments are granted the autonomy to make such decisions, which helps them manage the specific needs of their community, especially because blanket rulings from the state are often unable to address unique concerns.
The City is making a wise decision by protecting public health after rash reopenings have caused our country so much strife over the last several months.
The decision must come with great deliberation, because Cambridge is posed with unique challenges compared to other cities in Massachusetts. Its close proximity to Boston has created a strong association between the two.
Just as Boston is known for being a tourist hub, so is Cambridge. Tourists might even be more inclined to visit Boston so they can travel across the Charles River to see Harvard University and MIT. As a result, Cambridge is susceptible to the drawbacks of tourism.
Young adults in Boston have contributed to a spike in coronavirus cases, and nothing stops them from hopping on the train or catching an Uber to surrounding areas. So, Cambridge is indeed wise to delay reopening procedures as a preventative measure to curb cases.
In Step 2 of Phase 3, gatherings will remain at a reduced capacity of 50 percent with a cap on the number of people allowed. The long-awaited use of dressing rooms is now authorized, and indoor facilities such as laser tag and other entertainment venues will begin operating.
If Cambridge were to join in on this reopening, then college students could easily flock to the city’s newly opened establishments. The swarm of students would prompt undesired behavior and only hinder Cambridge’s successful handling of COVID-19 thus far.
While Cambridge’s decision protects the health of its community, it doesn’t necessarily account for its residents’ financial well-being. Some businesses understandably feel a sense of urgency to reopen, as they have been closed for several months under state restrictions.
It isn’t entirely sustainable for these businesses to remain closed — they are, after all, many families’ livelihoods. Their owners and employees continue to face financial burdens after already suffering months of turmoil.
There have been no additional stimulus checks from the federal government, so Cambridge must take into account the vulnerability these businesses’ workers — or former workers — are facing.
Yet in some cases, it might actually be in their better interest to remain closed.
The cost of operating might outweigh the profit they would be making off of a reduced number of customers. A business’s grand reopening after seven months does not ensure customers will immediately come back.
People are not gathering in ways that they used to, and some are even avoiding once-popular places like thrift stores to avoid the virus. It could be more beneficial for a company to stay closed if they cannot guarantee their customers will return.
But at some point, the local government must be willing to trust its businesses with the authority to make their own decisions.
However, U.S. reopening measures across the board should also be reevaluated.
Across the country, reopening has been a contentious and often arbitrary topic. Governments at all levels can attempt to stem travel and enforce proper protocols, but our disunified messages surrounding safety will only do so much to limit irresponsible behavior.
Improvements in COVID-19 transmission rates across the country do not warrant a reckless reopening — the United States has more than 7.5 million cases as of Tuesday. We must assess the pros and cons of our reopening thus far, and not take for granted any success we have had.
A hasty rush could lead us back to the dreadful stay-at-home orders we faced in March, which is far more unpleasant than wearing a mask and social distancing.
Cambridge is aware of these risks, but its reluctance to reopen might unnecessarily harm businesses if they are not given the chance to recover financially.