It was a strange St. Patrick’s Day in and around Boston, with bars starved for business trying to draw in patrons while adhering to COVID-19 restrictions, and bargoers balancing concerns about the virus with their want to celebrate a cherished local tradition. In Somerville’s Davis Square, patrons lined up outside popular Irish pub the Burren, leaving their names and numbers with a bouncer and then settling in for long waits exacerbated by a 25 percent local capacity limit.
Tufts student Lily Langrind was among those waiting for her turn to head inside the bar. Proudly wearing a vintage Boston Celtics’ jersey, Langrind said it was a joy to even have the option to go to a bar after a year that’s brought little cause for celebration. The evening stood in particularly stark contrast to how she spent the beginning of the pandemic last spring.
“Honestly, I was in my childhood bedroom,” said Langrind, who took a semester off from Tufts University due to the coronavirus crisis. “Now, it’s just great to be out with our friends.”
While some aspects of the pandemic are stabilizing, and vaccination rates are on the rise, Massachusetts is still regularly seeing more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 each day, including new variants believed to be more contagious than the initial virus. The Department of Public Health reported the state’s first known case of the P.1 variant, thought to have originated in Brazil, on Tuesday. Even so, the Baker administration has relaxed state-level restrictions in recent weeks. On the night of St. Patrick’s Day, some headed out to celebrate, including Taylor Reed of Somerville, who like Langrind was waiting on the sidewalk for a place inside the Burren. Reed said she’d received the vaccine, and that gave her the confidence to go out in person.
“If I was not vaccinated, I really, truly wouldn’t be out here,” said Reed. “That’s just not fair to me and to others. But I’m vaccinated, so I feel like I can do this safely. I don’t have a guilty conscience.”
Some public health experts say they’re concerned that the Baker administration was too quick to loosen restrictions on restaurants and bars, especially ahead of a holiday like St. Patrick’s Day, which is typically observed with large gatherings in close quarters.
Harvard epidemiologist Dr. William Hanage said that for him and his colleagues, the bargoers' approach to this St. Patrick’s Day came with a sense of déjà vu.
“Around this time last year, we were looking at packed bars and feeling real chills, horror,” said Hanage, “because we knew what the likely outcome would be, and that outcome was that huge surge of deaths.”
LISTEN: Harvard epidemiologist on sense of dread among public health experts as state-level COVID restrictions relax
Hanage said he worries that the Baker administration has sent mixed signals about what is and isn’t safe.
“It’s very difficult to keep and maintain clear messaging on this,” said Hanage. “Gatherings are going to continue to be risky until a sufficient fraction of the population are vaccinated.”
Hanage said that local rules like the 25 percent capacity restriction on restaurants in Somerville is better than the elimination of capacity limits now allowed by the Baker administration. But he says that continued vigilance is as important as ever, especially with new variants of the virus circulating throughout the state and country.
“We should be cautious as we move into the future,” said Hanage, “because we sure as hell should be able to look at the past year and realize that losing control of the virus is a very bad thing to do.”
The easing of restrictions has come as a relief to bar and restaurant owners, who have been hanging by a thread over the course of the pandemic. Burren manager Joanne Conroy said that the coronavirus crisis has taken a major financial toll on the pub and its staff. On St. Patrick’s Day, typically one of the bar’s busiest and most culturally significant days of the year, Conroy said she was glad to be able to welcome at least a limited number of patrons through their doors.
“It’s been a really tough, long year,” said Conroy. “But this week in particular just shows that there’s hope out there. People are willing to come back, people are eager to come back, and we’re happy to get them back.”