Declining case numbers and widespread vaccination earlier this year had everyone preparing for a summer like the Roaring ’20s.
Instead, we just got 2020 all over again.
And just like last year, this remains true: We can’t get back to normal unless we beat back the virus.
That’s not a point of view. It’s a fact. The vaccines and many people’s ongoing diligence brought COVID-19 under control in the U.S. enough to make June and July resemble something close to normalcy. Pent-up demand filled restaurants, planes and hotels. In-person retail stores mounted a comeback.
But after two months of robust hiring in which restaurants, hotels and retailers added hundreds of thousands of new jobs, they were the weakest sectors in August, leading last week to a disappointing jobs report.
What happened? The U.S. economy, trying to rebound after a tough and strange year, ran into the delta variant – and into a stubborn minority who refuse to get the vaccine or take other COVID-related precautions.
As the more transmissible version of the virus blew through the South, people no longer felt safe going out. Vacations were canceled and shopping trips put off. Companies revisited plans to return to the office, straining further all the businesses that serve workers at work.
What’s more, where businesses were finding demand, they couldn’t find help, as people refused to take jobs where they would have been exposed to the virus, out of concerns for themselves or people in their family.
Meanwhile, in the European Union, which has now passed the U.S. in terms of vaccinations and continues to give out shots at a faster rate, retail and recreation have now surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
It’s the opposite here, where coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations in some states, including Texas, Tennessee and Florida, all have approached or exceeded the numbers from earlier COVID peaks – even at a time when effective vaccines are available and we know so much more about how the virus spreads.
In Maine, too, COVID-19 is surging, driven almost entirely by the unvaccinated. Hospitals are being overwhelmed and health care workers are overburdened.
The outlook is concerning. New cases here remain low compared to states outside of New England.
But with the seven-day average now at nearly 400 cases, it is many times higher than last September, just before colder temperatures pushed people back indoors, setting off a winter surge.
Maine remains vulnerable, particularly in the areas of the state with low levels of vaccination. The rising number of cases is already keeping people from going out, and restaurants are bracing for another bad winter.
It won’t help when schools have to close because of infections – it is already happening here, and school closures were widespread last month across the South.
Parents will have to stay home rather than work, and without the unemployment benefits that ended this week, many will find it difficult to support their families.
It’s the same spiral downward we saw the economy take last year, when COVID upended our lives for the first time: The virus keeps people home, so they can’t work or spend money, which hurts the economy, and puts more people out of work. We shouldn’t be surprised as it does it again.
We have the tools to stop this latest surge, and they are no surprise either: Masks and vaccines, when widely used, can get the virus under control. They can get us back the activities we miss. They can get the economy going again.
But too many people don’t want to hear it. Everyone wants to get back to normal, but not everyone wants to do what it takes to get there.
Until more people do, it’ll be something like last year, all over again.