A Date with Destiny — or, Probably, a New Date


By George O’Brien

May 4.

Who would ever have known that so much importance would be attached to such a random date on the calendar?

But here we are in late April wishing that May 4 would come. It’s sort of like Christmas or your birthday when you were 5 years old. You couldn’t wait for it to get here, and you inevitably started counting down the weeks and then the days, wishing it would get here faster.

But this is much, much different.

May 4 is the slated end of Gov. Charlie Baker’s already-extended stay-at-home order, imposed to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not that anyone uses an actual calendar anymore, but people have had that date circled for weeks now. That was the date that maybe, just maybe, things could start returning to normal.

People are still hoping that, but overall, there isn’t much hope May 4 will be that day. Massachusetts is still a hotspot for the virus, and the governor says the Bay State is still very much still in the ‘surge.’ Any day now, it’s likely he will announce the stay-at-home order has been extended. It might be a few weeks, it might be until June 1, it might be all the way to the end of the school year — not that school schedules should matter much. After all, the state’s economy does function in the summer, when children are out of school for 10 weeks.

No one knows, but what we do know is that soon there will likely be a new date to circle on the calendar, and a new date for wondering if that is when things will start getting back to normal.

This is no way for a state, for an economy, to function. But that’s the new reality.

Some states have decided they just don’t want to wait any longer. Their dates have already arrived. Time will tell if the proper decisions have been made.

Here, it’s almost certain that we’re going to wait a while longer. And with the waiting comes more anxiety, more questions, more uncertainty about how and when we’re going to turn the economy back on in the Bay State.

It would be easy — and also very tempting — to say, as many others have, that the cure can’t be worse than the disease, and that we need to get on with our lives and get on with the economy. But we can’t really turn the economy back on until people feel safe enough to go to a casino or a hair salon or a restaurant or even the emergency room. And right now, far too many people just don’t feel safe enough to do any of those things.

So, in that respect, these arbitrary dates don’t really have much meaning. It will be the consuming public that will ultimately decide when the economy gets turned back on, not a governor. And at the moment, we can’t exactly set a time for that.

Still, we’ve all looked at that momentarily magical date of May 4 with hope and anticipation — again like a 5-year-old during mid-December, wishing for that day to arrive and thinking time is moving much too slowly. April has been the longest month any of us can remember, and May 4 might be the date when we can start to put all this behind us.

But it seems almost certain that we’ll have a new magical date —  and the hope, and the anticipation, will begin anew.

It’s not like anything any of us have been through before, but, then again, that’s what this pandemic has been all about.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.