Are liberals ‘addicted’ to the pandemic?

Atlantic writer takes a jab at Boston-area policies

IN THE FACE of a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 people in the US and more than 3 million worldwide, one group seems to be letting politics get in the way of science as it defies the recommendations of experts who are trained to understand the ways of dangerous airborne pathogens. 

Conspiracy-minded anti-vaxxers? Right-wingers who claim some inalienable don’t-tread-on-me right to march into restaurants or stores maskless, even if it puts others at risk there? 

No. The uber-liberals who populate many communities in Greater Boston. 

Despite their claims of unyielding fidelity to facts and science, liberals are showing their own biases in filtering their pandemic views through a lens distorted by politics, argues Emma Green in The Atlantic. Despite falling COVID case counts and rising vaccination rates, liberals “aren’t quite ready to let go of pandemic restrictions,” she writes. “For this subset, diligence against COVID-19 remains an expression of political identity—even when that means overestimating the disease’s risks or setting limits far more strict than what public-health guidelines permit.”

Green’s piece, “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit The Lockdown,” touched on the posture toward the pandemic in the Bay Area, but most of its focus was on the Boston area, where it took liberals to task for being unwilling to update policies to match the latest science. 

It noted that Brookline has maintained its outdoor mask mandate, despite new CDC guidance relaxing mask use in outdoor settings. Brookline’s public health director defended the policy yesterday morning on CNN, but the Globe reports that he announced later in the day that the town’s Advisory Council on Public Health will meet today to “review and potentially recommend revising Brookline’s outdoor face covering mandate.”

On Monday, the Globe touched on the reluctance of some to pivot quickly back to their old ways, chalking it up to the trauma and now-ingrained practices of the past 14 months. Some are diving back into former activities, but “after more than a year of stress, isolation, and loss, the transition to post-pandemic life will be far from easy, strained by residual fear and safety precautions that have become hard-wired,” wrote reporters Emma Platoff and Brian MacQuarrie. 

Green zeroed in on Somerville, where she said a group of moms that includes scientists, pediatricians, and doctors treating COVID-19 patients grew weary in the fall of the city’s reluctance to bring students back for in-person instruction, a policy they felt wasn’t scientifically warranted. 

Green says at one community meeting the women pushing for school reopenings were accused of advancing white supremacy, with one one local leader referring to “fucking white parents” in a virtual meeting. 

“I spent four years fighting Trump because he was so anti-science,” Somerville resident Daniele Lantagne told Green. A mother and engineering professor who works to promote equitable access to clean water and sanitation during disease outbreaks, Lantagne described the odd feeling that she has been witnessing a parallel version of the same thing on the left. “I spent the last year fighting people who I normally would agree with … desperately trying to inject science into school reopening, and completely failed.”

CNN media critic Brian Stelter chimed in on Green’s piece, saying she has documented a segment of the population he recently described as “pandemic addicts.” 

Green’s story faced a lot of blowback on social media, where people took her to task for coming down hard on people who may have trepidation about jumping back into regular activities after something as cataclysmic as a deadly global pandemic.

Alex Goldstein, a Boston political strategist who launched a Twitter account that has helped honor the memory of thousands of COVID-19 victims, was interviewed by Green for her piece.

“Having spent the entire year sharing stories of thousands of people who have died of COVID, it doesn’t really seem controversial to me that some people would be a little nervous about  returning to their pre-pandemic lifestyle overnight,” Goldstein tweeted Tuesday after her article was posted.

Green’s broader point, however, that those on the left — a group that regularly argues we should be guided by science — have not been immune from having their views on pandemic policy shaped by their political outlook, seems to have some basis. 

In October, Michael Hartney, a political science professor at Boston College, and Leslie Finger of the University of North Texas looked at reopening plans for more than 10,000 of the country’s roughly 13,000 school districts. They found — after adjusting for any differences in COVID-19 rates — that districts where Donald Trump won more than 60 percent of the vote in 2016 were much more likely to have opened with in-person instruction, while those that gave Hillary Clinton more than 60 percent of the vote were far more likely to have started with remote learning. The study found a 17 percentage point difference in the likelihood that a district opened in-person between strongly pro-Trump and pro-Clinton communities.

Hartney speculated last fall that a speech Trump gave in early July of 2020 imploring districts to reopen turned an issue that had not been overtly partisan into yet another fault line of the country’s highly polarized political landscape. 

“Before he made those remarks you didn’t see this really neat divide on whether you thought schools should open,” said Hartney. “The issue of school openings became highly politicized.” He said that polarization suggested there were districts that reopened that probably shouldn’t have, while others remained closed, perhaps unnecessarily, despite very low COVID-19 rates.

Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who was interviewed by Green, echoed that view. If Trump said, ‘Keep schools open,’ then, well, we’re going to do everything in our power to keep schools closed,” said Gandhi, who called herself “left of left” but said she had alienated some ideological peers by advocating for faster school reopenings. 

Notwithstanding the divide Green paints, another tweet Goldstein sent out yesterday illustrated the ways in which many things said about the pandemic may be true at the moment, but things can change quickly. In The Atlantic piece, Green says that although Boston area rugby teams have been back at it, the team Goldstein plays on was holding off on reengaging in the sport, where players can end up piled on top of each other.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“I’m happy to confirm that, since Emma and I spoke for this story a few weeks back, and consistent with CDC guidelines, our rugby team is returning to action on May 18th!” Goldstein tweeted yesterday.