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Opinion | In the Rush to Return to ‘Normal,’ What Happens to the Vulnerable?

In practical terms that could mean, say, that the family of a child undergoing chemotherapy might ask her classmates and teachers to don masks to protect her against Covid (and other diseases like flu), without having to sue the school to comply. Offices might create masked spaces or offer on-site testing and flexible work arrangements. Restaurants would continue to protect the staffs by asking patrons to present vaccine cards and not show up ill.

Returning to what once was is not possible for all; we need, instead, a new normal, one that recognizes that everyone deserves the chance to participate in daily life. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggested to me, we might start by simply asking the vulnerable what they need.

Thirteen orchestras nationally, including the Chicago Symphony and the Boston Symphony, have done just that. Led by WolfBrown, a research and consulting firm, the Audience Outlook Monitor Covid-19 Study is a continuing effort to gauge what allows audiences to feel comfortable enough to return. (Orchestras often have older audiences, who can be at higher risk.) So far, most patrons say they still want masks in place, though the numbers are trending downward. A survey conducted by Theatre Washington, an umbrella organization working with Washington, D.C., theater organizations, also found a preference for keeping masks on.

“Arts groups are really good about accessibility,” WolfBrown’s managing principal, Alan Brown, told me. “They have been doing that for a long time for people with various disabilities and abilities.” Still, right now, he said, the focus is more on filling seats than long-term changes. “The notion of accessibility has changed and our sector has yet to really figure a response,” he added.

Couldn’t some performances simply remain protected, even if mask requirements fall? I don’t mean special, one-off performances. I mean that we might require masks for some performances for the foreseeable future or designate specific areas of the theater for compromised individuals, offering inclusivity in perpetuity.

After all, it is not as though Covid has disappeared. The BA.2 variant is on the rise. Just as mask mandates fell, the White House announced that money has dried up for free testing and vaccination for the uninsured and for the purchase and distribution of monoclonal antibodies, a treatment for Covid-19 that is still not readily available.

Thus we are dismantling the safety nets, even as the United States sees around 600 deaths a day from Covid. While those at highest risk are the unvaccinated, “when you look at the metrics of what determines when we should be scaling back these protections,” said Dr. Titanji, the infectious disease expert, “are we focusing on the right groups in determining what is acceptable in terms of how much excess death we are willing to tolerate? Because essentially these excess deaths are happening disproportionately among the groups of people who are the most vulnerable in society.”

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