Vaccine Optimism

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Whenever I visited my local coffee shop this summer, it did not allow any customers inside. I ordered a cup from a worker standing at a table blocking the front door and came back a few minutes later to pick it up.

In recent weeks, though, the shop’s setup has changed. I now walk inside and order. Often, there are a few other customers lingering nearby, waiting for their coffee.

Nationwide, there are many other versions of this story. Professional sports leagues, for example, weren’t allowing any fans in the stands for much of the summer. This weekend, thousands of people attended college and pro football games.

From a public-health perspective, these changes don’t make a whole lot of sense: Pandemic restrictions across the U.S. are now less stringent than they were in the summer even though the infection rate is much higher.

How did this happen? State and local governments loosened their policies as the virus receded in August and September — but then left those looser rules in place. (And the federal government has shown little leadership.)

Perhaps the No. 1 question about the pandemic in coming weeks is how aggressively state and local governments reinstate restrictions.

“With the level of community spread we have in Michigan and that many other states are now facing, the only way to bring Covid down is state action — or a terrible loss of life,” Robert Gordon, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told me yesterday.

Several states have announced new steps in the past few days. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the temporary closing of indoor dining, casinos, movie theaters and in-person classes at high schools and colleges. Chicago, Philadelphia and most of California have also reimposed restrictions.

Most of the new restrictions have come from Democratic officials, like Whitmer, but this isn’t a simple partisan issue.

The Republican governors of Iowa and North Dakota have issued mask mandates over the past few days. And in The Wall Street Journal, the Republican health care experts Scott Gottlieb and Mark McClellan wrote an op-ed called “It’s Now Up to Governors to Slow the Spread.” Gottlieb and McClellan wrote: “At least while infections are widespread and surging, governors and local leaders should mandate the use of masks and impose clear and consistent plans to restrict gatherings.”

Still, most states, whether run by Democratic or Republican governors, have resisted taking strict steps, knowing that many Americans are tired of the pandemic. In the meantime, infections keep rising, and deaths have begun rising in recent days, too.

The medium-term future looks ever more optimistic, now that both Moderna and Pfizer have reported encouraging vaccine trials. But the short term will depend to a great degree on what happens in state capitals. For now, many states — like Ohio, New York and New Jersey — are announcing new restrictions that fall well short of what public-health experts say is necessary to crush the spread of the virus.

Lives Lived: Bruno Barbey believed that photography “is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world.” In a decades-long career, he covered turmoil in Paris, the Middle East, Poland and Northern Ireland, and everyday life in Italy. Barbey died at 79.

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Jacques Pépin, the chef and cookbook author, grew up in France during World War II, shaped by the scarcity of those years. “I actually feel ill when I see food wasted,” Pépin has written. Much of his subsequent advice to home cooks has revolved around the artful use of available ingredients.

That skill has been especially useful during the pandemic, when many people have had to change their food shopping habits. Earlier this year, as the pandemic started spreading, Pépin began posting Facebook videos that “explained how to cook really well using the simplest and homeliest things you have in your house,” as my colleague Dwight Garner writes.

Dwight continues: “I’ve found many of his videos to be, on certain late insomniac nights, strangely and almost unbearably moving. His age, his battered good looks, his accent, the slight sibilance in his voice, his culinary erudition worn lightly, his finely honed knife skills and the ’70s-era funk of his wood-paneled kitchen: It is somehow a mesmerizing package.”

The pangrams from yesterday’s Spelling Bee were eminently and imminently. Today’s puzzle is above — or you can play online if you have a Games subscription.

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