A pair of masked customers walk down the gangway at DiMillo's floating restaurant in Portland on Tuesday Feb. 23, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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A couple months ago, I asked a pretty simple question that I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer to: When, exactly, is all this over?

I asked the question then, and I’m asking it again now, because on the rare occasions that public health officials and political leaders are asked, the answers have been vague, unclear, and lacking in any kind of hard target — be they healthcare metrics or some other definable endpoint — that we can hold them accountable to.

When we get an answer at all, it is always something different, and the goal posts are always moving.

Sometimes they say that we need to wait until new infections decline significantly. What is the definition of significantly? “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”

Sometimes they say that we need to focus on hospitalization numbers and critical care beds. OK, but what is the line beyond which we would feel comfortable returning to some sense of normalcy? “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”

Sometimes they say we need to worry about health outcomes reaching a certain point. Deaths, particularly, are something we need to watch carefully, and when they are low enough we will be good. How low? “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”

Sometimes they say that what really matters is the number of people who get a COVID-19 vaccine. What percentage of people need to get the vaccine to reach that point? “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”

There’s a reason I think we keep hearing different answers. Providing goals that are vague, non-specific, and ever-evolving provides decision makers an endless supply of moving targets that allows leeway to make up their own minds about when it is over.

Providing hard targets — specific metrics with detailed explanations of achievable goals — takes away their control, and would make it far easier for the public to hold them to account once the goals are met.

But after well over a year of living with emergency powers and stubbornly resilient restrictions and mandates, the public deserves a straight answer from their leaders about what will be necessary for life to return to normal.

Unfortunately, we aren’t likely to get this, because I don’t think there is a specific set of goals that exists. I believe what we are experiencing is healthcare policy by “gut instinct.”

For the last year, when we have asked questions about matters of public health policy to those in a position to make decisions for us, the answer is always the same: we need to follow the science.

And yet as you travel around the country, you will find that there are many different versions of what science is supposedly telling us.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, for instance, announced in the middle of April that his state would be eliminating the state’s mask mandate, and would also be eliminating other pandemic-related measures on May 7.

A couple of weeks ago, Connecticut announced that it will be lifting all COVID-19 restrictions except indoor masking by May 19.

On April 22, Rhode Island made the decision to drop its mask mandate outdoors — a decision Maine didn’t make until Tuesday — while also allowing businesses to return to full capacity.

Everywhere you look, the decisions are different. States that have much larger and more densely concentrated population are often opening up faster, with looser restrictions, while smaller and more rural states keep their grip stronger. Some Republican and Democratic states are less restrictive, while in others they’re opening up broadly.

The point here is that “the science” seems to be telling everyone something different. This should tell you that leaders aren’t being governed by “the science” so much as they’re being governed by their own interpretations of what the science requires of them to protect the public health.

But still, despite all those changes, and despite their public vagaries about when it is over, there still has to be some kind of definitive end point for us, where the public is allowed to return to their lives and we cease the neverending panic.

To me, the only logical line is with vaccine availability. Once the vaccines are available to anyone who wants them, and they can quickly and easily get an appointment on demand, there is no longer any reason why there should be restrictions in place.

At that moment, anyone who chooses not to get the vaccine has made a decision about their own health, and will have to live with the consequences of that decision. Those who wish to protect themselves will be able, and those that want to roll the dice can do that too.

Beyond that, nothing else is necessary.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...