The CHA Somerville Hospital emergency room is open for business on a weekday in July. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Even without the possibility that coronavirus fears will empty our streets, events, restaurants and shops, we’re withdrawing to a surprising degree in Cambridge and Somerville – two of the more densely populated cities in the country and with significant chunks of the population under 30. (Boosted by four universities full of people you’d think would be keeping us up at night with their damn noise. Nope.)

It’s not even just that we’re densely populated, but that our populations and densities are growing. We should be living the opening scenes of “Blade Runner,” yet the “vibrant” streetscapes we talk about in redesign meetings seem to have been growing emptier every day even before we heard about Covid-19 and “self-isolating.”

In Harvard Square, what was once a 24-hour Kinkos is now a Fedex open until 10 p.m. weekdays, 8 p.m. on the weekends. A few blocks away is a Starbucks that was open until 1 a.m. and now closes at 11 p.m. Even worse, in Somerville’s Davis Square, Diesel Cafe was once open until 1 a.m. and now hustles out a few malingering patrons at 9 p.m. (though, randomly and confusingly, some nights there are far more coffee sippers to shove out into the cold). The Porter Square Dunkin’ Donuts that was once 24 hours now closes at 11 p.m.; behind it in the shopping plaza was a 24-hour Star Market that now closes at midnight. But at least it’s still there, unlike the ones at University Park near Central Square or Somerville’s Winter Hill. Band nights that used to bring 60 or 70 people to Club Bohemia in Central Square now can be expected to bring in only around 30 to 40, the booker says. Somerville Hospital lost inpatient beds in 2009 after becoming part of Cambridge Health Alliance in 1996, but around a decade later it’s about to become not a hospital at all, but an urgent care clinic closing at 9 p.m. as part of the “CHA Somerville Campus.”

With the Alliance always looking for ways to stay out of the red, do not be surprised if the “CHA Somerville Campus” land is for sale entirely within a few years, the urgent care clinic moved to a smaller site and outpatient care largely relocated to the health care system’s flagship building on Cambridge Street.

The downward path at Somerville Hospital is the most obvious: When Cambridge Health Alliance closed its inpatient beds, ambulances began bypassing the hospital and “usage fell off a cliff” (in the words of one Alliance trustee) because people didn’t want to come to an emergency department if they’d have to transfer for hospital admission. When you don’t have people coming to an emergency room, you don’t need the emergency room. And once a hospital doesn’t have inpatient beds or an emergency room, it’s not really a hospital anymore – even if you have a population of more than 78,901.

You could argue the same at Diesel, where managers keep closing earlier because the last half-hours of service haven’t been profitable, with little food or drink bought or sold. (Though one wonders how it would do if Diesel transitioned to selling beer and wine in later hours.) But isn’t that a similar path to the one Somerville Hospital went down – in this case, not bothering to head to a coffee shop to work, drink or socialize because you’ll just have to leave sooner than you want? In this case, the economics of open hours are a diminishing loop of possibility, like the people staying home at night instead of going out for entertainment or unable to take jobs far away, because mass transit can’t get them back once they get there.

Either way, we’re a bigger population in smaller boxes, meeting each other less and spending less money. It’s not a symptom of coronavirus, but that flu’s hitting a system that’s not strong enough to fight it off.


This post was updated March 8, 2020, to correct that inpatient stays at Somerville Hospital ended in 2009, although it became part of Cambridge Health Alliance many years earlier.

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