As the coronavirus crisis continues to dominate our world, the concept of “social distancing” is becoming an international catchphrase — not to mention a guiding principle of a safer way of life.
In so many ways, athletic events present the antithesis of social distancing (which is defined as a means of “separating communities so that people who are stricken by a contagious illness cannot pass it on to others who are not”).
Sports are intimate. They are crowded. They bring together masses of people for two or three hours of what can be unavoidably close contact. They are, to a certain extent, inherently unsanitary.
And, at this unique and fraught moment in time, they are extremely problematic. Especially in the Seattle area, where we have the unfortunate distinction of being the epicenter of coronavirus — 190 confirmed cases and 22 deaths in King County through Tuesday, according to King County Public Health.
For that reason, I applaud Gov. Jay Inslee’s expected announcement at a news conference Wednesday morning that gatherings of more than 250 people — including at sporting events and concerts — are being restricted in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.
I know I couldn’t have been the only one wondering how long we would continue to stage athletic events, with spectators, as those case numbers swell every day. And pondering, with increasing skepticism, the wisdom of doing so.
Those numbers threaten to grow exponentially. I am reminded of a mathematical challenge my dad gave me when I was about 8 — would I rather have $20 now, or one penny doubled each day for a month?
In my youthful naiveté, I opted for the (hypothetical) Jackson, not realizing that the penny scenario would build to over $5 million in the span of 30 days. That concept still boggles my mind, in fact, but you can do the math yourself.
How is that anecdote pertinent, other than to show I wasn’t a budding Einstein? At a news conference Tuesday in Olympia, Inslee noted that “the number of people who are infected in an epidemic like this will double in the state of Washington unless we take some real action here. And if you do the math, it gets very disturbing. When something doubles every day, it gets to a very large number of very quickly. If there are a thousand people infected today, in seven or eight weeks there could be 64,000 people infected in the state of Washington, if we don’t somehow slow down this epidemic, and the next week it’d be 120,000 and the next week it’d be a quarter million.”
The key phrases are “take some real action” and “slow down this epidemic.” And it’s getting harder to justify the risks involved in conducting large-scale sporting activities — not even factoring in the growing trepidation from opponents of venturing into Washington. Among the high-profile events on tap locally this week are the University of Washington’s softball game against the U.S. national team Thursday followed by a three-game series against Utah to open the Pac-12 season, and the Dragons’ XFL match vs. the Los Angeles Wildcats on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
The Mariners’ home opener — in past years, a sellout of 40,000-plus — looms on March 26 at T-Mobile Park. That’s the start of a seven-game homestand, followed by nine more home games in April.
Now it appears, our stadiums, arenas and gyms will be either shuttered indefinitely, or emptied of fans. To the extent games are canceled, it would be a blow to the athletes, both professional and amateur, who have trained so arduously for these events and have yearned for the opportunity to compete. It would be a blow to the fans who get such a psychic pleasure — part visceral, part vicarious — from watching those competitions in person.
But it is the right thing to do. In light of the increasingly scary health risks of maintaining the status quo, the only thing.
This is not happening in isolation. All around the world, and increasingly around the country, sporting events are getting canceled, postponed, moved or played in empty venues. On Tuesday, the Ivy League canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and elected to send their regular-season champion to the NCAA tournaments, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recommended that no spectators be allowed for indoor sports activities, including high-school, college and professional teams.
On Monday, Santa Clara County announced a ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people, putting three NHL games, one MLS game and the NCAA women’s basketball tournament at Stanford in doubt. Meanwhile, the NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS jointly announced that their locker rooms would be closed to the media. And over the weekend, Division III NCAA basketball tournament games were held in an empty venue at Johns Hopkins University’s arena in Baltimore, closed to fans.
Washington, of all places, could not continue to justify letting the fans pour in. I fully empathize with the agonizing decisions teams and schools have faced for the past three weeks. I have zero doubt that they have been acting on the best advice from health experts and with the best intentions. The Sounders, for instance, were cleared by King County Public Health to play their match Saturday at CenturyLink Field, and they put in major efforts to sanitize the stadium before and after.
That game drew an announced crowd of 33,080, which was their lowest since 2009 but also a substantial gathering of people. Keep in mind that the website of King County Public Health advises that “if you can feasibly avoid bringing large groups of people together, consider postponing events and gatherings.”
Now Inslee is apparently taking the matter out of the hands of sports administrators. We will learn more of the details Wednesday, and over the coming days we’ll find out precisely how professional, college and high-school teams will handle these new restrictions. But this is an absolutely necessary step in the direction of containment, which at this stage of the epidemic is paramount.
In a recent article by organic chemist Stephanie Springer on Baseball Prospectus, infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noted that even with increased hand-washing and hand-sanitizer stations at a stadium, “infection will not be totally avoidable at such mass gatherings.”
In the same article, epidemiologist Beth Linas pointed out that it’s further complicated by the fact that spectators might not know if the person sitting next to them is infected — and the infected person might not know it, either.
“If reporting is accurate, some who are infected don’t feel sick, they don’t know they are sick, and they may infect others when they attend games,” Linas said. “This becomes more concerning if older and immunocompromised (spectators) are at the game and are exposed.”
I obviously don’t have the medical expertise to declare that games should be halted. I’ll defer to Tom Frieden, who was the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009-17, overseeing the emergency response to three previous potential epidemics — H1N1, Ebola, and Zika.
In an article by Frieden posted Tuesday on the “Think Global Health” newsletter, he put forth 10 actions that the U.S. should take to, in his words, “reduce the risk a million people in this country will die from this pandemic.” The fourth one he listed was this:
“Cancel large gatherings, with the exception of geographic regions and populations not experiencing community transmission. Making that hard decision now could mean the difference between thousands and tens of thousands of infections in a community. If mass meetings do occur, older and medically vulnerable people should not attend.”
Yascha Mounk, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has a current article in The Atlantic headlined, “Cancel everything: Social distancing is the only way to stop the coronavirus. We must start immediately.”
In a tweet Monday, Mounk wrote:
“Are you the head of a sports team, the president of a university, or the organizer of a conference?
* Play your games without an audience.
* Hold classes online.
* Postpone your conference.
It might seem like a tough call today. It will seem like the obvious one soon.”
Here in Seattle, it was getting more obvious by the day.