After five Phillies players tested positive for the coronavirus, Philadelphia closed its Clearwater spring-training facility.
Fifteen minutes up the road, the Blue Jays did the same when a staffer there also came down with COVID.
Major League Baseball’s first move was to announce a deep cleaning of all its spaces.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a ballpark, but they tend to be on the bigger side of the architecture spectrum. The Phillies’ Florida setup is more ambitious than any major-league park – main stadium, secondary fields, outbuildings, offices.
If the goal is guaranteeing disinfection of this area, you’d have to tent it Christo-style and pump it full of mustard gas.
Plus, the problem is not cleanliness. It’s Florida.
As long as Florida is a free-fire zone for virus transmission, there is no way to ensure its elimination.
Baseball took a couple of days to wrestle with that. Then it came up with its new new solution. No more hubs in Florida and Arizona – the two most active hot zones in the U.S. Teams will return to their hometowns to prepare for the as-yet-theoretical season.
(This plan could end up stranding the Jays in Tampa, where they would share a park with the Rays.)
Now unless they’re planning on playing the 2020 MLB season virtually, this opens up a family-sized valu-pak of worms. Who’s flying where? On what planes? To which hotels? And who exactly is in the hotels?
Sending large travelling parties of young men around the continental U.S. for four months during a plague does not sound like good public-health practice. It sounds like the first 10 minutes of a zombie movie.
The NBA plan isn’t sounding much better. In a few weeks, the entire league is headed to Disney World in Florida. Based on current stats, this is solving your radiation issue by huddling in Chernobyl.
The NHL has its own problems. Over all, about 5 per cent of tested NHLers have come up positive. The Toronto Sun reported that Arizona resident Auston Matthews is one of them.
That turned a vague problem – “People are getting it” – into a very specific problem – “This guy, whose jersey you own, has got it.”
All of a sudden, that pushed doctor-patient confidentiality to the top of the hockey establishment’s list of problems.
I look forward to the continuation of this principled stand the next time Connor McDavid is playing through pain in the playoffs: “Since he hasn’t issued a press release, no one can mention his partially torn labrum or severe limp.”
For a few weeks, leagues were able to bump along as if everything was getting back to normal. That was easy when the players were sitting at home and none of them had seen a doctor in months.
Now we are beginning to get a truer picture of how insidious the virus is.
The NBA will start mass-swabbing its returning players on Tuesday. Those results should be available the next day. That could be a watershed.
Most of us have become complacent the past little while. That’s inevitable in a society that has a news-cycle attention span of two weeks, maximum.
We are about to be reminded that hoping something is over is not quite the same as it being over. Sports kicked this panic off. It’s in the midst of juicing our fear response again.
Plan B was the resumption of seasons with a few tweaks. Clear out the fans. Herd the players together. Hope that you can hermetically seal them in.
That was never going to work. Not totally.
That leaves leagues with two bad choices – Plan C and Plan D.
Plan C is to plow ahead, take your epidemiological lumps and hope you can mitigate, rather than eliminate, transmission. If someone tests positive, they get 14 days of private time. If five people test positive, you figure something out. If 10 people test positive, a clubhouse attendant is playing left field that afternoon.
At the least, this might remind the public that while they may not be able to see the virus in their everyday lives, it’s still out there, itching to spread.
That’s why the Matthews story mattered. It put a recognizable face on the problem. This is an actual, real person that you know who didn’t contract it doing a high-risk job. His job was running a treadmill in his basement.
The message: If Matthews can still get it, so can you. And then you can give it to your grandfather.
Plan D is cancelling everything. That looks smart in the short term. But from the perspective of leagues, when does that end?
If you bin the current season, you are saying you will not tolerate any risk of infection. Fine. What about the 2020-21 season? What if things aren’t substantially better in October? Or the October after that?
Once leagues reduce their options from harm-reduction to harm-elimination, they will have to reckon with the possibility that they may not be playing again for a very long time.
The lesson the rest of the world is teaching us right now is that there will be no respite from COVID-19 until there is a vaccine or treatment. Until then, it’ll keep coming in waves.
Huddling in place for two years and putting a third of the population out of work forever is not a good option. We need to restructure society around our new reality. We’re going through waves of that, too.
A short while ago, the people who run sports were in the first wave – logistics. These may not be simple, but they are solvable.
Now that it is time for implementation, they’re into the second wave – philosophy. What does risk mean to you? How much risk is acceptable? Philosophy is never simple and rarely solvable.
At some point, we will all need to figure out what risk we are willing to assume in order to do the things we enjoy. We need to know what the next year, or two years, or maybe forever, looks like.
Sports is about to give us a big hint.