In a world whose boundaries are marked by masks and 6-foot spacing, it sounded infeasible that the NFL was making plans to play in front of full stadiums by late summer. That’s what NFL executive Troy Vincent told a Washington radio station May 22. So, with a wink, I asked a top virologist his opinion. His response astounded me.
Yes, he said. If fans act responsibly, there’s no reason the coronavirus pandemic should keep stadiums empty, or even half-full. Just wear your mask; keep your hands clean and keep them to yourself; and, above all, stay home if you feel sick.
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It made sense. After all, day camps and swimming pools were going to open this summer. The Inquirer published the story Sunday, optimistic about the future of sports ... but then, a few days later, I received an email from the virologist.
He was going to take it back, right? He was going to say he’d been misquoted, that his views were taken out of context, that he’d meant something slightly and entirely different.
Glenn F. Rall, the chief academic officer at Fox Chase Cancer Center, didn’t back down. He doubled down.
“For what it’s worth, I stand by my opinion, perhaps more now than when I spoke with you,” he began.
For real? For real.
Rall understands a vision of full stadiums is ambitious, and he’s eager for more voices like his to rise and discuss parameters of reopening. He also acknowledges that, realistically, a slow-walk toward full stands in any sport is both more likely and safer than a headfirst plunge into the deep end of sold-out stadiums. But contending that bleachers should remain empty indefinitely is overkill.
“I stated that I thought that professional sports could return ‘relatively soon,’ a sufficiently vague timeline to buy me some latitude with critics of this view, although what I really meant was, in fact, ‘before the end of 2020.’
"At first pass, this seems irresponsible. People are still getting infected and dying, and we remain far from having a deployable vaccine -- probably not until early- or mid-2021. Thus, the recommendation to allow large, yelling groups of people to congregate seems absurd. Why would you put someone’s life at risk to watch a game? I would argue that this is the wrong way to frame the discussion.”
Rall contends that, if an effective vaccine is your baseline requirement for crowds to return en masse, the conversation ends there. However, that sort of absolutism isn’t practical, he wrote:
“Having such a view ignores the monumental consequences of that opinion. A vaccine is months, perhaps many months, in the future, and here, at the end of May ... people are already beginning to find a new comfort zone, having small parties in backyards and returning to work as the governor eases Pennsylvania from the ‘red’ stage to ‘yellow.’
"Now, project forward three months -- to the end of August, after summer, when everyone wants to be with friends and family. Do we really think that self-isolation will continue to be practical advice?”
If the rate of infection stabilizes or decreases, and if our behaviors are safe, at some point, the damage of being locked down outweighs the benefits, both for fans and workers.
The real unemployment rate is surging toward the Depression-era benchmark of 25%. Many of those workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, and most use their stadium jobs to supplement already modest incomes. Further, Rall said, after being locked in and scared for months, psychological trauma, depression, and suicide attempts have spiked like a COVID outbreak after a pool party in the Ozarks.
“Saying no to large events is surely a safe opinion to have, especially if you’re a scientist and you don’t have to square your view with its consequences. But such advice has huge financial ramifications. If we, as scientists, truly value human life ... then we must consider the impact of sustained financial stasis on the lives of people whose livelihoods depend on public gatherings.
"A staggering fraction of the workforce is out of a job. People are committing suicide in despair. These are surely COVID victims as well.”
Rall restated his optimism that many sports could resume without extreme concern for athlete-to-athlete spread; that is, except for basketball, a close-contact activity that precludes headgear and face shields. He also reiterated that responsible fans could populate stadiums and arenas -- the keyword being responsible.
“Maybe the critics are correct: if this group of zealots is so lawless, that there’s no chance of reigning them in,” Rall writes. He refutes what he called the “Wild West” assumption.
A Twitter poll we conducted indicated that 86% of respondents would refuse to attend games today without some form of screening and mandatory face covering, if they returned at all. Rall realizes that packing a Phillies game tomorrow probably wouldn’t end well, but he’s eager to see at least some fans in ballparks when baseball likely begins its season at the end of next month:
“To assume that what I said [last week] advocates for an immediate return to 65,000 cheering people in the stands on opening day is both wrong and insulting; of course, this is cavalier. But 6,000 masked individuals? Concessions allowed in safe areas where it’s OK to remove your mask because you can be ‘socially distant'? Effective cleaning policies? An individual’s understanding of risks and how to protect themselves?
“Yes. These factors make a return more possible. Our minds might immediately go to football -- specifically to ‘unruly’ Eagles fans -- but I’m thinking now about Citizens Bank Park during the summer, with seating scenarios that allow for physical distancing, controlled entry, and orderly exiting at the end of the game.”
Rall, it should be noted, is not a particularly rabid sports fan. As such, his view that mass gatherings should resume sooner than later is not confined to ballgames. I agree. This belief relies on our faith that we can all be trusted to be our better selves.
"All fans are people, and the vast majority of people can be reasoned with. They want to protect themselves and their loved ones. If we assume that everyone who wants to attend a Phillies game is an idiot, then ‘stay at home until there’s a vaccine’ is our only choice.
“Perhaps I’m naive, but I have confidence that rational discussion and creative solutions will enable a safe return to all social gatherings, such as restaurants, theater, and the symphony, as well as sporting events. At the very least, smart and creative people, including us scientists, should be part of the conversation about what we can do to make such a return safer.