Michael Hoch has been trying to bring laughter and levity to his Cheltenham home, even as the world outside changes rapidly in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
A rabid Philadelphia sports fan and a Sixers season ticket holder, Hoch and his family have turned to sports as a coping mechanism — sharing theories about what will happen when the leagues start up again and discussing ways the break could benefit Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. They’ve looked at all the funny photos and videos athletes have posted on social media.
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And if anyone gets tense as they isolate, Hoch said he reminds them of the Sixers’ rebuilding years.
“If we got through ‘the process,’" he said with a laugh, "we can get through this.”
To Hoch, humor and sports are essential to getting through this outbreak and the uncertainty, anxiety, and fear that accompany its spread.
In recent days, as cases increase around the country and the death toll rises in Europe, restrictions have intensified. Americans have been advised to stay home and practice social distancing. The federal government has recommended people temporarily avoid gatherings of 10 or more people. Nonessential businesses have closed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
This national emergency is unlike others in modern history. While the threat is not one people can see, it has halted everyday life and indefinitely suspended virtually all professional and college sports across the country.
Less than a week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, baseball games provided unifying moments. When the Phillies played the Braves on Sept. 17, 2001, the late broadcaster Harry Kalas said: "Sports has always been a diversion from our everyday problems, and in this case from a national tragedy.”
Of course today, during a global pandemic, it is not safe to gather in groups, health officials say, which means sports fans are left without that diversion. They cannot turn on their TVs and watch the Flyers or the Sixers or the Union or Phillies’ Spring Training or March Madness (unless they want to watch replays of old games).
Many in the Philly area said they understand these restrictions are necessary, yet they can’t help but feel even more off-balance and uneasy without their favorite teams to provide some distraction. Sports somehow feel meaningless and meaningful at the same time, they said.
That feeling is normal, said Taunya Tinsley, a Paoli-based professional counselor and a professor of mental health counseling at Villanova University.
“If sports is part of a fan’s identity, when there’s a sudden traumatic loss, they’re like, ‘Who am I if I’m not a sports fan?’ ” she said.
Online, people have shared different ways they’re keeping these parts of their identities intact, whether it’s turning to sports video games such as NBA 2K or holding family ping pong tournaments. For those who enjoy sports betting, the options are so slim that Bovada, the online sportsbook, started taking bets on the weather.
In Malvern, Molly Chiccino said she and her husband, Chuck, have begun rewatching old sporting events. She has Super Bowl LII on the DVR (she’d watched it twice in just the first few days of social distancing), and he has past Masters tournaments recorded.
The 36-year-old searches for any kind of contest that can serve as a momentary diversion, she said.
“I’ll turn on the TV looking for college basketball,” she said. "I end up watching the Food Network for some kind of competition.”
Kel Schmitt knows the feeling. A huge Flyers fan, he said he was heartbroken to see the NHL season halted as the team was making a strong playoff push. But the 41-year-old is still wearing Flyers gear, even while social distancing at home in Malvern.
“Some people do a load of light and dark" in the laundry, Schmitt said. “I do a load of orange.”
He’s keeping himself busy by catching up on TV shows. When he needs a hockey fix, he watches YouTube highlight reels of his favorite Flyers. He has yet to turn on any of his Flyers DVDs, which include games from as far back as the 1970s, but he knows they’ll soon come in handy.
While it’s a lonely time, he said, he’s tried to find reasons to laugh. Earlier this week, he said he had a burning question: “I just want to know what Gritty’s doing with his time off?” On Tuesday, his question was answered when the mascot put out a Twitter statement, which read in part:
“I’m lonely, so I’m sure you are too. We can be lonely together. Maybe being together in loneliness will make us ... not lonely? I recognize that there’s a lot going on, and I rightfully assume my duty to be the orange light of hope in this COV-19 covered world. After all, laughter is the best medicine. Next to medicine.”
Lindsay Fitzpatrick, 28, of Media, said she didn’t initially process the severity of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Once they pushed back Opening Day, that’s when it hit me,” Fitzpatrick said.
She and her father, Thomas Fitzpatrick, have gone to the Phillies’ home opener for more than a decade.
Now, with more free time and no games to watch, she and her fiance, Nick Pandelios, have been watching ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries. She’s also been reading baseball novels — most recently “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach and “Cactus League" by Emily Nemens. They’ve also been watching more news shows than they ever have before, she said.
Sports “is kind of an escape,” she said. “We don’t have that right now. It’s very strange.”
Fitzpatrick tries to look ahead. She’s curious how the MLB season will work when it begins. She wonders whether there will be a lot of doubleheaders. She thinks about the excitement she’ll feel when she and her father are back in Citizens Bank Park, whenever that may be.
On the bright side, she said, “having to wait so long will make us more appreciative when it comes back."
Tinsley, the Villanova professor who is still having virtual sessions with patients of her Paoli practice, Transitions Counseling Service, said there are reasons to be optimistic, even if they may be difficult to find right now.
She worries about people’s mental health during this period of isolation, she said, but she’s also hopeful.
“We’re dealing with a crisis and a traumatic event.,” she said. “Can people be resilient to crisis and traumatic events? Absolutely."
While there’s a lot that people are no longer able to do — including cheer on their favorite sports teams — she said she encourages them to be grateful for what they do have. Perhaps that’s more family bonding time, more time to call people they’ve been meaning to reconnect with, or more time to have meaningful conversations with friends.
And when sports return, she said, they will help fans heal.