Social Experiment on Value of Social Distancing to Face Biggest Test as Sports World Watches

Throughout the worldwide timeout brought about by the COVID-19 virus, there have been two main schools of thought related to the value of people social distancing to avoid spreading the virus.

One school of thought, let’s call them science, maintains that the best way to mitigate the spread of a virus, that has no cure, and no proven treatment, is to stay six feet apart, wear masks when around other people, wash hands constantly, and avoid touching the mouth and nose area.

The other school of thought, let’s call them Sweden, believes that the virus that has killed over 109,000 Americans, and over 330,000 people worldwide, will go away on its own, and that people should just roll the dice and go about their lives as if a huge global pandemic was not hanging over their heads in an effort to establish herd immunity equipped with the knowledge that one has to break a few eggs to make an omelette.

There are of course nuggets of truth to each side’s position, since no one really knows for sure how this brand-new virus will finally ramp down. Team science is right in saying that smaller gatherings of people mean less opportunities to spread the virus. At the same time, team Sweden is also right in saying that one cannot stay isolated forever.

While the two camps differ on the value of social distancing as a whole, one thing that both sides should be able to agree on, is that minority populations, elderly populations, and populations with underlying health conditions should take extra precautions related to how they respond to the threat of COVID-19.

To a certain degree, each and every one of us is free to decide which camp we want to belong to, sort of like the people of Los Angeles have the choice between rooting for the Angels, or the Dodgers. One team wins a lot, has a storied history, and has their own unique hot dog. The other team is the Angels.

To a certain degree, each and every one of us is free to decide which camp we want to belong to when it comes to social distancing, or not social distancing during the time of COVID-19, just like the people of Los Angeles have the choice between rooting for the Angels, or the Dodgers. One team wins a lot, has a storied history, and has their own unique hot dog. The other team is the Angels.
Photo R. Anderson

Starting today, the two COVID-19 camps are likely to see which approach to social distancing was the right call. The data points come courtesy of 14 days of coast to coast protests acting as a major case study in what happens when thousands of people occupy the same space for extended periods of time in the midst of a pandemic.

Although many people have been seen wearing masks during television coverage of the protests, there are also many people who are not wearing masks. Additionally, with additional law enforcement and media members on the street in close proximity many cities are facing the equivalent of filling several Ballparks multiple times each day.

The widely agreed upon incubation period for COVID-19 is around two weeks. So, with today marking the 14th day since the protests began, any wide-spread outbreaks of the virus should start to materialize any day now, and will last for up to two weeks after the last protest. There are very few historical data points for what happens when one protests during a global pandemic, so a lot of new ground is being plowed on both the social justice front as well as on a medical front.

This is where the world of sports will be sure to take notice as they try to determine when, and how to reintroduce players onto the field, and fans into the stands. If team science is right, the numbers of infections will spike as a result of the proximity of protesters, and a lack of adherence to social distancing guidelines. This would show to the sports leagues around the world that the risk of bringing fans into the stands is still very high.

If team Sweden is right, cases will not spike and calls to open everything up the way they were before the middle of March 2020 will grow louder. Of course, the wrinkle to solely relying on visible symptoms of COVID-19 in determining a path forward is that many of the cases of COVID-19 do not lend themselves to outward signs of symptoms. So, even if there is a widespread outbreak, it would likely not be revealed unless people partaking in the protests were tested for the virus.

With several professional and collegiate sports teams reporting COVID-19 cases after players have started returning to practice, it becomes clear that there is risk even without fans in the stands.

Scott Dixon, shown following the 2013 Grand Prix of Houston, won the first race of the delayed 2020 IndyCar season at Texas Motor Speedway. Although fans were not at the race in Texas, series officials have said that fans will be in attendance when the crown jewel Indy 500 is run even if that means delaying the race beyond the current August time frame.
Photo R. Anderson

The desire of professional sports leagues to pack as many fans into the stands as quickly as possible is both a financial need, as well as a psychological need.

Although the Indy Car Series returned to action for the first time in 2020 this past weekend with a fan free race at Texas Motor Speedway, series officials went on record as saying that the Indianapolis 500, which has been moved from May to August, would be delayed again in the event that fans cannot attend an August race.

The message being sent is loud and clear, the Indy 500 will not happen without butts in the seats, even if that means there is no Indy 500 this year.

While the Indy 500 is a significant race, allowing some races to be held without fans in order to generate revenue, but saying that the INDY 500 is too important of a race to run without fans seems like an insult to the other races on the schedule.

That would be like Major League Baseball saying that the Yankees are too important to the history of the game to play in an empty Ballpark, so fans can pile into Yankee Stadium, but the other 29 Ballparks need to remain empty.

The Indy 500 is the largest single-day sporting event in the world, and with room for over 400,000 spectators, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is often recognized as the largest sports venue in the world. It is hard to imagine any scenario where 400,000 people are going to be allowed to congregate anywhere, anytime soon during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even at 25 percent capacity, an Indy 500 with 100,000 people seems like a bit of a stretch and would be something that would certainly make team science cringe. On the other hand, team Sweden would likely say, “och förarna startar dina motorer,” or roughly translated as “drivers start your engines.”

That is why the infection rates coming out of the weeks of protest will be so crucial in planning the next front in the battle against the COVID-19 virus.

Sports and science are both driven by statistics. The near-term future of professional and collegiate sports is very likely to be determined by what the rate of infection looks like over the coming weeks. It is a case study that no one could have envisioned at the start of the pandemic when the world of sports shut down one league at a time. Now that it has happened, the numbers cannot be ignored, just as the issues behind what led to the protests will also need to be addressed in the sports world, as well as the world as a whole.

COVID-19, as well as the protests for social justice that are occurring in the middle of a pandemic will both shape the direction of the world both in the short-term, as well as the long-term. There is no question that history is being written. Time will tell what those history books end up saying when all is said and done.

Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk about team Sweden has me wanting to build an armoire using a tiny wrench that can also double as a meatball skewer.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson

 

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