It is becoming increasingly clear that the answer to “How will sports and concerts and other things in the U.S. reopen?” is “However the hell individual governors feel like it, and damn the science.” Missouri Gov. Mike Parson declared last week that concert venues can now reopen if concertgoers socially distance (though Missouri concert venues have been decidedly uninterested in booking shows just yet); Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson followed that up on Saturday with the announcement that arenas and stadiums can reopen at one-third capacity, which it doesn’t take complex math to see isn’t going to work too well if you want to ensure six feet between each set of fans. (Taiwan, the only nation so far to resume sports in front of live fans, has been limiting baseball stadiums to between 5% and 10% of capacity.)
In the absence of any federal plan, however, nothing is stopping governors from making up their own rules, which means we’re likely going to see a patchwork of reopenings under different social-distancing guidelines in the weeks and months ahead. That could potentially be very, very bad for sports- and concertgoers in those states (and anyone who potentially comes in contact with them, which is to say pretty much everyone who lives in those states) if it turns out sitting three seats away from your nearest neighbor while masked isn’t enough to stop the spread of Covid-19. [UPDATE: Just spotted some new evidence that social distancing is essentially useless indoors, though masks may help some here.] Arkansas and Missouri both have had relatively low death tolls from the virus so far, but also their new case rates haven’t even started to come down from the peaks they reached a month ago, though at least Missouri can claim that this is a positive sign since it’s massively scaled up testing in that time period.
On the bright side, if you can call it a bright side, all these differing state-by-state rules should make a nice controlled experiment in the effects of lifting various restrictions: If you’re an elected official wondering whether to reopen bars, say, you can just look a couple of states over and count the dead bodies to see how that’s likely to go. It’s also going to make a shambles of any plans for sports leagues to restart with all teams in their home venues — check out this hilarious CBS Sports article about how MLB plans to start its season in July, with its 12th-paragraph aside that “all travelers to Canada are subject to a 14-day quarantine, which could create headaches for the [Toronto] Blue Jays and their opponents” — but as we’re seeing with the Bundesliga’s attempts to restart its season despite the entire Dynamo Dresden team being AWOL for two weeks while quarantining after two players tested positive, any resumption of sports is necessarily going to have to be tentative and subject to rapid change if people start getting sick and/or dropping dead.
And, really, any resumption of anything, now that it’s becoming ever more clear that a single weeks-long shutdown isn’t going to do anything more than buy some more time for hospitals to catch their breaths, and doctors to work on better treatments, and cities and states to ramp up testing and contact tracing capacity (after first engaging in the requisite petty political bickering over it) while we await a vaccine — something that’s not a 100% sure thing to arrive even in 2021, or ever. It would be very nice to wait for science to provide answers to key questions like “Are schools key transmission vectors?” and “Are surfaces relatively safe compared to contact with actual people or do we need armies of disinfectant-spraying drones?” before we start going back out in public, but it looks like most political leaders (in the U.S. especially, but elsewhere too) aren’t willing to wait for the slow grind of scientific research. So instead we’ll get a series of mass experiments, with human beings as guinea pigs. Get your tickets now!