New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared yesterday that sports and music venues that hold more than 10,000 people — both outdoor stadiums and indoor arenas — will be allowed to reopen to fans at 10% capacity starting February 23. Each building will first have to have its ventilation systems approved by the state department of health, but once that’s complete, the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, New York Mets, and New York Yankees could all soon be playing before paying crowds.
The announcement came as a bit of a surprise in a state that, even with falling coronavirus rates, still has the fifth-highest positive test rate in the country, as new more transmissible variants threaten to create a renewed surge in coming weeks. But Cuomo said that with reduced capacities, improved ventilation, requiring mask wearing, and requiring a negative test result in the previous 72 hours, he could “get this economy open intelligently and in a balanced way.”
All that is well enough — if you’re going to start putting fans back in seats, it’s clear, keeping them masked and distanced is key. But the negative test certification — which Cuomo called “the key” to reopening — is what begins to paint this as hygiene theater: As we learned last year during the Miami Marlins fiasco, 40% of people will still test negative four days after being exposed to the virus, and 20% will test negative even three days after symptoms have started. Plus there’s the problem of people who get tested on a Monday and then contract the virus by Thursday. As one infectious disease expert put it to the New York Times:
“A test 72 hours prior to a game will help identify some cases, but that’s also three days in which an individual can become infectious,” [Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist from George Mason University,] wrote in an email.
Coming just one week after Cuomo announced that restaurants would be allowed to open to indoor dining, something that can’t be done while masked until chefs develop food that can be absorbed through diners’ skin, the sports reopening is a clear signal that New York state is prioritizing “getting the economy open” over actual safety concerns. As the Times editorial board wrote just hours before Cuomo’s sports announcement:
Too many leaders — not just Mr. Cuomo — are ignoring that call. Massachusetts and New Jersey are allowing businesses, including restaurants, to expand capacity for indoor services, and Iowa just lifted its mask mandate. The impulse behind these moves is understandable. Restaurants and the people who earn their living through them are in dire straits because they have not received sufficient government assistance. State and local economies are hanging by a thread, and everyone is exhausted by restrictions and desperate to return to some semblance of normal life.
But the number of people who get sick or die from Covid-19 in the coming year will depend on the outcome of a desperate race that’s underway, between human vaccination and viral mutation. … By relaxing restrictions now, state and local leaders are undermining their own vaccination efforts. To get a sense of what this looks like to scientists and public health experts, imagine a military general leading the fight against a foreign enemy — and then selling that enemy deadly weapons on the side.
Meanwhile, food critic Ryan Sutton of Eater came out against the restaurant reopening, noting that choosing Valentine’s Day weekend to resume indoor dining “feels chosen less for any health milestones and more for the fact that it is historically one of the biggest nights for restaurants.” While restaurant workers will soon be allowed to sign up for vaccinations, the slow pace of vaccine production means they could be waiting for appointments well into the spring or summer. (Cuomo didn’t say whether stadium and arena workers will be added to the vaccine priority list.)
Speaking as a New Yorker and a Mets fan eager to see how the team will screw up its winter of big-name acquisitions, I’m dying to get to a ballgame as much as anyone. But “dying” only metaphorically: If allowing a couple thousand lucky fans to witness the Knicks and Nets firsthand leads to an uptick in cases that allows new viral variants to take off, sickening and killing people across the city who have no interest in basketball, Cuomo’s sports reopening move could go down as one of the most poorly timed decisions in governmental history. And even if we get lucky and limited-capacity indoor sports turn out not to become superspreader events, seeking a “balanced” reopening — presumably between the full reopening many businesses would want and the continued shutdown of indoor activities that scientists recommend, meaning between profits and deaths — is, let’s just say, a telling reminder of how most elected officials see where their bread is buttered.