One year ago today, the sports world screeched to a halt: In a span of just 24 hours, all the major leagues had suspended their seasons, the NCAA basketball tournament had been canceled, and we entered the long, strange time that we will likely remember just as “2020,” even if it didn’t start until a couple of months into the calendar year and won’t fully end until who knows when.
The return to something approaching normal is likely to be strange and herky-jerky — here’s a good Q&A with epidemiologist Ashish Jha about how it’s likely to go — so it’s probably appropriate that today’s big news is that the Texas Rangers will be playing three home games (two exhibition, one Opening Day) next month not only with fans in the stands, but at full capacity:
On Wednesday, the Rangers announced their in-person attendance policies for the start of the 2021 season, which include offering all 40,518 seats to potential ticket buyers for two exhibition games on March 29 and 30, as well as for the team’s home opener on April 5. (After that, the team plans to limit capacity and introduce social-distancing in some sections of seats for further games.)
It’s unclear whether the organization somehow believes the virus will behave differently after opening day than it will for the three games at which there will be no attendance cap. In an email to Texas Monthly, John Blake, the team’s executive vice president for communications, said, “The total number [of tickets available after opening day] will depend on demand and can be expanded if needed.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott famously “opened Texas 100%” last week, so it’s not entirely surprising that some sports team owner was going to take advantage by seeing how many fans they could jam into their new open-air (unless the butt-ugly roof is closed) stadium. But like so many “reopening” things over the next few weeks and months, it’s likely going to raise a whole lot of conflicting emotions along the lines of this is so exciting but uh are we doing this too soon and all going to die?
Let’s lay out the arguments for and against this being a historic disaster:
It’ll be fine: Things are very different in the world now than they were last fall, when the Rangers’ stadium admitted a small number of fans who were supposed to stay masked and distanced (but didn’t really) for the NLCS and World Series: Unlike then, virus rates are falling, and the people the most vulnerable to getting sick are getting vaccinated at an unprecedented pace, even if going a lot faster in some places than in others. There were no identifiable mass outbreaks after the World Series or other outdoor sporting events with limited fans — here’s an article that claims there has yet to be a single “confirmed super-spreading event that occurred solely outdoors,” though that ignores a lot of things like that infamous Champions League match in Milan and Sturgis and Trump rallies, or at least is strict about “solely outdoors” in a way that probably excludes baseball games, too. In that interview above with Jha, he even says that outdoor mask mandates can probably be safely dropped sooner than other measures, or could be if it didn’t get people thinking oh cool, pandemic’s over and then have them start packing into bars and family gatherings without masks and really kick off some major superspreading. So a bunch of people, many of whom will be vaccinated or have antibodies as a result of having gotten sick during Texas’s deadly January surge, packing together for a couple of hours to watch baseball, with lots of airflow and presumably masks on, is maybe not the biggest concern — or at least, not nearly as big a concern as all the sports bars they’ll be packing into after the game.
What are you, nuts? While the U.S. may be on the brink of escaping from this nightmare thanks to vaccinations, it’s simultaneously on the brink of another surge, with new, more transmissible variants ready to take advantage of eased restrictions to send viral rates soaring again. Rates have fallen since their January peak thanks to people getting vaccinated and staying out of public, but have plateaued since then, thanks to new variants and a bunch of reopenings that really could have waited just a few more weeks. As could having a full house for a baseball game: Even if you wishcast that a couple of full-capacity games might be fine, is it really worth going back to more lockdowns and more deaths when it could be just a matter of weeks before waiting for the all-clear?
In the end, as with so much about reopenings, the answer is let’s roll the dice and find out. Given that past sports reopenings went better than expected — even while restaurant reopenings and family holiday reopenings seem to have gone much worse than expected — I’m tentatively optimistic that we will remember the Rangers’ cheek-to-jowl Opening Day as the start of a return to normalcy, not as that time a sports owner decided to play Russian roulette with people’s lives in an effort to wring a quick buck out of the return of baseball before everyone noticed how dreadful his team was going to be. But then, it can be both: The very nature of Russian roulette is that most of the times you pull the trigger, everything turns out fine. Get real familiar with outcome bias, because we’re likely to be talking about it a lot in the weeks and months ahead.