Here is your Texas Rangers opening day superspreader porn

The Texas Rangers held their home opener yesterday, as promised at full capacity at their new (if you don’t count the games last season with no fans or the NLCS and World Series with some fans) stadium. Did every news outlet on earth give it in-depth coverage, so that readers could google in awe and/or horror at Texans packed cheek to jowl watching sports during a pandemic? With sweet, sweet clicks at stake, what do you think?

Let’s start with the New York Times, which used an Associated Press drone (I think) to capture people waiting to get in to the park in socially distanced lines, sort of:

You can’t tell all that much from that image. For one thing, are those fans wearing masks, as the Rangers and MLB said would be required? Or ignoring the mask requirement, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott encouraged them to do? Let’s take a closer look inside the stadium:

That’s not a lot of masks! Of course, there is a loophole to the mask requirement at ballgames this year, which is that you can remove them while actively eating and drinking. This photo, though, as should immediately be apparent, was taken during the national anthem, when presumably most people are not eating or drinking. “Sorry, I can’t put my mask on, I’m busy chewing on patriotism!”

Let’s next try the opposite end of the news spectrum from the New York Times, KULR-TV in Billings, Montana, which was likewise all over the story with an item headlined “Maskless fans pack sold out stadium in stunning display,” though it turned out just to link to a CNN video:

That’s epidemiologist Michael Osterholm in the corner, about to say that “already we’re seeing the surge” in places like Michigan and Minnesota despite those states ramping up vaccinations, saying in the next six to ten weeks, we’re going to have more viral spread thanks to reopenings and not yet enough shots to counter it.

Want your packed-stadium photos in pointless-video form? We got that too:

As we’ve discussed here before, pandemics are not clean-cut moral dilemmas, so there’s no sure way of knowing what the result of the Rangers’ experiment with non-distancing will be. The roof was open, so there was tons of air circulation, but also people were right next to each other largely without masks on, which is pretty much the only good way to get infected while outside:

“The risk is lower outdoors, but it’s not zero,” said Shan Soe-Lin, a lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. “And I think the risk is higher if you have two people who are stationary next to each other for a long time, like on a beach blanket, rather than people who are walking and passing each other.”

One recent study found that just talking can launch thousands of droplets that can remain suspended in the air for eight to 14 minutes. But the risk of inhaling those droplets is lower outdoors.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens over the 4 to 14 days before passing judgment on whether the Rangers owners were unthinkably reckless or acceptably reckless here. And even then, it may come down as much to luck as to good or bad planning, as a handful of people shedding virus in the wrong place can easily make the difference between explosive spread and not much. At least Rangers execs limited full attendance to opening day — they’re switching to distanced seating after yesterday’s game — which should make for an excellent controlled experiment in how much difference distance makes in preventing viral spread at outdoor, unmasked events. Those sports team owners, always thinking about the future journal articles!

Poll of Americans on reopening stadiums shows why not to reopen stadiums based on polls

There is a very dumb journalistic tradition that will not die of “Let’s poll people about what they believe about purely factual things.” So you take a question that should be answered with reporting — say, whether climate change is an imminent crisis, or whether Saddam Hussein really had weapons of mass destruction — and then parse the responses as if they mean anything more than just a reification of the ideas that the media itself has been telling people. It is truly very, very dumb.

Today is Major League Baseball opening day, and so the question the Washington Post chose to ask random Americans is whether they would feel comfortable attending a live sporting event. The answer is a resounding “it depends”:

About two-thirds say they would feel comfortable attending an outdoor event such as baseball (66 percent), but fewer than half as many (32 percent) feel comfortable attending an indoor event such as basketball. Nearly 2 in 3 people (64 percent) say they would feel comfortable if all attendees were required to wear masks, compared with 22 percent who would feel comfortable if there was no mask requirement…

More say they would be comfortable attending a stadium limited to 20 percent capacity (69 percent “comfortable”) than 50 percent capacity (50 percent).

That is simultaneously unsurprising — being outdoors, masked, and distanced makes people feel safer — and utterly meaningless, for a couple of reasons. First off, the questions were all asked separately, so it was either “Do you feel safe at an outdoor event?” or “Do you feel safe if people are wearing masks?” or “Do you feel safe if you’ve been vaccinated?”, with no way to respond “Only if these other conditions are met as well.” If a Washington Post pollster had been unlucky enough to get me on the phone, for example, I would have said, “I feel pretty safe at outdoor, masked, and distanced events right now, and once I’m fully vaccinated would consider indoor events, but not if people are unmasked, unless maybe the case rate is really low by then because so many other people are vaccinated — are you getting all this? Should I talk more slowly? Are you crying?” (This answer would be very hard to fit into a “data visualization,” as fancy journalism types these days call bar charts.)

The poll results are also meaningless, though, because the most reasonable answer would be “You’re the ones with the resources of a giant journalistic enterprise here, you tell me whether I should feel safe.” Doing that would require asking people who actually know things — fancy journalism types call these “experts” — what is and isn’t safe, and then reporting their answers. For example, here’s Anthony Fauci telling the New York Times for its baseball opening day story what he expects to transpire over the coming weeks:

“I would expect that as we get through the summer — late spring, early summer — there’s going to be a relaxation where you’re going to have more and more people allowed into baseball parks, very likely separated with seating, very likely continue to wear masks,” he said.

Rangers launch return to normalcy and/or risk Texans’ lives by allowing 100% capacity for Opening Day

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.

More on Justin Turner’s maskless World Series celebration, which has nothing directly to do with stadiums but bear with me

It’s a bad day to be Justin Turner. The Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman, who received a positive coronavirus test result during Tuesday’s Game 6 of the World Series, was pulled from the game, then returned to the field to take part in postgame celebrations after the Dodgers won the championship, has been savaged across the sports world, getting called “selfish” by Yahoo! Sports, “galling” by USA Today, and I’m not even going to check Twitter. Even Dodgers president Andrew Friedman, who semi-defended Turner’s presence on the field by saying that he technically became a free agent as soon as the game ended and “I don’t think there was anyone that was going to stop him,” acknowledged that it was “not good optics” to have him sitting for a photo, maskless, next to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, a cancer survivor.

And then on the other hand there was Defector’s Albert Burneko, who beneath the superficially contrarian headline “It’s Not Justing Turner’s Fault” made the point that focusing the blame on individual behavior during an institutional crisis is completely the wrong way to go about things:

The bleak lesson of 2020—really, the bleak lesson of so much of the history of this society, but one the year 2020 seems hell-bent on teaching—is about the futility of individual responses amid institutional failure. This is how the real bad actors, the ones with the power to actually make significant changes, want things: with responsibility for containing the pandemic, or arresting climate change, or addressing systemic inequality and social injustice, litigated in society as matters of scattered individual choice. If baseball failed to contain the pandemic, well then it was because no individual person made the individual choice to thwart Justin Turner’s deeply human desire to celebrate the happiest moment of his life with the teammates who’d shared the journey with him, and not because Major League Baseball had a duty to provide and adhere to clearer and firmer protocols from the beginning. If a campaign rally doubles as a superspreader event, well, heck, we passed out masks, but it’s not like the literal president of the United States can just insist people wear them at an affair he’s hosting. If your preferred party loses an election, it’s because individuals selfishly withheld their vote, not because the party had, and fell short of, any responsibility to reach those people and earn their support. If the natural world swelters to death, well then it’s because not enough people bought electric cars or metal straws, not because neoliberal governments deferred to the corporate world for meaningful changes it wouldn’t make until forced by market imperatives, if then, if ever.

As several people raised down in the Defector comments, Justin Turner’s maskless run onto the field was a lot like college students’ maskless partying in the wake of reopening campuses — yes, it’s incredibly dumb, but when under the influence of alcohol/hormones/having just won the World Series, you kind of have to expect some people to do incredibly dumb things. Which is why we have rules against doing dumb things, and league officials and college administrators and U.S. presidents who are supposed to enforce those rules. It’s not Andrew Friedman’s job, in other words, to be as confused as Nigel.

And even as MLB has been frantically issuing statements that, hey, they told Turner to stay off the field and he wouldn’t listen, there are frankly more concerning things about the league’s actions here than how many security guards they assigned to the Covid isolation room. (Presumably if a fan had tried to run onto the field they would have done more than just ask them nicely to stop, right? But I digress.) Even if Turner had sat placidly and watched the celebration on TV, he’d been in close proximity to the rest of his team, often indoors in the clubhouse, for weeks prior to this, which according to both CDC and MLB rules meant everyone else on the team should be immediately quarantined. USA Today initially reported that “the team will have multiple rounds of testing before leaving Texas.” Instead, this happened:

Yes, indeed, Some Guy Named G, you’re not likely to start testing positive until at least four days after you yourself are infected, but you can be infectious that whole time. So Mookie Betts testing negative yesterday is no guarantee that Mookie Betts isn’t silently transmitting coronavirus to everyone else on that team plane, or wherever else he goes back in Los Angeles once he gets off it. Justin Turner risking infecting his teammates for the sake of a photo op with the championship trophy was reckless and impulsive; the Dodgers and MLB risking infecting even more teammates by sticking a whole bunch of potentially infectious people on a plane together was an institutional failure of responsibility.

Getting back to Burneko’s point: There’s a common defense by people in power who want to deny responsibility for their actions that they’re just giving the people what they want, whether that thing that they want is carbon-spewing cars or cigarettes or guns or the freedom to decide whether to wear masks or, yes, billion-dollar sports stadiums to buy tickets to. (This is an especially common gambit by the people who stand to make money from the questionable items being sold.) But the whole point of being in power is that you have power, and by your actions, you set the stage for what behavior by other people is not just acceptable, but possible. So while it might be fun to blame Justin Turner for being a lunkhead, or people in Maine for holding that deadly wedding, a public health crisis like this one only highlights how vital it is to have some mechanism for authority — whether it’s an elected government, an unelected league management, or an anarcho-syndicalist executive officer of the week — who can and will establish and enforce rules about not being a lunkhead. All else, as we’ve so recently been reminded, ends in bears.

World Series ends with Covid-positive Justin Turner celebrating on field without mask, sportswriters sum up Rangers’ $1B stadium as “unnecessary,” all is as it should be

The baseball postseason that would never end has finally ended, fittingly enough with a late-inning Covid controversy as Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner had to be removed from the final game of the World Series in the 7th inning after receiving a positive test result, went back on the field without a mask to celebrate with his teammates, then complained that he “couldn’t be out there to celebrate with my guys.” Truly, the only way this could be more cringey would be if MLB chose this moment to bring back the ad slogan “Baseball Fever: Catch It!

But even as we wonder how Turner contracted the coronavirus while supposedly in a bubble and why he then sat next to a cancer survivor with no mask on, let’s not allow this bizarro World Series to pass into history without enjoying the glimpse that it gave us of the Texas Rangers‘ new $1 billion stadium, about half a billion dollars of which came from Arlington residents so that the team would no longer have to suffer the indignity of playing in a stadium without air conditioning. We’ve already heard the few fans in attendance extremely inappropriately calling the place “breathtaking”; now ESPN has polled its reporters on the scene of what they think of the place, and the reviews (edited for length and maximum hilarity) are decidedly meh:

Alden Gonzalez: It’s a modern, bigger, more comfortable, yet less charming — and in my opinion, unnecessary — version of the old place.

Jeff Passan: It’s fine. … Aesthetically, there’s nothing particularly inspiring about it.

Jesse Rogers: It feels cozy, especially if you’re in the lower bowl, but the tradeoff was going straight up. If you have a fear of heights, this is not the park for you.

Gonzalez: My least favorite part is that it doesn’t feel intimate.

Passan: From above, the place looks like what would happen if a Costco and a barn had a baby.

Gonzalez: What’s better is that it has a roof.

Rogers: OK, it’s cool when it opens and closes, but this is Texas. Besides the occasional storm, what’s the need for a dome?

Okay, I left out a few nice things the ESPN trio had to say about Globe Life Field — apparently the fence height is “perfect,” according to Gonzalez, which is totally a reason to spend $1 billion to build an entirely new stadium — but the upshot is that they think this is a “middle-tier” stadium, not the best or the worst, with a “corporate” feel but some nice brick columns. That’s something that could be said of lots of modern stadiums, including the one it replaced, but I guess they had to come up with something to say beyond “it would have been more impressive if they’d kept the old stadium and set a billion dollars on fire in center field.”

The NFL’s plan is to keep poking at the virus until people start getting sick

So this happened:

Before anyone gets too excited and/or horrified, the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Jacksonville Jaguars have all said they’re going to continue to operate at 20-25% capacity for the time being. This was just Gov. Ron DeSantis making clear that he lifted all restrictions on outdoor sporting events two weeks ago, when he also prohibited local governments from enforcing tougher restrictions or even fining people for not wearing masks. (If you’re wondering how that’s working out, virus rates in Florida haven’t surged so far, staying fairly level — though still high — but then, it generally takes more than two weeks for a surge to take hold, and also when you’re dealing mostly with stochastic spread via superspreader events, there is a lot of randomness involved as to whether and when a surge kicks in.)

So, props to the NFL for not immediately opening the fan floodgates in Florida, sure. But that’s hardly an indicator of a league that is concerned with safety above else. As we’ve seen this week — and as Barry Petchesky adeptly recounted yesterday at Defector — the league is currently dealing with a cascade of outbreaks on teams that has now caused a couple of games to be postponed, and could end up with even more. And, writes Petchesky, it was all totally predictable:

We don’t know a lot about COVID-19, but we know a few things about sports. We know bubbles, deployed by the NBA and NHL, and by MLB for its postseason, can work. We know that not-bubbling, like MLB tried for its abbreviated regular season, doesn’t work, at least not if your goal is to avoid having to cancel or postpone games. We know the NFL, due to the sheer size of its rosters and the massive logistical undertaking that staging a football game requires, probably can’t enter a bubble. We also know that it can’t afford to postpone many more games before a backlog pushes the Super Bowl into June.

That caveat re: MLB’s non-bubble is important: If the goal of “let’s let baseball teams all play in the home stadiums while still seeing their families and going to the grocery store and whatnot” was to keep anyone from getting infected, yeah, it was a disaster. But if the goal was to find a way to limp through a season with lots of postponements and makeup doubleheaders because players weren’t willing to be separated from their families for three months — the NBA and NHL were already up to playoff season, so their bubbles didn’t have to last as long — then it worked exactly as planned.

The NFL, of course, can’t stage doubleheaders, and can’t easily reschedule too many games without adding additional weeks to the season. And with 64-player rosters (48 active, 16 on a practice squad), plus a sport that involved a lot more contact than baseball (though we’re still not clear whether that’s the main risk or it’s just gathering indoors in clubhouses that mostly spreads the coronavirus), that’s a lot more dice being rolled every week than for other sports, so it’s absolutely no surprise that we’re seeing outbreaks.

Unlike MLB, though, which after some initial stumbles realized that you need to quarantine entire teams for a week or more after each new case turns up, the NFL seems to be charging ahead on a policy of Well, hopefully nobody else caught it. After New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive on Friday, Sunday’s scheduled game between the Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs was delayed — all the way to Monday night. But it can take four or more days for an infected person to test positive, while they become infectious in as little as 48 hours. So even if Patriots players all tested negative before their Monday night game, someone on the team could easily have still been incubating the virus, and spreading it to their teammates. Which may in fact have happened.

The NFL has already been heavily invested in hygiene theater, touting its disinfecting drones and temperature checks for fans, even though neither does much at all to protect anyone from Covid. (All evidence is that the virus doesn’t spread much via surfaces, and while most people with Covid symptoms run a fever, nearly half of infected people don’t have any symptoms.) Hygiene theater is based on the idea that the easier something is to do, the more one should focus on it; the decision to hold the Pats-Chiefs game on Monday after just a 24-hour delay seems to have been the inverse: If it’s too hard to do, let’s decide it doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, in a sport where doing much of anything to combat the spread of the coronavirus among players is really hard, that’s a recipe for, if not necessarily disaster, a whole lot of extremely risky behavior. And the NFL has another decision coming up that is going to be equally hard, if only for economic reasons: The Super Bowl is scheduled to be held on February 7 in Tampa, and DeSantis has now said that it’s okay by him if they sell out the place, and that would be worth tens of millions of dollars to the league. Even if the image of a packed Super Bowl that turns into another biological bomb may give league planners second thoughts, you know that somewhere in the league offices they’re wondering: Could we get away with 30% capacity? 40%? What if we have disinfecting drones hovering over every fan? How close can we get to the precipice of a superspreader event without going over?

And that appears to be the NFL’s policy, really: Keep inching up to the limits of what’s considered safe, see who gets sick, then inch up a little further if it’s not too embarrassing a number. As I’ve noted before, this makes for a very useful experiment about how many fans can be in one place outdoors before disaster strikes — if the NFL really wanted to do it right, it should dictate that some teams allow more fans and others allow fewer, to see what the threshold is for sparking outbreaks — but it’s an experiment with human lives, which when conducted without the humans involved knowing the risks and consenting to them is generally considered a crime against humanity. But then, playing with human lives is pretty much the NFL’s jam, so why quit now while you’re massively ahead?

UK just closed soccer stadiums to fans for virus rates that wouldn’t bat an eye in most US states

Bad news if you’re an English soccer fan who was hoping to, say, check out one of those crazy high-scoring Leeds United games in person: Plans to reopen British soccer stadiums at limited capacity on October 1 have been scuttled by the U.K.’s fast-rising Covid rates.

Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, cabinet office minister Michael Gove said that the Oct. 1 plans will now be paused.

“We were looking at a staged programme of more people returning,” Gove said. “It wasn’t going to be the case that we were going to have stadiums thronged with fans.

“We’re looking at how we can, for the moment, pause that programme, but what we do want to do is to make sure that, as and when circumstances allow, get more people back.”

Britain is indeed seeing a surge in Covid cases, even if predictions of 50,000 cases a day by mid-October assume that current rates of exponential growth continue, which even the government scientist who made the prediction called “quite a big if.” Here, check out the rolling seven-day average chart of new cases per capita:

That’s very ungood, and looks a lot like the abrupt rise back in March that led the U.K. to shut down stadiums and pretty much everything else in the first place, so good public health policy there!

But it does make one wonder: How do those wild Covid case rates in Britain compare to those in U.S. states that are allowing sports stadiums to admit fans? The current U.K. rate (against, seven-day rolling average) is 59.1 new cases per day per million residents; looking at which U.S. states are above that rate, we get, let’s see:

Gah! That’s 29 states plus the District of Columbia, if you don’t want to have to count for yourself. And even if not all those states are currently seeing upswings in positive tests, many are: Missouri, for example, which was the site of the very first NFL game of the season to allow fans, and where some fans were subsequently ordered to quarantine because they sat near a fan who subsequently tested positive. Missouri currently has a new-case rate of 238.8 cases per day per million, which is more than quadruple what’s led Britain to close its stadiums.

None of which makes open-air stadium attendance any more (or less) dangerous than we’ve discussed here before. But the best way to have safe public events during a pandemic, it’s extremely clear, is to tamp down the pandemic as far as possible, since it’s tough to catch a virus from a fan neighbor who isn’t infected in the first place. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be universal precautions — masks are still good — but things like allowing fans into stadiums (or reopening indoor dining, where people are taking their masks off to eat and breathing the same air and really, it skeeves me out just thinking about it) should really be reserved for places where the virus rates are very low, like, yeah, New Zealand still looks good. Maybe the entire NFL should relocate there for 2020, if New Zealand would let germy Americans in, which you know it won’t.

Friday roundup: NFL teams debate which fans will be the first to enjoy socially distanced peeing

Pressed for time today, so while I’d love to comment on everything in the world that happened this crazy week, I’m just going to give you a link to my article on news coverage of the California fires and the state’s reliance on incarcerated people to fight them, then get straight to a quickie news recap:

  • The Cleveland Browns will reportedly “consider personal seat licenses” in determining who gets to attend reduced-capacity games this season, which isn’t very specific: Would season ticket holders with PSLs (which is almost all of them) get priority? Would those who spent more get let in first? One can only imagine the Browns front office debating which is the fairest solution, and/or which would help maximize team revenues, because you know that the latter is never very far from sports owners’ conception of the former.
  • If you’ve been jonesing for a picture of what socially distanced urinals will look like, Sports Illustrated has you covered.
  • Pittsburgh’s Sports & Exhibition Authority is, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “requesting $7.4 million to COVID-19-proof Heinz Field, PNC Park, PPG Paints Arena and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center,” whatever “COVID-19-proof” means. (Lots of urinal covers?)
  • There are new reports estimating the costs to the local economy of spring training in Arizona ending early and the Oklahoma City Thunder season ending early and do you think either of them looked at what, say, sales-tax receipts actually did starting in March, or did they just project out how much money is normally spent at these events and assume that it all vanished into thin air once they were canceled? (If you guessed door #2, congratulations, you can skip journalism school and go directly to a newspaper job, if newspapers or jobs still existed.)
  • No huge new revelations in this week’s Epoch Times report on the Los Angeles Angels stadium deal, but it’s a decent roundup and there sure is a ton of me in it, so check it out if you like. (EDIT: Or actually maybe don’t, if you don’t want to support QAnon and anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories. If you want to know what I said, I’ll post it in comments.)
  • This German study of how people’s breath spreads at an indoor concert is kind of genius, and everyone should be watching to see the results if we ever want to be able to attend indoor events again, whether masked or distanced or ventilated with HEPA filters or what. Results are due in four to six weeks, so stay tuned in early October for further updates.

NFL and MLS about to start letting fans in, is this a terrible idea or what?

So far, the restart of sports in the U.S. has gone reasonably well: Sure, there were a few embarrassing pratfalls like the Miami Marlins having to stop playing games for a week after they had a dozen players test positive for Covid when they played a game right after initial positive tests because their shortstop said it was okay, but overall, things are working out much better than one might have feared. No league has actually had to stop play entirely (yet) as the result of outbreaks, and leagues playing in “bubbles” like the NBA and NHL have avoided even interruptions for individual teams.

The one thing that major North American leagues haven’t tried yet, though, is allowing actual fans to attend games. That’s about to change big-time, though, as two MLS teamsReal Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City — are about to join FC Dallas this week in holding games before limited-capacity crowds. (FC Dallas played its first home game before a reported 2,912 fans two weeks ago, though it didn’t look like no 2,912.) And then the floodgates are set to open September 10, when the NFL season kicks off with the Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, and Jacksonville Jaguars all set to play before about one-quarter-capacity crowds, with a dozen other teams either considering letting fans in or not yet having announced plans. In each case, there will be rules in place to protect fans — staggered entry times, mask requirements (except when eating or drinking), buffer zones between groups of seats, etc. — or at least to make fans feel more reassured that they’re being protected.

The question everyone wants to know the answer to: Is it safe? The answer, unfortunately, isn’t easy to determine: Sure, lots of overseas sports leagues have readmitted fans without ill effects, but those were all in nations with very low Covid rates — if you collect 13,000 people in one place and none of them are infectious, that’s not much of a test of how fast the virus can spread at a sporting event. The new-case rate in the U.S. has fallen by about a third over the last three weeks, but it’s still higher per capita than anywhere other than Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, or Spain. And certain states remain far worse than that: Texas would have the third-worst numbers of any place on the planet if it were its own nation, yet the Cowboys are preparing to reopen to fans for their first game, and the Houston Texans possibly for their second home game starting in October.

The science behind viral transmission at sporting events remains the same as it’s been since the spring: The more time you spend near someone, the closer you get, the more indoors with poor ventilation, and the less effective mask wearing, the more likely you are to get sick. So in theory, all the measures being taken by sports teams should help reduce risk, though item #1 suggests that if the NFL is really serious about fan safety, it should reduce the length of games to one quarter.

Trying to determine the exact risk level from attending one of these games is impossible, and in any case kind of beside the point. Will you get sick from Covid by going to an NFL game, even if fans don’t strictly obey all the new rules? (Sporting K.C. is talking about a “three strikes you’re out” rule, which isn’t exactly reassuring given that security will have to be policing more than ten thousand people while also keeping track of their card count.) Probably not — even during the Atalanta-Valencia disaster plenty of people didn’t get sick.

But in epidemiology, what’s important isn’t whether you get sick but rather whether somebody gets sick, and sticking 13,000 people in one place, even one socially distanced place with masks on, is a whole lot of dice to roll at once. And the risk then isn’t even just if you go to the game — check out the Maine woman who died after a Covid outbreak at a packed indoor wedding that she didn’t even attend, after she caught the virus from one of the 30 people who caught it there.

Really the question, then, is less “Is it safe to go to an NFL game in the middle of a pandemic?” than “Is it safe for a nation in the middle of a pandemic to allow people to go to NFL games?” The only way to know for sure is to do a huge experiment, with human subjects — and for better or for worse, that’s what we’re about to get.

Friday roundup: Stadium news reporting hits rock bottom, don’t believe anything you read (except on this site, duh)

Hey look, it’s Friday again! The St. Louis Cardinals are maybe (assuming no positive test results today) going to start playing games again tomorrow for the first time in 17 days; if they pull it off, and no other teams have outbreaks in the meantime, it will be the first time in nearly three weeks that all 30 baseball teams will be in action, and every team in the four major U.S. sports that are in action. That’s way better than I expected, frankly, and shows that isolating players from the general public (and each other) can work — there’s probably a decent chance that most leagues can limp to a conclusion without shutting down entirely, though football remains an enormous question mark with such huge rosters and no bubbles. Still, glass half full, that’s what I always say! (Okay, I never say it, but I’ll say it now.)

In other newses: