Friday roundup: New Rangers stadium scam movie, Nevada arena petitions rejected over technicality, and many many dumb ideas for getting you (or cardboard cutouts of you) into stadiums this year

Welcome to the end of another crazy week, which seems redundant to say, since that’s all of them lately. I spent a bunch of it working on this article on what science (but not necessarily your local newspaper) can tell us about not just whether reopening after lockdowns is a good idea, but what kinds of reopening are safe enough to consider. And important enough to consider, since as one infectious disease expert told me, “It’s not ‘open’ or ‘shut’—there’s a whole spectrum in between. We need to be thinking about what are the high-priority things that we need to reopen from a functioning point of view, and not an enjoyment point of view.”

And with that cheery thought, on to other cheery thoughts:

  • If you’re a fan of either sports stadium shenanigans or calamitous public-policy train wrecks in general — and I know you are, or why would you be reading this site — you should absolutely check out “Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter,” a new documentary about the Texas Rangers‘ successful campaign to extract half a billion dollars from the city of Arlington so they could play in air-conditioning. It’s a story that has everything: a mayor who was elected as a stadium-subsidy critic then turned around to approve the biggest stadium subsidy in local history, George W. Bush grubbing for public money and failing to do basic math, grassroots anti-red-light camera activists getting dragged into stadium politics, a trip back to the Washington Senators’ final home game before moving to Texas which they had to forfeit because fans ran on the field and walked off with the bases, footage of that 1994 Canadian TV news story I always cite about how video-rental stores comedy clubs in Toronto were so happy with extra business during the baseball strike that they wished hockey would go on strike too, plus interviews with stadium experts like Roger Noll, Rod Fort, Victor Matheson, Allen Sanderson (the man whose line about more effective ways than building a stadium for boosting your city’s economy gave the documentary its title), and me. Rent it here on Vimeo if you want some substitute fireworks this weekend.
  • Opponents of the publicly funded minor-league hockey arena for the Henderson Silver Knights got enough signatures to put a recall on the November ballot, but have had their petitions invalidated for not including a detailed enough description of their objections on every page. This will almost certainly result in lawsuits, which is how pretty much every battle for public oversight of sports subsidy deals ends — that, and “in tears.”
  • The San Diego city council approved the $86.2 million sale of the site of the Chargers‘ former stadium to San Diego State University, which plans to build a new $310 million football stadium there. Whether this is a good deal for the public is especially tricky, because not only do you have to figure the land value of a 135-acre site in the middle of an economic meltdown, but also San Diego State is a public university, so really this is one public agency selling land to another. It’s all more than I can manage this morning, so instead let’s look at this rendering of a proposed park for the site that features bicyclists riding diagonally across a bike path to avoid a woman who stands in their way with arms akimbo, while birds with bizarre forked tails wheel overhead.
  • You know what would be a terrible idea in the middle of a pandemic that has closed stadiums to fans because gathering in one place is a great way to spread virus? An article telling fans what public spaces they can gather in to catch a glimpse of game action in closed stadiums, and Axios has you covered there! And so does the Associated Press!
  • Sure, hundreds of thousands of people have died and there could be hundreds of thousands more to go, but won’t anyone think of the impact on TV network profits if there’s no football to show in the fall?
  • And speaking of keeping an eye strictly on the bottom line, the NFL is considering requiring fans (if there are any) who attend NFL games this fall (if there are any) to sign a waiver promising not to sue if they contract Covid as a result. But can I still sue if someone goes to a football game, contracts Covid, and then infects me? I’m not actually sure how easily one could sue in either case — since you can never be sure where you were infected with the virus, it would be like suing over getting cancer from secondhand smoke — but I always like the idea of suing the NFL, so thanks for the idea, guys!
  • New York Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner says he wants to see fans at Yankee Stadium “in the 20-30 percent range,” a number and prediction he failed to indicate he pulled from anywhere other than his own butt. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs are reportedly planning to open rooftops around Wrigley Field at 25% capacity for watching games this year, something that might actually be legal since while would mean about 800 fans in attendance, they wouldn’t all be in attendance in the same place, so it could get around rules about large public gatherings.
  • If you want to spend $49 and up so a cardboard cutout of yourself can watch Oakland A’s games, you can now do that on the team’s website. If that sounds like a terrible deal, know that with each purchase you also get two free tickets to an exhibition game at the Coliseum in 2021 (if there are any), and if you pay $129 then you also get a foul ball mailed to you if it hits your cutout, all of which still sounds like a terrible deal but significantly more hilarious.
  • If you were hoping to make one last trip to Pawtucket’s 74-year-old McCoy Stadium to see Pawtucket Red Sox baseball before the team relocates to Worcester after this season — it was on my now-deleted summer calendar — you’ll have to settle for eating dinner on the field, because the PawSox season, along with the rest of the minor-league baseball season, has been officially called off. Also, the Boston Herald reports that the Lowell Spinners single-A team won’t be offering refunds to those who bought tickets for non-canceled games, only credits toward 2021 tickets — shouldn’t ticketholders be able to sue for not receiving the product they paid for? I want somebody to sue somebody, already! When will America’s true pastime be allowed to reopen?
  • Here’s a New York Times article on how new MLS stadiums are bucking past stadium trends by being “privately financed, with modest public support for modernizing infrastructure,” which is only true if you consider $98 million (Columbus) and $81 million and up (Cincinnati) to be “modest” figures.
  • I apologize for failing to report last week on the Anaheim Ducks‘ proposed development around their hockey arena, less because it’s super interesting or there is amusing vaportecture than because it’s supposed to be called “ocV!BE,” which is the best name ever, so long as you want to live in a freshly built condo in what sounds like either a randomly generated password or an Aughts rock band.

Friday roundup: Grizzlies lease has secret out clause, judge orders do-over in Nashville stadium vote, reviewers agree Rangers stadium is super-butt-ugly

Normally the end of June is when news around here starts slowing down for the summer, but as no one needs reminding, nothing is normal anymore. There isn’t even time to get into sports leagues trying to reopen in the midst of what could be an “apocalyptic” surge in virus cases across the South and West, because busy times call for paralipsis:

  • The Daily Memphian has uncovered what it calls a “trap door” in the Memphis Grizzlies‘ lease that could let the team get out of the agreement early if it has even a single season where it doesn’t sell 1) 14,900 tickets per game, 2) all of its 64 largest suites, or 3) fewer than 2,500 season club seats. (There is at least a “force majeure” clause that should exclude any seasons played during a pandemic.) That could force the city to buy up tickets in order to keep the lease in force, the paper notes, and though talks between the team and city are underway to renegotiate the deal, you just know that Grizzlies owner Robert Pera will want something in exchange for giving up his opt-out clause. Pera has so far said all the right things about not wanting to move the team, but then, he doesn’t have to when he has sports journalists to spread relocation rumors for him; if savvy negotiators create leverage, city officials really need to learn to stop handing leverage to team owners when they write up leases, because that really never works out well.
  • In a major victory for local governments at least following their own damn rules, opponents of Nashville’s $50 million-plus-free-land deal for a new MLS stadium won a court victory this week when a judge ruled that the city violated Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act by approving the stadium’s construction contract at a meeting held with only 48 hours notice, when the law requires five days. The city’s Metro Sports Authority can now just hold another meeting with normal notice and reapprove the contract, but still it’s good to see someone’s hand slapped for a change for hiding from public scrutiny.
  • The reviews of the Texas Rangers‘ new stadium that received $450 million in subsidies so the team could have air-conditioning are in, and critics agree, it looks like a giant metal warehouse, or maybe a barbecue grill, or maybe the Chernobyl sarcophagus. Okay, they just agree that is is one ugly-ass stadium from the outside; firsthand reports on whether the upper-deck seats are as bad as they look in the renderings will have to await fans actually being allowed inside, which could come as soon as later this summer, unless by then Texans are too busy cowering in their homes to avoid having to go to the state’s overwhelmed hospital system
  • Amazon has bought naming rights to Seattle’s former Key Arena (Key Bank’s naming rights expired eons ago), and because Amazon needs more name recognition like it needs more stories about its terrible working conditions, it has decided to rename the building Climate Pledge Arena, after an Amazon-launched campaign to get companies to promise to produce zero net carbon emissions by 2040, something the company itself is off to a terrible start on. The reporting doesn’t say, but presumably if greenwashing goes out of style, Amazon will retain the right in a couple of years to rename the building Prime Video (Starts At $8.99/Month) Arena.
  • The NFL is still planning to have fans in attendance at games this fall, but it’s also going to be tarping off the first six to eight rows of seats and selling ads on the tarps as a hedge against ticket-sales losses. Even when and if things return to normal, I’m thinking this could be a great way for the league to create that artificial ticket scarcity that it’s been wanting for years, n’est-ce pas?
  • Amid concern that the New York Islanders will be left temporarily homeless or forced to move back to Brooklyn in the wake of the Nassau Coliseum being shuttered, Nassau County’s top elected official has promised that “the next time that the Islanders play in New York it will be in Nassau County.” If my reading-between-the-lines radar is working properly, that probably means we can expect to see the Islanders’ upcoming season played someplace like Bridgeport, Connecticut.
  • New Arizona Coyotes president Xavier Gutierrez is definitely hitting the ground with all his rhetoric cylinders running, telling ESPN: “When I took the job, [owner] Alex Meruelo told me finding a solution for where we should be located was priority one through five. I thought it was one through five, and he quickly corrected me and said, ‘No, it’s priority one through 10 for you.'” Shouldn’t that really be one to 11?
  • Here’s an actual San Diego Union-Tribune sports columnist saying voters did the city a favor by turning down a $1.15 billion-dollar Chargers stadium plan, because the city would be having a tough time paying it off now what with the economy in shambles. Of course, $1.15 billion still would have been $1.15 billion even if San Diego had the money, but budget crunches do seem to have a way of focusing people’s attention on opportunity costs.
  • Speaking of which, here’s an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about how it’s hard for Cobb County to pay off the construction debt on its Atlanta Braves stadium what with tourism tax revenue having fallen through the floor, though at least the AJC did call up economist J.C. Bradbury to let him say that it doesn’t really matter which tax money was used because “there’s no found money in government.”
  • Both of those are still way better articles, though, than devoting resources to a story about how holding baseball games without fans is going to lead to a glut of bags of peanuts, for which Good Morning America has us covered. Won’t anyone think of the peanuts?!?

Angels owner releases pictures of whatever stadium development idea is in his head this very second

After getting granted a one-month extension by the Anaheim city council, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno has come out with his redevelopment plan for the Angel Stadium land he got from the city at a bargain price last winter, and the whole thing is so handwavy that it makes you wonder why he couldn’t have just made a crayon drawing of some buildings and released that on time in May. Let’s see what Moreno’s planning team came up with:

That is indeed a bunch of numbers of things! Can we get any renderings that aren’t just bird’s-eye schematics?

That’s a little better, I guess, though still pretty generic, aside from somebody coloring in the roofs green because that what one does in 2020.

More to the point, there’s nothing that I can find in Moreno’s plans that indicates a timeline: Is he actually committing to building all this stuff, or just sketching out pretty pictures of what it might look like if he decides this is a good idea? (Past “ballpark village” concepts, it’s worth noting, haven’t always immediately panned out as planned, and have sometimes come with requests for more public money to make them happen.) Presumably if the city of Anaheim is selling him the land because they want it developed, there should be some rules about when it will be developed by — maybe that’s still in the “TBD” folder, but if so, what’s the point of releasing this plan now?

As for what will happen to the stadium itself, we learn this from the Los Angeles Times:

The Angels put off for now the decision to renovate Angel Stadium or replace it. If the Angels decide to build a new ballpark, the plan calls for it to be located immediately adjacent to the 57 Freeway, and closer to the Anaheim train station. If they renovate, they plan to open up the outfield and turn it into a grand entrance plaza.

Definitely one of those things! Maybe.

Let’s see, anything else remotely of note here? There’s a guy pointing randomly at the sky outside a bistro called “Bistro,” and oh hey check it out:

Yes, that is indeed Cab-Hailing Purse Woman, though someone has tried to disguise her true intent by placing a giant foam finger over her cab-hailing hand. If this clip-art woman is indeed the key to all sports-related economic development plans, maybe it would cheaper for cities just to buy her plane tickets (on clip-art airplanes, obviously) so she can bestow her presence on their populaces? Do you think she’s based on a real person, and if so does that person get royalties? Did anyone at the rendering software company think to shop around for a purse company that would pay for product placement? So very many questions, so few answers.

MLB’s aborted restart shows sports owners only get the “evil genius” thing half-right

On Friday I reported how plans to restart American pro sports leagues were hitting snags in the form of rising Covid caseloads in major sports states like Arizona, Florida, and Texas, and since then things have gotten oh so much worse:

Now, there’s no reason you can’t hold a sports season even with a few players testing positive — it’s what soccer leagues in Europe are doing, figuring that if you keep testing and quarantining anyone who turns out to be infectious, the rest of the league can continue more or less as normal. But Europe has way, way less virus than much of the US right now: Even the United Kingdom has a daily new cases per capita figure that’s barely 5% of that in Arizona, so fewer Premier League players are likely to be getting infected when they go to a local restaurant or grocery store (“community spread,” in the epidemiology lingo), meaning there’s less risk of a surge of cases that would require an entire team to be sequestered for two weeks.

This is the whole reason MLB was considering its “bubble plan,” wherein all the teams and game officials and TV crews and hotel workers and everyone else necessary to support them would be walled off in a single location, something that it soon became clear would be entirely unworkable. The NBA is looking to do its own version of a bubble, but as that includes things like being allowed to leave the “campus” for excused absences without having to quarantine on your return, it’s clear that this is more a “let’s figure out something workable and cross our fingers” plan than something that’s actually airtight from a public health standpoint — if that wasn’t already clear from the fact that the NBA is locating its bubble in Orlando and not New Zealand.

There is also always the possibility of just rolling the dice and figuring if some players get infected, so be it — they’re relatively young and healthy, so most of them probably won’t get very sick. But that can’t be said for coaches, or game officials, or players with preexisting risk factors (have we discussed here how half of the US adult population has high blood pressure?), or family members who are going to continue to be in contact with players, whether they’re in a bubble or not? Even setting aside whether sports leagues want to be responsible for exacerbating the spread of a deadly disease in the general population, it would be very bad if they ended up telling Dusty Baker he has to decide between risking his life to show up for work and staying at home watching cowboy movies. (Not that plenty of other workers aren’t being asked to do the same thing, but that’s not great either.)

As it looks increasingly like the US is headed toward a patchwork of outbreak scenarios, with some regions seeing low caseloads while others face second waves or even first waves that never ended, it’s probably impossible to have any kind of sports that involves travel and maintain any kind of safety from infection for those involved. That leaves several unpalatable options: 1) gather all the players in one spot with low infection rates and try to play a quick season before they go stir-crazy and miss their families; 2) damn the virus and go full speed ahead, and hope you still have enough players to finish out the season after they start getting quarantined or head for the hills to avoid getting infected; 3) cancel everything and wait for a vaccine — or at least for infections to get down to a low enough boil that contact tracing can keep them under control, something that isn’t getting off to a great start what with states reopening even while caseloads are still high.

It would arguably make more sense, even just in terms of self-interest, for sports team owners to take the lead by saying, “We’re not restarting nothing until the virus is under control,” in hopes of encouraging local leaders to pursue a plan where in a couple of months we might be in a place — like Spain and Germany and even the UK are in now — where resuming sports might be a reasonable gamble instead of a desperate dice roll. But then, long-term thinking is never what sports team owners were known for; the botched restart plans are just another reminder that rich people may know how to throw their money and power around, but that doesn’t mean they’re always going to be smart about it.

Oakland reportedly ready to sell Coliseum site, remember when that was A’s owners’ biggest problem?

The Oakland city council is reportedly (according to “sources close to the talks” who spoke with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Phil Matier) now ready to sell the city’s half of the Oakland Coliseum property to the A’s owners, after the Covid economic crisis has left the city desperate for cash:

The decision came Thursday in a closed session and marks a stark change from last October when city leaders filed suit in an attempt to block Alameda County from selling its half-share of the 155-acre East Oakland site to the team…

Council members are barred from discussing what goes on in closed session, but sources close to the talks said the city’s deal would mirror the county deal and net about $85 million spread out over a yet-to-be determined number of years…

“For me it is about looking at how things have changed when it comes to money,” Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo said before the meeting.

“After the coronavirus shutdown, we are looking at a very, very serious budget deficit, and they are saying it could cost us $6 million just to maintain the site,” Gallo said. “We don’t have that kind of money. This way we can get some badly needed help.”

As discussed before, this isn’t a terrible idea: $85 million spread out over a few years seems pretty close to fair market value, and if it would get the A’s to start paying property taxes on the Coliseum property, all the better. Yes, there are still state laws requiring that public land for sale be used at least in part for affordable housing, and there’s still the whole issue of whether the Coliseum site would be used for development that would then help fund a new A’s stadium at Howard Terminal, or if a stadium would be built instead on the Coliseum site, or how exactly land value and demand for new development will even work in a post-Covid world. Many, many devils in the details in other words, all of which will presumably be haggled over by the two parties in the middle of a rapidly shifting health and economic disaster — watch out for information asymmetries, that the only advice I can give.

Friday roundup: Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it for 150 years edition

Happy Juneteenth, the most quintessentially American of holidays, in that it celebrates both the nation’s ability to right seemingly intractable horrific historic wrongs through grassroots action faster than anyone ever could have dreamed, and also its ability to then revert to virtually the exact same horrific wrongs in all but name for the next century or so. We got issues.

And speaking of issues — if that’s not too inappropriate to compare the enslavement of an entire people with the siphoning off of tax dollars for sports, which it probably is, but segues gotta segue — here are a bunch regarding stadiums and arenas that reared or re-reared their heads in the last week:

What questions should we ask to make sure the Orioles don’t screw over taxpayers in Camden Yards lease talks?

The Baltimore Orioles‘ lease on Camden Yards expires at the end of the 2021 season, which will only surprise you if you hadn’t realized the stadium that birthed the retro steel-and-brick trend was coming up on its 30th birthday. (Or hadn’t realized that the Orioles rent, not own, which has to do with Camden Yards also helping birth the put-the-stadium-in-the-public’s-name-so-you-can-duck-paying-property-taxes trend.) The Angelos family — increasingly brothers John and Louis, since their father Peter is now 90 and in poor health — has an option for a five-year extension but is considering negotiating a whole new lease, which has perked up the local media’s ears as to what it will mean to the team, and my ears because lease negotiations are typically a great place to hide public subsidies if you want.

So, what do we know so far, and what should we be trying to find out? From the Baltimore Sun:

The team and the authority — the landlord of the Orioles and Ravens on behalf of the state — have a “mutual acknowledgment” that they want to negotiate a new lease before the current one expires, officials from both sides said.

Sure! Cost and revenue certainty is always a good thing, so getting the O’s lease situation locked down for the long term would be good for both sides. Assuming, that is, that the terms are favorable for both sides, which is kind of an impossibility in any contract negotiation, so the devil is very much going to be in the lease details.

While the sons could one day own the Orioles, uncertainties about the club’s future stewards had created buzz that the team could leave Baltimore, a small-market city relative to others in Major League Baseball.

“Buzz” is a bit of an overstatement: There was that time last year that a former Sun columnist reported a “rumor” that the Orioles could move to Nashville, mostly because John Angelos has a house there, and, uh, that’s pretty much it. If you’re wondering, Nashville is slightly smaller than Baltimore in TV market size, and has never been seriously floated as an MLB expansion candidate; the Orioles are currently drawing terribly, but they’re also playing terribly, and were 6th in the AL in attendance the last time they were good, and Nashville doesn’t have an MLB stadium or plans for one, so it’s probably not the first thing on any Angelos’s mind, even if John might enjoy being able to roll out of one of his beds and go see a ballgame. But the “Uncertainty!!!1!” paragraph is a staple of these kinds of articles, so they had to stick in there.

The club has spoken publicly about its hopes of capitalizing on the stadium’s popularity by using it increasingly for non-baseball activities such as music or other year-round activities.

Again, reasonable, though there aren’t really a whole lot of non-baseball activities you can use a baseball stadium for. The Sun notes that Camden Yards hosted a Billy Joel concert last summer, but Billy Joel is 71 years old, so probably not going to be still touring at the end of a long lease extension. But sure, maybe some expansion of the Orioles’ right to hold non-baseball events, and then split the proceeds with the state, might be worth discussing.

Until last year, the stadium authority was paying about $15 million a year in debt service — principal plus interest — on the 30-year bonds issued to pay for Camden Yards. The bonds were paid off at the end of 2019 at a total cost of about $450 million, according to David Raith, the stadium authority’s chief financial officer.

The stadium authority will continue to receive $15 million a year in state lottery proceeds for various other stadium projects, including improvements to the Camden Yards warehouse, and to pay off $32 million left on the original bond deal for M&T Bank Stadium, home of the NFL’s Ravens. M&T Bank Stadium, which opened in 1998, cost about $310 million, including debt interest.

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere: Camden Yards was paid for with state lottery proceeds, and now that the initial construction debt is finally paid off but the lottery money continues to flow — for some reason Maryland didn’t set the payments so they’d go back to the state’s general fund once the stadium was paid off and be available to pay for other things during lean times — the Orioles could have their eye on it to fund “improvements.”

In fact, the Angeloses have been talking about publicly funded upgrades to Camden Yards since 2015, when it was reported that they wanted to retrofit the stadium with concourses where fans can see the game (or at least the airspace above the game) from the hot dog lines, and VIP club spaces at field level, neither of which were things anyone was thinking about when the building was built in 1992 — and neither of which may be things that anyone prioritizes in a post-Covid world, either, but presumably the Orioles owners can work that out once they’ve secured the money.

And again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Upgrades to stadiums are nice enough, so long as enough new revenues result that there’s a way both the Orioles owners and the public can come out ahead. The worrisome part would be if the Angeloses try to fob off such improvements as necessary “maintenance” — which the state is on the hook for under the current lease, and yes that’s the lease that the team owners want to tear up and renegotiate, curse you and your logical consistency — that’s required to get the team to stay put in Baltimore, which could end up resulting in state taxpayers throwing good money after bad.

All this is very preliminary, obviously, but it provides a guide to how to monitor the Orioles lease talks: If the framework is “Here’s how we can make the stadium bring in more money, and how to share it equitably between the team and the public,” that’s great; if it’s “Here’s what state taxpayers need to do to keep the team happy so we don’t run off to, uh (throws dart at map), Nashville,” then that’s what got Maryland into this three-decade-long budget hole to begin with. The time to start asking questions of the state of Maryland about how it’s going to get a fair deal for taxpayers is now, while the terms of discussion are still being framed. I remember Season 5 of The Wire well enough not to count on the tattered remains of the Baltimore Sun to do this job, but maybe somebody somewhere? I’m available for freelance assignments and/or bar mitzvahs!

Yeah, good thing MLB didn’t go ahead with that plan to play all its games in Arizona

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said yesterday that he was “100%” sure there will be a baseball season of some kind in 2020, which reminded me of ESPN’s vow six weeks ago that “There will be MLB in 2020. It’s just a matter of when, where and how.” At the time ESPN declared the league’s best option to be gathering all 30 teams together in a virus-free bubble in Arizona, which how would that be working out about now?

Experts around the country and in Arizona are raising alarms about the state’s COVID-19 situation because cases and hospitalizations have increased for the past two weeks…

Dr. Kacey Ernst, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, said all signs seem to point to the increasing transmission of the disease. Increased testing could explain increased cases, but not increased hospitalizations, she said. Arizona does appear to be increasing more than other states, she said.

The situation is “very concerning,” she said.

“If we continue on this trajectory and it is not just due to one or two localized outbreaks, then we may need to gear up for increasing action,” Ernst said in an email. “The director of ADHS has declared all hospitals should activate their emergency plans. That should tell us all something.”

Okay, then! Whoever had Arizona in the “Which state will be first to go on second-wave re-lockdown?” pool, your odds are looking pretty good right now.

(And no, it’s not just the Navajo Nation communities in the northeast of the state that are responsible, which was the first thing I wondered. Check out these charts.)

Arizona is not the only state, of course, seeing an uptick in reported cases (and hospitalizations, which as Ernst notes can’t be a mere artifact of increased testing). Twenty-one states are seeing rising caseloads, and many are seeing rising hospitalization rates as well: North Carolina hit a record number of hospitalizations on Tuesday (though the state’s Johns Hopkins numbers as reported at 91-DIVOC appear to be broken, so there’s no way to tell if it was a record number of new hospitalizations or just lots of folks still lingering in Covid units) and there are concerns about Florida as well, where according to 91-DIVOC figures new hospitalizations are running steady at best, and that’s before we see any impact of the state allowing bars, restaurants, movie theaters, and concert venues to reopen at 50% capacity starting last Friday.

And Florida’s microbial future is particularly interesting because it’s apparently set to get one major mass attendance event this summer, and likely not at no 50% capacity, either:

President Donald Trump is poised to announce the city where he will accept his nomination for a second term as early as Thursday, with Jacksonville, Florida, emerging as one of the leading final contenders, two GOP officials close to the matter tell CNN…

The scramble to find a new home for the convention comes after tense negotiations between Republican officials and officials from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s office broke down last week. Trump, over the last two weeks, started to target Cooper because he refused to lift social distancing guidelines and allow massive crowds inside the host arena, a strategy that Republicans have said looks to turn the Democratic governor into a scapegoat should the convention not be able to go off as planned due to coronavirus.

Trump is ditching North Carolina because he doesn’t want to subject conventioneers to social distancing, according to the New York Times; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said that social distancing is key to allowing reopening to work, so this is gonna be interesting to see how it plays out. Oh, and also mask-wearing — DeSantis this week blamed an uptick in new cases on people not wearing masks right, something he’s admittedly an expert on, and which Trump famously has lots of feels on himself.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Trump is less trying to shop around for a social-distancing-free venue like a latter-day Jerry Reinsdorf than just trying to punish North Carolina’s governor for being a Democrat, in which case, mission accomplished, I guess? Unless Florida is in the midst of a second-wave outbreak by August, which could make holding a convention in a packed arena in Jacksonville kind of awkward. Maybe Trump can give his acceptance speech to a hall full of stuffed animals instead.

No, the World Health Organization did not say it’s safe to open stadiums to people without Covid symptoms

The debate over Texas’s plans to reopen outdoor stadiums at 50% capacity, and MLB’s apparent plans to go along with that, took an unexpected turn yesterday when a gajillion news outlets reported that World Health Organization coronavirus chief Maria Van Kerkhove had declared spread of the coronavirus that causes Covid by asymptomatic carriers to be “very rare”:

“From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual,” Van Kerkhove said on Monday.

“We have a number of reports from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing. They’re following asymptomatic cases, they’re following contacts and they’re not finding secondary transmission onward. It is very rare — and much of that is not published in the literature,” she said. “We are constantly looking at this data and we’re trying to get more information from countries to truly answer this question. It still appears to be rare that an asymptomatic individual actually transmits onward.”

As a gajillion commenters both here and on Facebook immediately pointed out, if true, this would be huge news for reopening sports stadiums (and restaurants and schools and offices and everything else): Just test people for symptoms at the door, and don’t let in anyone with a fever or cough or what have you, and everyone else is good to go! If people without symptoms can’t spread Covid, we can reopen everything, all that universal social distancing was a waste!

Unfortunately, a closer read of Van Kerkhove’s comments reveals that when she says “asymptomatic,” she doesn’t actually mean “all people currently without symptoms,” even though that’s how you’d normally expect English to work. Epidemiologists divide people not currently showing symptoms into “asymptomatic” and “presymptomatic,” with the former being those who never develop symptoms, and the latter being those who will go on to develop symptoms later. And Van Kerkhove was only referring to the former, not the latter, as Harvard Global Health Institute director Ashish Jha quickly took to Twitter to clarify:

And if anyone was unclear, Van Kerkhove took to Twitter later in the day to clarify herself that she just meant it’s rare for Covid to be spread by people who never develop symptoms, not those who haven’t gotten them yet (though “clarify” is maybe an overstatement given her contorted science jargon):

https://twitter.com/mvankerkhove/status/1270081492908216320

So where does this leave us? If you catch the coronavirus but never develop symptoms, you’re probably pretty safe to be around even if you go about without a mask and speak with lots of P’s, K’s, and T’s — presumably because your body fought off the infection so well that you don’t have much virus in you. If you’re just still working your way up to getting sick, though — a period that typically lasts 2-14 days — then you are potentially contagious, and a hazard to others if you don’t mask up and socially distance and stay out of enclosed spaces with poor ventilation.

As Jha notes above, this is very helpful for contact tracing, since it means the government can focus all its resources on people with symptoms: Even if they were spreading virus around before they got sick, you can still find all those people after the fact. It is not helpful for screening sports fan attendance, say, because there’s no way for stadium security to tell people who will never get sick from people who haven’t gotten sick yet unless they start employing fortune tellers.

The usual caveats apply, of course, in terms of this being a developing situation and there being new scientific findings every day, etc. But as of now, there’s no reason to believe that there’s a safe way to allow mass gatherings while preventing the spread of the virus simply by temperature checks and the like. Believe me, if that changes, I will be the first to celebrate it — well, maybe after Ashish Jha.

MLB will reportedly allow fans at games once mayors (not health officials) say it’s okay

Last Thursday I reported on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that outdoor sports stadiums could be open to fans at 50% capacity this summer despite Covid cases continuing to be on the rise in his state. (And they really are — for anyone who thinks it’s just a matter of more testing being done, go here and select Texas and “Daily Test Positivity” and see graph tick alarmingly upwards in recent days.) I also reported that sports leagues were showing no interest in taking Abbott up on his offer, but that was before MLB reportedly decided that what’s good enough for any random elected official is good enough for them:

According to two major league sources Thursday, MLB is inclined to allow local and municipal governance to take precedence when it comes to allowing fan attendance at games.

Okay, based on unnamed sources, so the usual grains of salt apply. At the very least, though, this does appear to be a trial balloon to see if taking advantage of local reopenings to let in fans — and all their delicious spending money that MLB would otherwise have to do without — is something MLB can get away with without massive uproar. (Though it’ll be kind of hard to tell right now with so much uproar focused elsewhere.) And it’s potentially of huge concern, because you know that if the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros are allowed to start selling tickets, MLB team owners in other locales will begin angling to do so as well, and it will be hard for local elected officials to resist cries of “All the other kids are doing it, you’re putting us at a disadvantage!”, or at least easy for elected officials to use that an excuse to lift restrictions they wish those old fuddy-duddy health officials hadn’t made them put in place to begin with.

But speaking of health officials, maybe “local and municipal governance” doesn’t mean just asking the local mayor, but rather consulting with local officials in charge of pandemic response to see what’s safe to do when? That would make sense — even if health officials aren’t always immune to rose-colored thinking either — but it’s a bad sign that MLB apparently didn’t consult local health officials on its reopening safety plan even after it said it would:

When the Daily News asked the NYC Department of Health — which serves a constituency that has Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, and one out of every six of the United States’ confirmed COVID-19 deaths — about its collaboration with MLB, an emailed response said it all:

“Has there been any formal proposal presented?”…

On June 2, MLB told the News that “each of our Clubs already has contacted their local or county officials where appropriate or will do so shortly after a second draft of the protocols is completed,” further clarifying that their safety protocols were delivered to individuals designated by the governor in every state with a baseball team.

Yet, of the 28 city and county health departments that the News contacted prior to June 2, only five confirmed any interaction with MLB or the local team in their jurisdiction regarding health and safety measures, and only four reported they received MLB’s health and safety protocol from the league or club.

(H/t to Marc Normandin’s invaluable newsletter for this nugget.)

Now, it’s still entirely possible that there won’t be an MLB season because owners and players can’t agree on money or safety protocols, or that a second wave of infections will overtake the U.S., or large enough parts of it, before a season can get underway. (I keep seeing reporting that MLB wants its postseason over by November to avoid any second wave of lockdowns, but there’s no actual reason to think it won’t hit sooner, especially since in many states it seems like the first wave never actually ended.) But if baseball does return, and it’s left up to local politics to determine what the rules are, that’s going to create huge economic incentives for team owners and elected officials alike to turn a blind eye to the risks involved — like taking off your mask to make a phone call, the benefits all go to you while the risks are spread around, so it’s tempting to say hell with it, and what’s that you say about the tragedy of the commons?