Somehow, It’s Normal To Attend Sporting Events In The Middle Of The Pandemic

A rushed return to “normalcy” is putting unknown numbers of people at risk — and prolonging the time we have to wait to feel safe again.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

The seven-day average for American deaths due to COVID-19 is currently 2,075 per day, according to the New York Times. Back in April 2020, when scientists were still struggling to understand the virus and most of us were — to put it bluntly — scared shitless, the seven-day average for American COVID-19 deaths peaked at 2,232 per day (it would eventually climb much higher, as we know). In Dallas, where I live, 97% of ICU beds are full. I know someone who died last week after contracting the coronavirus and spending weeks on a ventilator.

Yes we are still in the middle of the pandemic, even if it doesn’t really feel like it most of the time.

Many of us are doing things outside of our homes again, things that involve varying degrees of risk. It felt promised, after all, that once we were vaccinated we could reasonably expect what’s become a popular buzzword over the past year: normalcy. We wanted it, and in return we got whatever this version of it is, sabotaged by the creep of fascism and arational, hive-minded thought, where the fact and tragedy of over 2,000 people dying daily from the same sickness can fade into the background as new facts and tragedies take center stage.

Just as we did before our much vaunted “return to normalcy,” we’re going to see sports. Just as it’s been for the past year and a half, the people in charge insist that they have neither the power nor the will to broadly restrict access to large-scale, recreational events, and many are taking advantage. I am hardly exempt: I went to a Dallas Wings game a couple weeks ago, while fully vaccinated and masked. Masks were required, vaccinations were not. 

Every sports fan is assessing and calculating these risks, some more than others. Teams like the Wings are taking varying precautions, ranging from proof of vaccination — as the Las Vegas Raiders require in perhaps the strictest protocol in sports (though since vaccines are required, masks are not) — to proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test, as a number of NFL, NHL and college teams have opted for, to no regulations whatsoever besides a nominal mask requirement for fans while they are indoors, which is the case for many college football powerhouses like Penn State and Alabama. 

Yes, most college football games are outside. Still, they are some of the most-attended events in the country, and even though the delta variant means the pandemic is still inescapable, the vast majority are still being filled to capacity (as are plenty of NFL stadiums). There have been some vocal rebukes about how large gatherings of people outdoors haven’t resulted in the kinds of so-called “superspreader” events that many predicted — especially within sports. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these kinds of events haven’t worsened the spread. “It’s hard to link clusters of cases that you might not see until three to six days later back to an initiating event,” Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University, told NBC News earlier this month. “It’s not that transmission doesn’t occur; it’s just hard to prove without a lot of manpower and lab work.” Combine that with the fact that contact tracing has become more and more difficult overall, and it’s next to impossible to know how much sporting events and similar gatherings will continue to lengthen the pandemic. 

Vaccine requirements and masking regulations are the only real tools we have to avoid not only more death, but an even worse mutation of this virus — one that could further weaken the efficacy of the vaccine. This column has included a lot of talk about how the leaders of the sports world abdicate their responsibility to their players and fans, but in this case it’s even more about their responsibility as humans. Please, people in charge, just do the bare minimum: encourage vaccinations and masking by requiring them, not appealing to people’s best judgement. It hasn’t worked so far.