Sports Teams Are Ending Pandemic Precautions In The Middle Of A Pandemic

Once again, sports leaders are proving that for them, money trumps public safety.

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.

I just returned from a visit to my hometown, Seattle, and was compelled to admit something that made me uncomfortable. For all the time I’ve spent rambling about the dangers of a blithely optimistic approach to the COVID-19 pandemic in this column and elsewhere, I was actually a little aggravated by the rigidity of Seattle’s preventative regulations. A new King County rule requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test at basically all bars and restaurants went into effect right when my visit began, and though I had my vaccine card with me, I still wound up drinking beer with insufficient outerwear in the rain (a cliche if there ever were one) as businesses worked to adapt to the new rules, or went beyond those rules just make their patrons and employees feel safer. 

In Dallas, where I live now, it was a relief when Dallas County enacted a new mask mandate in the middle of the Delta variant-induced surge — one that directly contradicted Texas’ ban on such mandates. Today, that’s about as far as it goes: people wear masks at the grocery store, but at bars and restaurants it’s more or less a free for all. I’ve been required to show my vaccine card to attend two concerts, and that’s the only reason it was in my wallet when I went to Seattle. So I was a little shocked — and freezing — when I went to a nice restaurant in Seattle, showed my vaccine card, and realized that the reason all the doors were open in 45 degree weather was to increase ventilation. 

Obviously, though, these minor inconveniences are good. Crucial, even. The fact that those measures were being taken in a place with an 83% vaccination rate was sobering — particularly as the U.S. passed 750,000 people dead from COVID-19. That mark was reached a little more than 8 months after the half million mark, which was reached just under a year after the pandemic reached the U.S. Things are slowing, slightly, but a million COVID-19 deaths seems inevitable. Especially since the kind of caution I found in Seattle is so anomalous.  

In the sports world, a much vaunted “return to normalcy” is taking place for leagues and teams that, in many cases, spent a year playing for few or no fans, enduring endless testing and often getting the virus anyway. The vaccine made that return possible, and accordingly, many professional sports organizations (and a few collegiate ones) have made receiving it a prerequisite for attendees — who presumably got the vaccine in hopes of feeling a little bit of that normalcy for themselves. 

But in spite of all the evidence that the vaccine works and that even if breakthrough cases are possible, vaccine mandates do help more people stay safe, some sports organizations are actually rescinding their requirements that fans show proof of vaccination or a negative test. Right now there are around 72,000 new COVID-19 cases per day in the U.S., and that number is concerningly stable. Yet LSU football, and most recently, the Nashville Predators and Dallas Mavericks, have all put proof of vaccination or negative test policy in place for fans — and then taken it away. It boggles the mind. Establish the infrastructure to do something simple that makes everyone a little safer…and then remove it within weeks. 

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Both Preds and Mavs leadership attribute their decision to the falling COVID-19 rates locally, despite being in the middle of two of the states most impacted by the pandemic. Tennessee is one of the least vaccinated states in the country, and Texas currently leads the nation in its daily average of COVID-19-related deaths. Mark Cuban’s decision about the Mavs was apparently prompted by Dallas County’s shift in COVID-19 threat level from red to orange, in spite of the abundant evidence (and common sense) showing that shift was aided by initiatives like the Mavs’ vaccine requirement. 

If you have a vaccine or negative test requirement for fans, you are doing it to 1) create a safer environment for your employees and for said fans and 2) broadly incentivize getting vaccinated. If fans respond to that incentive, there is no burden to the requirement. Being vaccinated and carrying your card around does not get harder or easier based on how often you’re required to prove you are vaccinated. The cards aren’t heavy. 

No, the only way this decision makes sense is money. Ownership believes that ticket sales are soft because enough unvaccinated people feel that the testing is too much work or that they are on some moral high ground, and so they are seeking to bring them back into the fold. Gone is the taste of normalcy vaccinated fans might have felt safe to enjoy, the very incentive that could have compelled a lot of people to get the vaccine; in its place is fear. The decision transparently has nothing to do with COVID-19 numbers in the community, because there is no rational response to dropping COVID-19 numbers that includes doing away with the precautions that helped them drop while hundreds of people are still dying daily

The billionaires are making the greedy, cruel choice because that’s what they do. What separates us from them, at our best, is our ability to make different, more empathetic ones: keep being safe, and doing the things that are a little uncomfortable or inconvenient.

For someone you’ll probably never know, it will be worth it.