If it weren’t for the coronavirus outbreak, this week would mark the opening of the Major League Baseball season. Instead the league has indefinitely postponed opening day, deferring to a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cancel gatherings of more than 250 people.
The effect has been to consign America to a spring without baseball.
Luckily, just in time comes an article in a prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, by a distinguished group of authors including Brian McCloskey of Chatham House and Anita Cicero of Johns Hopkins University. The authors represent the World Health Organization’s Novel Coronavirus-19 Mass Gatherings Expert Group.
The authors write that mass gatherings such as baseball games are being canceled because of “fear” and “uncertainty,” rather than “an understanding of the risks and of the interventions available to reduce that risk.”
They further note that “These cancellations have social and economic impacts on public morale, on national economies, and on individual livelihoods.” They say that “a precautionary approach is often used to explain” the cancelations, but ask, “when does an abundance of caution become counterproductive?”
It’s a rhetorical question. One doesn’t need to be a public health expert to answer it, just a baseball fan. “When does an abundance of caution become counterproductive?” When it leaves Americans without baseball on opening day, is exactly when.
There are plenty of other close judgment calls to be made these days that involve weighing the public health imperative of slowing the spread of the virus against the economic imperative of not shutting the whole country down. Letting professional baseball happen, though, is not a close judgment call. It’s an easy one.
If necessary, the games can be played before empty stadiums. At least that would give all those Americans stuck at home, or in hospital beds, something to watch on television and listen to on the radio. The players are socially distanced by the 90 feet between bases. The catchers and umpires even already wear masks. If player spitting is the problem, enforce rules against smokeless tobacco.
Fans could be allowed, too, depending on the city. Make them sit in every third seat, or in every other row. Ballparks managed to install airport-style metal detectors and bag x-ray machines after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Maybe teams can now deploy thermometers or scratch-and-sniff smell tests (loss of a sense of smell has been a symptom for those who get the virus) to prevent Covid-19 carriers from coming to games. Or maybe the ballgames can be during the day and in outdoor ballparks only — sunlight is said by some scientists to kill the virus on surfaces.
Baseball season approaches as pressure is mounting on President Trump to define an endpoint to the extraordinary measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.
A former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, an early contributor to the op-ed page of The New York Sun, tweeted over the weekend, “People want to understand when current lockdowns and restrictions will lift, and normal life starts to return. ...There's an end to this. We need to define it.”
A former Trump administration and Goldman Sachs official, Gary Cohn, also tweeted over the weekend, “Is it time to start discussing the need for a date when the economy can turn back on?”
Announcing a certain date, soon, for the opening of the baseball season would be a symbolic way for the president to offer some hope, to get the country out of the clubhouse and back in the batter’s box. It could set an example to be followed eventually by the rest of the country. Let Dr. Anthony Fauci throw out the first pitch, if President Trump is worried the press or the Democrats will be critical of it.
The alternative is the negative effect on “public morale” of the sort warned of by the public health experts. It’s one thing to close bars and restaurants and Broadway shows and playgrounds and museums and schools, as various state and local authorities have done. But baseball is the national pastime. How is anyone supposed to mow the lawn or grill a burger in the backyard without the sounds of a baseball game on faintly somewhere in the background? Doing so would be downright un-American.
Winter has lasted long enough. Let a portion of the game’s revenues be devoted to coronavirus relief or prevention, if the team owners think it appropriate. Let the scoreboards flash handwashing reminders. Let the fans arrive and leave gradually to allow for appropriate six-foot distancing on subway platforms and sidewalks. Adjust as necessary to minimize the risks, but for heaven’s sake, or at least for the fans, and for America, play ball.