GELFAND: On the Intersection of Coronavirus and Sport

Please Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

I write this under duress, having been frightened by the panic buying I witnessed at my local big box over the weekend.

The designer hand sanitizer was long gone, although the generics were still available if you were willing to pay less. But emotions were running high in the toilet paper section. I was looking for a mere four-pack. At my age, I am not in a position to tempt fate.

But others wanted bulk. I should have detected the tension right away, because I saw shoppers who were not looking at their phones. Talk about intense! It all came to a head when two women of a certain age simultaneously spotted the last 32-pack. There it was, perched alone on the top shelf. And there I was, just strolling by, unaware that I was in a hard-hat zone.

They went for the prize at the same time. Before I knew it, the toilet paper was literally flying off the shelf. Luckily, I still have a quick first step. I managed to scramble out of the way just in time to avoid serious injury. You may think I’m exaggerating, but this was the hard stuff: the one-ply. Basic physics. Speed times mass equals impact.

I never looked back. I wanted total deniability. Plus 50 pounds of kibbles for my porcine cat.

This is deadly serious stuff, which is why I resort to gallows humor. The least of our worries ought to be the effect of the coronavirus on our favorite teams. They are quite capable of taking care of themselves. Still, it’s hard not to be bummed out. The baseball season starts in just over two weeks and we need to fill out our NCAA brackets in little more than a week. But the pandemic is a dark cloud hanging over all we cherish. And then there’s the prospect of massive deaths.

Will March Madness morph into April Apocalypse? Will the games be played without spectators in the stadiums and arenas? Already there is doubt as to whether the summer Olympics will go off as scheduled in Tokyo. Games have been canceled in the NCAA Small Division I tourney after two teams opted not to travel to Seattle University for the event. Nothing to fret about, but there seems to be a trend here.

Mar 1, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Fans wear masks as they receive a Paul George bobblehead when they enter Staples Center for a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Philadelphia 76ers. Management has placed sanitizing stations throughout the building due to the recent coronavirus situation. Please Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

With schools closing, stocks tanking, testing kits failing, some colleges — Stanford for one — thinking about limiting crowds at sporting events, politicians pointing fingers (which may or may not be clean) and the NBA advising franchises how to play games without fans and MLB, as usual, not having a clue…we might as well accept the fact that no one knows precisely what they’re doing. (By the way, I covered the Twins in the 70s, so the idea of teams playing without fans doesn’t strike me as novel.)

But, for the most part, this is uncharted territory. Sure, there have been horrible pandemics in the past. We know this is not the plague, nor is this the 1918 Spanish Flu, but beyond that there is uncertainty. While there is hope that the pandemic will start to die off come summer, the fact is that many pandemics, such as the Spanish Flu, started off in spring, took a summer break and then returned with a vengeance in the fall. Not that there is any evidence that this one will ebb in the summer.

Just for the record, as I write this on Monday night the worldwide total is over 110,000 infected and 3,800 deaths. But by the time you read this, those numbers will have risen and there will be sick people in 100 countries and the odd international waters.

Both Major League Baseball and the NBA have advised their players not to sign autographs. This is for the protection of the athletes, but probably a good thing for fans, too. The players are young and healthy, which means the coronavirus is highly unlikely to kill them. But I have to believe that they are highly-paid vectors of communicable disease. Have you seen these guys spit, chew their nails and hug each other? Yuccchh. I don’t care how young or healthy you are; don’t even think about it.

No one can say how many will have fallen sick or died before the pandemic ends. Or even if the pandemic will end. Luckily, however, we have the go-to expert on infectious diseases right in our midst. And it’s good to know that Michael Osterholm isn’t in a panic even though he has spent decades trying to warn us that we’re not prepared for horrific epidemics such as the 1918 flu, which killed at least 50 million people around the world.

Mar 1, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Fans use hand sanitizer as they enter Staples Center for a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Philadelphia 76ers. Management has placed sanitizing stations throughout the building due to the recent coronavirus situation. Please Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Osterholm has more titles than Netflix, but the short version is that he’s one of the most celebrated public health scientists in the world and the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

When I asked him last week whether we should stay away from sporting events, he basically said proceed with caution. “If I was 60 or older, I would consider not going, especially if I had heart or lung conditions,” he said. “But at this point, it would be premature to stop sporting events.”

Naturally, I tend to focus on the “at this point” part, but Osterholm tends to go with the equation that all gamblers ponder every day. Namely, risk vs. reward. So if you can’t imagine not being at the Twins home opener on the second of April — and, of course, if you’re not old or coughing or short of breath — don’t barricade your doors.

On the other hand…somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of us will wind up getting infected, he says. Which is a pretty big spread, but it just illustrates the reality that it’s a fluid situation and that the most prominent experts just know that a hell of a lot of people are going to be infected, and that we can merely shade the odds a bit in our favor.

But Osterholm also points out that anything we can do to at least delay infection is going to save lives. “If everyone gets sick at once, our health care systems are going to be flooded and they won’t be able to handle it,” Osterholm says. “The longer we can put things off, the better off we’ll be.”

I can second that one. You can make the case that the risk-reward equation is favorable at the ballpark. But literally or figuratively, there’s not much scarier than waiting for your number to be called in a crowded E.R.

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