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The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over just because MLB doesn’t care about it

Between the Super Bowl and spring training plans, sports leagues are proving we’re not all in this together.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Atlanta Braves Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a good idea to remain skeptical of the things said by multi-billion dollar corporations and collections of corporations like the NFL or MLB. We are not, actually, all in this together, and the Super Bowl over the weekend, together with MLB’s plans for spring training — and lack of plans over the regular season! — prove that.

The cultural weight we attach to sports has been an obstacle to handling the COVID-19 pandemic almost from the word go. Rudy Gobert blowing on all those mics almost a year ago was a stark signal that most of us just didn’t care about the virus that’s dominated all of our lives since. Packing 25,000 actual human beings into a stadium for the Super Bowl, in a state that’s struggling to handle new outbreaks of COVID-19, tells us that the attitude around this virus hasn’t changed — the US is approaching half a million dead, but we’ve got a football game to play.

The “plans”, such as they exist, for MLB around COVID-19 show this same lack of interest in safety. Ken Rosenthal reported that the league is placing Grapefruit League teams in “pods” in an attempt to limit travel, although teams will still be moving between cities, hotels and parks. The state of Florida has not announced restrictions on fans attending games in person. There has been no news about Cactus League games in Arizona.

This is not good enough.

It wouldn’t be good enough if we could trust people to wear masks and stay distant, which we can’t. It wouldn’t be good enough if Florida had ICU capacity, which it doesn’t. It wouldn’t be good enough if Florida had control over the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus, a more contagious and fast-acting strain. Florida currently has both the highest confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, and highest per capita count.

It shouldn’t be a coincidence to people that the only league “bubbles” that actually worked through this pandemic were the NBA and NHL postseason bubbles, over the summer. Forcing all players, staff and service-level employees to quarantine is the key. Rapid testing can be helpful, but only exists as a snapshot — that your viral load was not high enough at that exact moment to trigger a positive result. The next day, that viral load count can increase. Or, you can show your negative test to the security guard at the entrance to your luxury box and catch COVID from one of the underpaid service workers plying you with food and drink.

It’s no surprise, then, that the moment the NBA and NHL went away from quarantining, COVID began raging through the leagues. Dozens of NBA players have missed time, and nearly half the New Jersey Devils were in COVID protocol just last week. For all the... self-congratulation (I’d like to use another phrase, but my editors won’t let me) from the NFL on Sunday night for not needing to cancel a single game, 262 players, by the league’s own count, missed time in 2020 because of a positive test.

We’re a year into this. You shouldn’t have to be told why that’s a problem. It’s bad enough if a 24-year-old Lamar Jackson contracts COVID-19. But the nature of a pandemic means nobody tests positive in a vacuum. Jackson tests positive, but in the day between his contraction and positive test, perhaps passes it to two hotel workers or food service workers. The servant class has borne the worst of this pandemic already, and forcing them to continue to cater to the rich and powerful only means that will continue.

I’ve been loathe to make World War II comparisons throughout this pandemic, largely because I think what people miss when they make those comps is the enforcement of wartime restrictions by a government that cared about the wellbeing of its citizenry. For example, blackouts in England were enforced by designated wardens who had the power to fine, arrest and jail people who didn’t turn their lights off at night — a far cry from the attitudes of governments and people who see no problem piling into a stadium.

Still, the idea that we all had an understanding of collective sacrifice, not just for other people’s safety, but for our own, persists. I turned the lights out in my house both so bombers couldn’t target your house, and mine. It’s that collective recognition that we’re missing, and that significant cultural institutions like MLB and NFL are ignoring. When you stay home, when you don’t eat in a restaurant, when you wear a medical-grade mask, you’re keeping yourself safe at the same time as keeping the working poor safe.

Lastly, we’re going to see a whole lot of honorifics for the so-called “frontline workers” in the 2021 baseball season. A nurse was made an honorary team captain at the Super Bowl, things like that. A time-honored tradition in North American culture is to hero-worship the people that we deliberately put in harm’s way while doing nothing — or next to nothing — to reduce the actual risk these people face.

My sister is an RN. My boyfriend is studying to become one. They are the definition of the frontline worker. Know what they both want, more than a military flyover and moment of silence before Opening Day? They want you to stay home. They want you to wear medical grade masks. They want the cultural institutions that drive so much of public opinion to actually care about the biggest public health crisis in 30 years. The NFL and MLB, apparently, feel different.