In a world knocked off its axis by COVID-19, in a year when so many of our familiar routines and pastimes now put us at risk, the long-awaited return of Major League Baseball was thought to mark our first steps down the basepath to new normalcy.
Unfortunately, the experiences of the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals baseball teams are evidence that conducting even an abbreviated season offers only an illusion of normalcy amid a pandemic, a mirage like the digital and cardboard crowds dotting empty grandstands for TV viewers, or the phantom crowd noise we’ve heard piped into radio broadcasts.
Seventeen of the 33 Marlins players who traveled to Philadelphia for three games against the Phillies during baseball’s opening weekend tested positive for COVID-19, which placed their season on hold for eight days after only three games. Thirteen members of the Cardinals organization, including seven players, have tested positive and their season was tentatively scheduled to resume Aug. 7. Meanwhile, MLB’s owners and league officials are pondering the next inevitable surge.
Baseball is often called a metaphor for life. And in this, our summer of COVID-19, lessons abound from Major League Baseball’s handling of the virus.
While we can’t say for certain what led to such a sudden outbreak on either team, it seems plausible that the virus spread quickly through the close quarters of the locker room, clubhouse, team bus or chartered flight.
What’s true about COVID-19 in baseball is what’s true about COVID-19 in the world outside — it does not respect borders or boundaries or differences of team uniforms or political affiliation.
And we know one more thing: Physical distancing works. Wearing a mask works. And limiting exposure to people outside your bubble helps slow the spread of the virus.
But MLB’s outbreak revealed another concern we need to pay attention to — the lag in testing. Multibillion-dollar sports leagues have access to some of the best testing capabilities in this country. But, because COVID is spread even when people are asymptomatic and because test results can take days, in the case of the Marlins, players and personnel remained in contact with the rest of the team, unknowingly spreading the virus while they awaited testing results.
Baseball’s cautionary tale should drive home the point that it is folly to resume our pre-pandemic lifestyles in the face of a viral outbreak that is anything but under control. We don’t know how half of the Marlins’ players contracted the virus so early in the new season — but we do know that failing to take the steps shown to slow the spread of the virus puts more people at risk of infection.
As researchers race to produce a safe and effective vaccine that prevents COVID-19 infection, for our own safety and for the well-being of our loved ones and our communities, we must all wear cloth masks, practice physical distancing, wash our hands, avoid large gatherings and limit the time we spend indoors with others. There is so much to be done, and we must find the collective will to do it, together.
During a press conference held over the July 4 weekend, Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle spoke to reporters through a facemask about the pending return of baseball and other pro sports in the summer of 2020.
“Sports are like the reward of a functioning society,” Doolittle said. “And we are trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve. We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands.”
The speed with which the coronavirus spread among the Marlins demonstrates how easily it is transmitted. We ignore this contagion at our own peril, and resuming our pre-pandemic lifestyle without concern for COVID-19 transmission will continue to yield more infections, more hospitalizations and more deaths.
The return of baseball was supposed to be part of a return to normalcy — the benefit of hard work to flatten the curve. Instead, as cases continue to spike across the country and problems from March and the earliest days of the virus remain unaddressed, no one — not even baseball — is immune from the big challenges.
Sadly, in 2020, baseball is not so much a metaphor for life, but a reminder of our failure to take the tough steps necessary to defeat COVID-19.
Dr. Susan R. Bailey is president of the American Medical Association.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Covid-19 spread among Marlins, Cardinals sign of America's continuing problem