A steady stream of gasp-inducing gaggles across America flickered past on our screens, whether it was beachgoers in Maryland, people throwing money out of their cars at crammed-together crowds in Florida, or some truly demented tubers in Missouri. These scenes tempered any enthusiasm we might have had about declining case numbers and the incremental reopening of states across the country. It made us wonder if this was ever going to be over.
What it did not do, however, is give us someone to blame. Sure, you can cluck your tongue at shirtless Ozarkian Lime-a-Rita drinkers all you’d like, and if there’s a COVID-19 outbreak in rural Missouri over the next couple of fortnights, we’ll all have a pretty solid idea of where it came from. But there is no overarching villain here. Maybe the federal government’s response or President Trump’s incitements are partly responsible for the partiers’ recklessness, but you can’t say they were all at the pool because of one guy, or one company. It’s hard to file a lawsuit against “summer.”
When people want to gather, they are going to do so, no matter who is telling them not to, and there might not be a lot we can do about it other than wag our fingers. (As one observer in Ocean Park, Maryland, noted: “You can’t police common sense.”)
Which leads us, inevitably, to sports. This week, the most prominent leagues started putting together concrete schedules for returning. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced his league’s return-to-play plans on Tuesday afternoon, the MLB owners submitted their economic proposal for the new season to the players union, and the NBA solidified their plan to finish their season at Walt Disney World in Orlando. NASCAR, German soccer, and golf have already come back, and Spanish and British soccer probably aren’t far behind. Barring a massive coronavirus spike in the next two months (and the Ozarkians are certainly doing their part on that one), it’s all happening.
But even though all of these leagues are committed (for now) to holding contests without fans, they seem to be ignoring the fact that fans have a way of finding the games regardless. And if thousands of Missourians are going to congregate at a pool, it stands to reason that hundreds of thousands of Alabamans are going to congregate at a football game. Yes, leagues can keep fans from entering the stadium. But the question has to be asked: What do they do with the ones outside of it?
It is not an academic question. This past weekend, a racetrack, Ace Speedway, in North Carolina, opened its season for stock-car racing. Despite a North Carolina ban on any event of more than 25 people, more than 2,500 fans showed up.
The speedway manager defended the gathering, saying, “This place doesn’t live off hopes and dreams. This place costs money to operate and we need to operate.” And the local sheriff’s department said it wouldn’t crack down on the operator, because the state’s order was “too vague concerning race tracks.” The incident speaks to a truth about sports: The pull of the game has, in many ways, little to do with the event itself. If you’ve ever been to a college football game in the South (or, for that matter, Buffalo), you know that the sports-event economy encompasses much more than what happens inside a stadium. If you build it, they will tailgate.
The NBA and the NHL, with the quarantine bubble they’ve carved out, won’t have this problem: They’re playing their games in Orlando and Las Vegas only, specifically to keep out not only fans, but any nonessential personnel entirely. Attempting to tailgate there would be like trying to tailgate a taping of Wheel of Fortune by grilling brats outside Sony Studios in Culver City. But Major League Baseball, the NFL, and college football are planning on holding games in home stadiums. And even if they conduct those games without fans, they’re basically announcing that the usual routine that takes place outside a stadium — the economic infrastructure that immediately snaps into place whenever a game happens, from the peanut vendors, program salespeople, bar openings, or tailgates.
— is still on.
Kelly Girtz, the mayor of Athens, Georgia (the town in which the University of Georgia hosts 90,000 screaming fans six times a year, and also where I live), told me that on an average SEC football Saturday, upward of 30,000 people flock to Athens from all across the state without any intention of attending the game, and much more than that when a high-profile opponent like Notre Dame is involved. That’s a contact-tracing nightmare, and one that local officials are almost powerless to withstand. Girtz says that his job would be a lot easier if nobody was allowed into the stadium, since “letting 20,000 fans in the stands” — which would still be only 20 percent of capacity — “is basically waving a flag that says ‘come on down.’” But because Georgia is a state university, it does not have to adhere to any local statutes that might differ from the state. And the university’s current plan anticipates a “full football season” and “relatively normal conditions.”
Girtz says he has talked to mayors in other college towns about potential options they’ve floated on how to manage an influx of people on game day, including only allowing bars 25 percent capacity and instituting an early curfew. These measures would come with their own economic trade-offs, and, as we’ve seen across the country over Memorial Day, they’d be more than a little difficult to enforce anyway.
Which means the only people you can count on to reduce scenes outside sporting events like the ones we saw last weekend are the people themselves. And while the German Bundesliga has had surprising success so far keeping fans away from the stadium for its games — that may be wishful thinking for football fans with a tradition of tailgating. (You can insert your own priors on how you believe Germans and Americans see “freedom” differently.) You’re telling me you can reason with these people about social distancing?
And if there are scenes like that, we won’t be lacking culprits to point our fingers at: The leagues themselves will be responsible. If a viral video involving Browns fans or Alabama sports fans circulates like the Ozark one did, there will be a source and a reason: The football game they insisted on playing. And by playing games in municipalities that are separate from the teams but still responsible for what is drudged up in the wake of the games, leagues are putting extra strain on local municipalities to enforce, or not enforce, guidelines that were already in place. Which is to say, you can have a game in front of no fans, but you can’t have a game with no fans. Sports leagues are trying to create a controlled environment, a vacuum in which only sports happen and nothing else. But that is not, and never has been, how sports in this country has worked. A St. Louis city executive announced, in the wake of that video of the partiers at the Ozarks, a “travel warning” in place for anyone who visited that area and might return home to St. Louis. Now imagine that for a football game in Ann Arbor, or Tuscaloosa, or Green Bay.
You think we have a hard time keeping young people from celebrating a sunny day at the beach? Try keeping 30,000 good ol’ boys away from a college football game in the South.