The pandemic has made 2020 a year most of us would like to forget, but there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel. The FDA approved the first U.S. vaccine for COVID-19 last week, and already front-line workers around the country have begun getting vaccinations, including here in Kansas City.
The first priority in vaccinating the population is keeping everyone safe, but many are curious as to when we can begin resuming our lives to some sort of normal. For many of us, that includes getting back to attending live sporting events. Although vaccinations are taking place now for health care workers and vulnerable populations, it will still take several months for the general population to get vaccinated to a point where we achieve “herd immunity.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s most famous and well-respected pandemic expert, told Yahoo Sports that it could be some time before we see crowds at sporting events.
“By the time you get to the general public, the people who’ll be going to the basketball games, who don’t have any underlying conditions, that’s gonna be starting the end of April, May, June. So it probably will be well into the end of the summer before you can really feel comfortable [with full sports stadiums] – if a lot of people get vaccinated. I don’t think we’re going to be that normal in July. I think it probably would be by the end of the summer.”
While it might be nice to think of the vaccines as a quick fix, the reality is that getting back to normal will be a long, slow process. Other public health experts told Yahoo Sports that social distancing restrictions will have to be eased gradually, with limited capacity at games initially, followed by monitoring of case counts and transmission rates before capacities can be raised.
“It’s not like we’re gonna turn off the light, and the virus is gone, and the world can go back,” Dr. Tom Farley, Philadelphia’s health commissioner, told Yahoo Sports. “It’s going to have a very long tail to it.”
Baseball has tentatively released a 2021 spring training schedule to begin in February with a regular season schedule to begin in April. Will we see fans at those games? Perhaps. Some NFL games, including those in Kansas City, have allowed fans with limited capacities, usually around 25 percent. It is not unreasonable to think that some cities could allow MLB to do the same in the spring, if cases are at manageable levels.
That is, when there are games. There have been increasing reports of potential delays in next year’s baseball season. A recent report from Bob Klapisch of the Newark Star-Ledger echoed concerns from baseball officials that spring training will be delayed 4-6 weeks. And a recent article by Bob Nightengale of USA Today foreshadows yet another battle between owners and players over how many games will be played next season.
“I don’t see a snowball’s chance in hell that spring training can start with protocols in place,’’ a National League owner told USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue. “I think there will be significant pressure for players to get the vaccine first before they go to spring training, and if that has to be moved back to April and play 130 games, so be it.
Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports confirmed that owners informally asked the union to delay the season by a month, a request that was denied. Owners can’t unilaterally shorten the season, and while players may be open to some revisions, they won’t do so if it means less pay.
The owners are looking to shorten the season under the guise of player safety, and it is true that public health officials have suggested that waiting until players are fully vaccinated is best. But of course, baseball just completed a 60-game season without a vaccine, so it is hard for owners to claim they can’t begin a baseball season until players are vaccinated.
Rather, this is about playing in front of empty stadiums again. Baseball owners took a financial hit with no ticket sales, claiming some $3 billion in operational losses, although they have not provided any evidence of losses quite that large. Spring training games are fine - players aren’t actually paid for those - but once regular season games begin, the paychecks are doled out. With no fans in the stands, that will mean financial losses for owners.
The situation may call for creative solutions, such as delaying the season, but making up games with doubleheaders later in the year, pushing the season back with a World Series in November (something owners are opposed to). But there remains a great deal of uncertainty, with questions about how quickly vaccines will be available, how many people will voluntarily take vaccines, what cases will look like by early spring, and what approach the new Biden administration may take to combat the pandemic.
Owners and players have been egging each other on like two siblings trapped in a house during a pandemic. The length of the 2021 season and the measures that will have to be taken to make that happen will have to be yet another point of contention to be negotiated between two sides that appear to have increasing animosity towards each other. Caught in the middle are baseball fans, who have been without live baseball for well over a year. We all want players to be safe, and the game to be on firm, sustainable financial footing. But we also want to see baseball back, and while a vaccine brings us closer to that return, we hope a labor dispute won’t be what deprives us of the game we love.
When do you think fans will be able to attend games in Kansas City?
This poll is closed
Start of April
Start of May
Start of June
Some time later in the summer