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Is the risk of baseball in a pandemic worth it?

People are interested in going to games. But at what cost?

A panorama photo of Kauffman Stadium before the start of Game 2 of baseball’s World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
A panorama photo of Kauffman Stadium before the start of Game 2 of baseball’s World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images

In a pandemic, there are few certain answers. We know plenty of things: that the novel coronavirus is extremely infectious, far more than a cold or flu; that proper mask usage is an effective tool in keeping yourself and others safe, though it is not foolproof; that before herd immunity is achieved, we can’t go back to the Before Times, as it were. But COVID-19 and its effects on our health and society are nothing if not unpredictable.

After spending a year in hiatus last summer, with the minor league season cancelled and nary a fan to be found in big league stadiums, we’re going to get baseball back this summer. The Royals announced that fans will be able to attend games at Kauffman Stadium as soon as opening day, though at 30 percent capacity.

This being a baseball website, our poll at the time of writing reflects that over 90 percent of site visitors “feel comfortable attending a Royals game this year.” Baseball fans want baseball back. But of course baseball fans want baseball back. More broadly, the American populace is wary of sporting events. Nearly two thirds of Americans are uncomfortable with attending a live sporting event until they’ve been vaccinated, per Harris Poll and Sportico.

As you might expect, older respondents were more wary of attending an event than younger ones, and those respondents who didn’t attend any sporting events in 2019 were significantly more weary of sporting events than those who had been to five or more events in 2019. But this is true for any question, and the big picture still stands: people are generally weary of attending a sporting event in a pandemic. Go figure.

For the Royals’ part, they are doing everything the CDC recommends for outdoor events. Fans will be distributed throughout the stadium in pods, with sufficient physical distancing between pods. Masks are required, and there are some food and beverage changes for overall sanitation improvements.

However, in a pandemic, again, there are no certain answers. These steps will reduce risk; they will not eliminate risk. You can still catch COVID-19 from going to a baseball game. You can therefore potentially get sick and even die from catching COVID-19 from going to a baseball game. Those options are on the table. For those with serious medical conditions who therefore have an elevated risk of additional COVID complications should they catch the virus, going to a baseball game is probably a needless risk.

But risk cannot be completely eliminated. Every year, there are about 6 million car wrecks in the United States, with 30,000 to 40,000 or so deaths. Simply driving to a game involves a tacit undertaking of risk. This is not to say that we should all live our lives without bothering to adhere to COVID-related restrictions—those restrictions are made by trained experts, and abiding by those restrictions helps others stay healthy in addition to yourself. And this is not to say that half a million Americans losing their lives to one disease is nothing short of a tragedy that will live in infamy in history books in perpetuity. Rather, it is to say that personal risk and community risk both must be assessed, and it is to say that there will be disagreements about the amount of risk that ought to be endured.

Additionally, COVID risks don’t exist in a vacuum. It is not a binary choice between “have no baseball games and stay healthy” and “have baseball games and kill people.” Quarantine, isolation, and the stress of living through a pandemic have had wildly negative effects on our mental health. A study published by the CDC during June of 2020 found sharp increases in anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse compared to the previous year. Those worrisome mental health results are exacerbated by real and tangible economic hardships. Consider: the entire event industry, which previously employed millions of workers, has been completely gutted for a year—from highly skilled musicians and performers to consummate venue management staff who keep it rolling.

There is a tendency to quickly take the high road when it comes to COVID. On one side, you have the anti-maskers, whose perceived freedom is so important that they boast about said perceived freedom at the same time as they flaunt their refusal to abide by guidelines. On the other side, you have social media warriors who will tell people who go restaurants that they are complicit in killing others in their community. One side is certainly more right than the other—just a hint, it’s the side that is concerned about people dying—but neither positions are truly helpful.

People will want to go to baseball games this year. Unarguably, those baseball games will result in a worse outcome for COVID rates in the community than if they didn’t happen, restrictions and all. But at this point, with vaccinations eclipsing 2 million per day, is that worse outcome acceptable? Or to put it into another, and more sobering, perspective: how many deaths is a baseball game worth?

In a pandemic, there are few certain answers. But when it comes to sporting events, we can take some good guesses. Some people will be ecstatic to go to games. Others will vilify those who choose to do so. Empathy is therefore paramount—and even then, empathetic people can come to different conclusions. The best thing to do, and the only thing to do, is to make the decision you think is best for you, your family, and, importantly, your community.