Sports begin to emerge from hibernation, but at what risk?

It’s good to see sports starting to make a comeback. Players, coaches and fans have been going through some serious competition withdrawals during this quarantine spring, and we’re all ready for some live action.  

Over in Selah, the Yakima Valley Pepsi Pak has played about a dozen baseball games over the past two weeks against teams from Centralia and the Tri-Cities, taking advantage of the availability of Carlon Park (more on that in a minute). The rival Yakima Beetles are also back on the diamond — albeit in Montana, since their home field at Yakima Valley College remains closed due to the statewide public health shutdown.

The Yakima Youth Soccer Association is planning to host its popular Yak Attack 5-on-5 soccer tournament Aug. 8-9, while organizers for the annual Hot Shots 3-on-3 basketball tournament are hoping to stage their event Aug. 29-30. But given that Yakima County likely won’t be ready to move on to phase three of the state’s reopening plan — 25 coronavirus infections per 100,000 residents over two weeks, compared with our current rate of 650 cases per 100,000 — expecting these events to take place seems optimistic, at best.

Last month, I spoke about the possibility of the shutdown extending into the fall high school season and, unfortunately, my hunch was correct. With nearly 6,000 COVID-19 cases on the books as of this week, Yakima County now has the fourth-highest infection rate of any county in the U.S., accounting for more than 40 percent of new cases in Washington state. According to recent news reports, we also have the highest infection rate on the West Coast.

That is what they call “not good.”

Realizing that this situation will inevitably linger into the fall, local athletic directors are currently developing contingency plans for football, soccer, volleyball and cross country. Due to the stubbornly high rate of infection here, our league counterparts in Wenatchee, Ellensburg and other less-affected areas are now formulating plans to move ahead without the Yakima County teams because they don’t see things getting much better, either.

The reality is, many places in Central Washington and around the country simply aren’t ready to reopen. It’s encouraging to see organizations doing what they can to resume play safely (i.e., isolating participants from fans, implementing physical distancing policies). But to think we’re going to return to “normal” within a couple of months feels more unrealistic by the day.

I’m glad the Pak and Beetles are able to play some games this spring, and I’m hoping everything works out for them. The clubs’ decision to play independent schedules this summer after the national American Legion association canceled its season may end up having no negative consequences. It’s possible that expanded dugouts and other physical distancing measures at Carlon Park — open because of Selah officials’ decision to not enforce statewide shutdown orders — will prevent transmission of the virus among this group of healthy young men. 

That doesn’t mean they can’t asymptomatically spread the virus to their parents, grandparents and other community members, but by now, everyone involved knows the risks. I don’t completely agree with the decision to resume play this soon, but as long as the players, coaches and families are on board, who am I to disagree? 

Perhaps our fears of COVID-19 have been overblown. Maybe Gov. Jay Inslee went too far with his shutdown mandate. Few would argue that the administration was consistent in determining which businesses should be considered “essential” and which activities should be permitted during the shutdown. And while I support our state’s overall response to the pandemic, canceling golf, fishing and camping felt like a stretch.

But, the truth is, none of us knew three months ago how severe this pandemic would become. I am confident that Inslee and the governors who acted decisively early on — both Democrats and Republicans — helped prevent the spread of the virus in their states by taking extreme measures like canceling school, closing restaurants and bars, and banning large gatherings. 

However, with the national death toll hovering around 115,000 and climbing, we can’t exactly declare that we’ve got this thing under control. Nearly half of the states have seen their infection numbers spike since Memorial Day weekend, and many small-town hospitals — see Arizona, Florida and Texas — are reportedly becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients (the primary reason most states opted to shut down in mid-March).

I empathize with small business owners around the country, including those in the Yakima Valley, who have suffered immense hardship after being inactive for so long. What many people fear (myself included) is that a rush to reopen will put us right back where we were in mid-March. Some people say, “it’s not going to affect me” or “I’m not afraid of getting it because I’m young and healthy.” Others mistakenly believe the pandemic is just a big media concoction to drum up fear and tank the economy leading up to the election. 

But if the coronavirus is simply a case of liberal lunacy, why have more than 7 million people worldwide contracted the disease, including 2.2 million Americans, since early February? If it’s no worse than the flu, how has the U.S. lost more lives in three months’ time than it did in all of its foreign conflicts combined since 1945? (And that’s WITH social distancing measures in place. Imagine how bad it would have been without mitigation efforts).

If there’s nothing to worry about, why was every sports league in the world shut down? Why have so many higher education institutions switched to an online learning model overnight? Why are a growing number of K-12 school districts around the country already planning for online classes in September? And why has every in-person gathering — from graduations, to weddings, to funerals — been canceled, postponed or modified?

It’s not a hoax, folks. 

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and if believing in the risks of reopening too soon makes me a “liberal,” I can live with that. Casting aside any fear of being labeled, I’m going to continue to limit my personal interactions until state health officials tell me it’s safe to venture out. I will continue to mask up when I go to the grocery store, and I’m probably going to be working remotely for at least a couple more months.

In the meantime, more businesses will reopen, more sports teams will return to action, and more positive COVID-19 cases will turn up around the Valley and the country. I’m not trying to sound flip; I’m just looking at the situation objectively. And, to be honest, it’s hard to imagine our society being anywhere near normal in time for football season. 

I hope I’m wrong and, if I am, I will be the first to admit it. But I believe that for us to emerge from this ongoing shutdown nightmare, we will need a coordinated response. And, from where I sit today — three months into this mess — it still feels like everyone is on their own.

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