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The conflicted uncertainty of Pandemic Soccer

The conflicted uncertainty of Pandemic Soccer

Watching the first three matches of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds USL season was supposed to be some form of relief from the crushing anxiety that was created by the Covid-19 pandemic. An emotional release. Ninety carefree minutes of the beautiful game. A return to normalcy.

For me at least, it was not.

I’m not a particularly anxious person.* However, the same anxiety I feel heading to the supermarket or picking up take-out has crept into my emotional experience of watching USL soccer games. Namely, I have constant questions:

I see fans. Should there even be fans there? If there are fans, shouldn’t they absolutely be wearing masks? Is having teams travel from city to city for games a good idea? Even if USL teams are being extra careful, is the mere act of playing soccer sending our society the wrong message?

If you think this opinion piece is going to land on a definite opinion – a classic op-ed page screed or hot take; a simply summarizable and polarized sense of outrage or cheerleading, move along. These are not the droids you’re looking for. All you will find here is my own deep sense of anxious foreboding about what I’ve been witnessing.

What we’ve witnessed to date is the Hounds playing one match in a stadium with fans, and two closed-door matches that took place in Pennsylvania, where in-person fan attendance is forbidden. In the season-opener in Louisville, the stadium was filled to 50% capacity. Most fans were wearing masks, and social distancing seemed to be taking place.

But it was readily apparent from the broadcast that some folks were not as cautious.

There are two additional things that caused me to worry. First, the decision to have fans in attendance took place as the United States was experiencing an upswing in Covid cases nationwide. This resurgence of the virus, which has killed at least 143,000 in this country, was likely triggered by an early-May ‘re-opening’ without adequate planning or protocols. Restaurants and bars opened at 50% capacity. People went to parks and beaches and public places without masks. Folks heard that we were opening up or that their state was ‘in the green phase’ and they relaxed their standards. We gathered. And we spread the virus.

None of that stopped MLS or USL from going ahead with soccer. To their credit, both leagues have taken lots of precautions for players and staff, including MLS’ ‘bubble’ tournament in Orlando that includes mandatory quarantine upon arrival, and a testing protocol that attempts to eliminated any possibility of a player, coach, or trainer contracting the illness and spreading it during a game to teammates and opponents.

But the optics – the message – was bad. We were watching a plague ravage the country. True, the death rate for Covid is down from its seven-day average of 2,232 deaths-per-day on April 14; the seven-day average death rate for Covid on July 22 in the US was 834. Things are ‘better’. But ‘better’ is now characterized as 30,000 dying a month. Picture Highmark Stadium, full of fans. That’s the number of people that dies of Covid in the US every 8 days.

Meanwhile, other countries like New Zealand beat Covid completely with quarantine, masks, and hand-sanitizer. They haven’t reported a single death since May 28. While the United States is averaging 142 cases per 100,000 over the last seven days, former epicenter of the Coronavirus Italy has just 3 cases per 100,000 over the same period.

We opened up. We aren’t winning. People are dying. Soccer was like ‘meh.’

What the fans-in-attendance matches in Kentucky and around the league taught me – I watched USL games in Birmingham and Colorado that had opened their turnstiles to paying patrons – was that if the government will allow it, owners will do what they need to do to make a buck. Which, to some degree, is totally legitimate. If a fan wants to watch a game, they have to know that they take the risk of exposure by attending the match. This is the same as me sending my kids to day camp and going to the supermarket in person, while my friend will only allow Whole Foods delivery and hasn’t set foot outside of her house since March. We all make choices and accept different levels of risk.

However, what we have learned to date is that wherever a governor has allowed a vast degree of personal freedom – letting citizens going to beaches and bars and restaurants – businesses have opened up, relying on the judgment of their leaders and their own need to get into the black to dictate what they ought to do. And wherever governors have been bold and aggressive at opening up, the virus has exploded. The US states with the highest number of per-capita Covid cases right now are Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas. All have freedom-loving governors preaching that the rights of citizens to live their lives ought not be restricted by the government. Which is certainly a legitimate perspective, if it were not for the fact that the virus doesn’t care if you had a drink in a crowded bar in Houston, or sold groceries to that person three days later.

The decisions of governor to open up has had a clear result, and the result has been bad. To summarize the situation in just one of those states, take this quote from Florida: Carlos Migoya, the chief executive of Jackson Health System, the largest public hospital in Miami, wrote in an op-ed in The Miami Herald “Your hospitals are drowning. We are teetering on the edge of disaster.” Reading through the newspaper, you see similar pronouncements from hospital officials in other overtaxed states.

Wherever soccer stadiums have been allowed to open, they have opened. In every state they are opening, Covid rates are going up. And when I watch a soccer game, I cannot escape that reality: soccer with fans-in-attendence is virtually synonymous with increased risk. We had all hoped that soccer would be an escape from this nightmarish reality we all want to wake up from. And sometimes, for me, it is. And then I glimpse a guy in the stands not wearing a mask and I am filled with dread, and regret. I am reminded that my little corner of the Covid world, soccer, is just as irresponsible as that a*****e at Giant Eagle last month that ranted at everyone in his aisle that he refused to wear a mask.

We had a Zoom watch party for my favorite MLS team, the Colorado Rapids, last night. (It was also a likely season-ending sendoff for the team, who exited the ‘MLS is Back’ tournament after just three games, scraping together just one draw out of the three contests.) Matthew Cleveland of Colorado Springs told me about the Switchbacks match he attended the other day. “They were pretty strict” he said. “They split the stadium into four areas, and you couldn’t leave that quadrant.” “There was an attendant that pulled open the bathroom door with a string” so that patron did not have to make contact. That was on the way in, though. On the way out, you pushed open the door. “Almost everybody” was wearing masks. All that information about precautions from Matthew made me feel better, I guess.

To be fair, soccer is played and watched outdoors. Precautions are being taken. It’s not a reckless free-for-all. It could be that lumping sporting venues and crowded bars into the same category just because they both take place in states with skyrocketing Covid rates is unfair.

The Riverhounds have no firm statement regarding the possibility of playing games with fans in attendance. When I reached the team for comment, spokesman Tony Picardi said “We’re continuing to work closely with state and local government and health officials to determine our ability to accommodate fans for future home games. We will continue to work within government guidelines.” So whether or not Hounds fans will be present in Highmark Stadium this year is entirely up to Governor Tom Wolf and Mayor Bill Peduto.

The decision is also up to us. If Allegheny County can knock down Covid cases to near-zero, there will be soccer. I’m not optimistic about this possibility, but we can always be hopeful that folks will do what they need to do.

I guess; even if some fans disagree with me; even if most fans can be trusted to behave responsibly; I’m glad Governor Wolf has made the decision that Highmark Stadium will stay closed to fans. Individual behavior is still unpredictable and occasionally reckless. Communal gatherings that include choke points like aisle openings and concourse intersections will inevitably involve occasional close contact, and that creates increased risk. Try as we might, the only way for us to get the spread of Covid to zero is to for all of us to enjoy things – and people – from afar. To beat the virus in Pittsburgh, we have be OK with watching soccer on TV, just as we have to accept drinking our IC Light, on the porch with our friends nine feet away. Even though the air conditioning is nice.

There was a moment in the game last night when the camera panned to the area near the centerline where the Monongahela and the train tracks and the Three Rivers Heritage Trail meets an iron bar fence. Just underneath the jumbotron, there were about a dozen Hounds fans, noses pressed to the bars, watching the match intently.

None of them had masks on.

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* OK, let’s take this statement apart a little. I am Jewish, which means I carry a certain degree of genetic predisposition to worry; which also has the non-genetic component of wearing a yarmulke wherever I go. There’s been more reasons lately to worry than before. And also I’m an over-thinker – this is what graduate school and Talmud study makes you do – analyze, analyze, over-analyze, reflect on your possible overanalysis. Rinse; repeat.

On the flip side, I’m a native Californian. By Jewish standards, most people find me really chill.

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

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