The finale of the National Football League season comes next Sunday with the Super Bowl contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, and it marks the end of a season when relatively few fans attended games in person due to coronavirus social distancing restrictions observed by the league’s teams. Attendance at this Super Bowl will be limited to 22,000 fans, in a stadium that can seat over 65,000. For hard core fans used to watching the games in person rather than on television, it must have been a peculiar season.
Crowd in the Polo Grounds grandstand for the final game of the 1908 baseball season, watching the visiting Chicago Cubs play the New York Giants. Library of Congress photo from Bain News Service.
To be at a stadium or ballpark for a game is to experience something beyond the game alone, which really can be viewed more intelligibly on a television screen or computer monitor from the comfort of home. The sports fanatic can spend hundreds of dollars for the experience, counting ticket price, parking, concessions, and other sundry expenses, and still the sports fan prefers bearing those costs instead of staying home to watch the game for free or at very little cost. One hundred years ago, there were no such contrasting choices.
At the beginning of 1921, there was no broadcast medium at all involved in bringing sporting events to the masses. In the United States, radio broadcasts of sports began later that year, with the airing of a boxing match on April 11 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a baseball game on August 21 from Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. In both cases, the broadcasting station was KDKA in Pittsburgh. On October 8, KDKA broadcast a college football game. The first American television broadcast of sports didn’t occur until May 17, 1939, when NBC covered a college baseball game in New York City. Hard core sports fans didn’t get to listen to a sports talk radio show until New York’s WNBC started airing one in March 1964.
One hundred years ago, people either bought tickets to see sporting events or read about them the next day in a newspaper. Talking about sports was a first hand endeavor limited to friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Now there are several options besides buying tickets for vicariously experiencing athletic contests, and with sports talk radio and television shows and social media, there are many options for sports fans to gab on and on about their obsessions to familiars and strangers alike, both near and far.
One of the subplots from a 1995 episode of Seinfeld involving Patrick Warburton as David Puddy, the boyfriend of Elaine Benes, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Michael Richards played Cosmo Kramer, and Jerry Seinfeld played a fictional version of himself.
Social norms of public appearance and behavior loosened after World War II and particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, resulting in sports fans changing over the 50 years from the ’30s to the ’80s from men (they were overwhelmingly men in the stands) who attended the games largely in suits and ties, to people who wore casual clothing, often comprised of the merchandised parts of their favorite team’s uniform. Some went shirtless and painted themselves in their team’s colors. In the 1950s, only little boys and some working class adults wore baseball caps regularly. Now, almost everyone wears one at least occasionally, and many of the caps bear team logos at a price. No one has to grow up anymore (or wants to), and sports merchandisers, who had very little business at all before the 1970s, are counting money in the billions each year now, even without sports fans filling the stands.
Schools around the country have either started the fall semester or are about to, some opening their buildings to students and others not, and everywhere there is confusion and apprehension about the changed circumstances due to coping with the coronavirus. Will students, especially the very young ones, be able to maintain their concentration when learning remotely? If they attend classes in person, will they endanger themselves and everyone in school as well as at home because of failure to maintain the new disciplines of social distancing, mask wearing, and frequent, conscientious sanitation?
Back in 1918 and 1919 during the worldwide outbreak of the Spanish Flu, remote learning meant home schooling. Social distancing was barely understood, and other measures to contain the deadly flu were haphazardly implemented from locality to locality. Where city-wide rules went into effect, such as in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where officials closed the schools and banned some public gatherings (notably excepting saloons), the contagion’s effects were limited in comparison to places like Boston, Massachusetts, where public life went on much as before.
Rosana Martinelli, mayor of Sinop, a city in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, meets with schoolchildren in May 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic gripped that country. Photo provided by Rosana Martinelli.
Schoolchildren, however, are a special case, then as now. Besides having a limited understanding of what’s at stake and the measures necessary to protect everyone from the coronavirus, many are incapable of respecting boundaries. Children, the younger ones particularly, by nature lack social control. For proper development, children need social contact of all kinds, whether that means actual touching or merely being in the presence of other children and adults. Can children, especially the very young, be expected to sit still and apart from each other for six hours or more every day, never getting close enough to play and roughhouse with each other?
The experiment of returning children en masse to in-person learning from teachers in school buildings is bound to fail. The primary reason for trying it out is to mollify those right wing supporters of the current president who are clamoring loudly for schools to reopen for a number of reasons, but mostly to do with denying the reality of the pandemic while somehow boosting their cult leader’s chances of reelection in November. The experiment will fail before November, and the school boards responsible for catering to right wing extremists can then say that they tried. Meanwhile, thousands of people will fall ill unnecessarily and some will die, sacrificed to the experiment.
An episode ofPocoyocalled “Don’t Touch!” wherein Pocoyo, a very young boy, tries and fails to restrain himself from touching, demonstrating a lack of self-control natural to small children. Narration is by Stephen Fry.
There are other people, surely, with reasons for wanting the schools opened for in-person attendance. Working class families, for instance, many with only a single parent, have managed with great difficulty the extra burden of their children staying home more than usual. Those are the people most in need of assistance now, both financially and by having school districts reach out to them with help in keeping their children safe at home and learning. Family circumstances have changed in the century since the Spanish Flu outbreak, when it was more likely that one parent would be home during the day.
It would not serve today’s parents well to have their children exposed to risk at school, where they might easily pick up the coronavirus from classmates and then bring it home to their families. Working class parents already expose themselves to risk because they cannot afford to quarantine at home, but most go out in public to work, many of them in low-paid service economy jobs with few, if any, health benefits. Keep the kids at home for now, where being out of touch during a pandemic can be a good thing.
Garden centers around the country are very busy with the spring rush, and some may be even busier than in a normal spring on account of the many people who are staying at home due to coronavirus lockdowns and have more time on their hands than usual for gardening and home improvement projects. In most cases the garden centers can maintain social distancing through written reminders posted throughout their facilities, and by setting up physical barriers and limiting the amount of shoppers on the grounds at any one time. Social distancing at a garden center is probably most difficult to maintain in the confines of greenhouses.
Amanda Tapping, actress on the Stargate series of television programs, visited the Arctic in March 2007. U.S. Navy photo by Jeff Gossett, of the Arctic Submarine Laboratory. Note the ice crystals formed on the outside of her face mask by her humid exhalations.
Staff at garden centers may try to diligently follow an advertised policy of wiping down surfaces with disinfectants, but that is not always possible considering shortages of disinfectant supplies and the inherently dirty environment around potted plants and associated materials. Management may require staff to wear masks whenever they are dealing with the public, citing CDC guidelines for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Many customers wear masks voluntarily, while others are encouraged to do so by posted reminders. Few garden centers or other retail establishments go to the controversial length of prohibiting customers from visiting their premises without a mask.
Social distancing and disinfecting of surfaces are reasonably effective measures in countering the spread of a virus that is only one micron wide; wearing a mask is far less effective, at least when it is the kind available to the average citizen. Yet somehow mask wearing has become the definitive symbol of the coronavirus pandemic, as if it were just as important and useful as the other two measures, perhaps more so. It has certainly become an important symbol for virtue signaling. The problem is not that wearing a mask is bad, because it isn’t; the problem is that it encourages far too many people to attribute to it nearly magical properties that the typical surgical mask simply does not possess, contributing to a false sense of security.
The reason masks have become the symbol of the coronavirus pandemic is money. Wearing a mask in public makes it possible to re-open businesses for people to visit, with consumers sure in the dubious knowledge they are not spreading the virus to others in their proximity. More importantly than its real effectiveness, wearing a mask is a sign to others that you are going about your bit as a consumer safely and responsibly. No doubt it is a good thing to get people back to work making money for themselves and their families, particularly in the case of working class people who were ill prepared to stay at home for weeks or months without income.
A brief, entertaining overview of magical thinking.
To that limited extent, the promotion of mask wearing by the CDC, probably under pressure from the White House to get the economy moving again, has been a decent nostrum. If people feel safer going out to stores when they are wearing a mask and the shopkeepers are also wearing masks, then fine, for as far as that goes. But people should not lose sight of other more effective, less publicly identifiable measures, such as keeping your distance and cleaning hands and surfaces regularly, or just continuing to stay home as much as possible. Wearing a mask does not suddenly entitle one to get up in someone else’s face, for good or ill. Wearing a mask may be helpful while shopping at a greenhouse for supplies for a coronavirus garden. Greenhouses can be tight quarters, but everywhere else at a garden center, inside or outside, that mask you’re wearing and perhaps entrusting too much with your safety and that of others is scant protection that doesn’t amount to much if you’re aren’t taking more effective, less magical measures to keep the virus from spreading.