Since mid-March of last year, every major sporting event in the U.S. and around the world has either been canceled or dramatically scaled back in scope. From the NBA Bubble of the shortened 2020 season to the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, there's just been less live sport available to watch, and the tone of what is being played has been severely altered by stringent Covid protocols and the lack of fans in stands.
That's why today's Super Bowl is so remarkable for its near-normalcy. Both the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have experienced minor COVID-19 outbreaks (the only team to avoid any infection was the Seattle Seahawks), but constant testing and a rigorous adherence to mask-wearing, social distancing, and good ventilation left most teams in good shape as they barrelled towards the playoffs.
One thing that struck me is that the NFL understood it would be a key data-gathering resource for medical experts, and worked with the CDC between August and November of last year to help the government agency come to terms with the reality that conventional understanding of six-feet-and-15-minutes — that is, transmission rates drop considerably when one stands more than six feet away from another person and keeps contact to 15 minutes or less — was not entirely accurate.
In a research paper and press release released at the end of January, the CDC reported that the NFL found transmission occurred even when distance and time protocols were followed, and that mask-wearing and, most importantly, good ventilation in a room, were key to removing virus particles from the air and keeping transmission rates low.
Now that the day is here, with the Bucs playing at home, the Vince Lombardi trophy is going to be held up in a stadium less than half full, with 7,500 of the 25,000 in-person attendees vaccinated first responders whose tickets were offered up free. That over 100 million people will be watching the game at home isn't surprising, since the Super Bowl is the biggest TV draw of the year under normal circumstances. When no one has anything else going on — well, its importance is magnified.
I also think a lot of people who've spent months sardined at home with family, barely leaving for anything but the essentials, will look at images of the tailgate parties happening near Raymond James Stadium with disdain, frustration, and a bit of awe.
It's alarming to see such flagrant disregard for Covid protocols in a state that's had pretty inconsistent enforcement since the beginning, even as cases and deaths per capita were leading the country parts of last year. It's difficult for me to even think about sitting inside a restaurant for a meal, or getting together with friends in their living rooms — attending a party with thousands of other people, with no prospect of contact tracing, makes me anxious just thinking about it.
Even though the mayor of Tampa has issued a mask mandate along key areas of Tampa's Riverwalk and other areas of high tourist-congregation, the chief of police said last week that they "really don't want to get into being the mask police." It's all a little disheartening.
And yet I understand the vibrational need to be among people, to cheer one's team and be close to others during an event that does more to unify the country than basically any other. It's that social layer that we're all missing right now and are desperate to reintegrate, to hug and kiss, to dance and drink and sing and pretend that everything's OK.
I read a tweet this week that went something along the lines of, "I'd do anything just to sit in a shitty coffee shop downing mediocre brown water and a stale muffin." Me? I just want to browse a book store, or sit in a movie theater, or go on a proper date with my wife for the first time in over a year. The last dinner we went to alone was to Five Guys, which wasn't a bad option but if I'd known it would be the final solo outing we did as a couple for at least a year, I probably have chosen differently.
So this weekend is the culmination of so many decisions, macro and micro, of personal, corporate and government responsibility. It's a test of the public system of trust, or mistrust, and of education, or lack thereof, that has allowed us to get to the point where we can have a Super Bowl in a stadium half-full, a third of whom are already vaccinated against the very thing that's keeping us apart. It's at once comforting, vexing, and maddening, which is usually how every Super Bowl game plays out on the field, anyway.