There was an hour of gleeful bliss yesterday.
The State of California announced on Tuesday that fans would be allowed to return to stadiums this season, with the 49ers, by virtue of Santa Clara County's COVID-19 tier, allowed to fill Levi's Stadium's stands to 20% capacity.
Seeing as it wasn't long ago that there was a cottage industry of taking photos of the sparse crowds at the Santa Clara Sunbed, 20% capacity seemed like business as usual.
We were back, baby!
But not so fast. Santa Clara County came in and swiftly put the kibosh on the state and the Niners' plans.
"We want to make it clear that super-spreader events will not be allowed within the county of Santa Clara," county executive Jeff Smith said in a press conference Tuesday.
The 49ers, of course, are probably angry about the development, but they should not be surprised or expect things to change.
"Audiences at professional sporting events will not be allowed anytime soon in Santa Clara County," read a county health department statement.
Santa Clara County might have been ground zero for COVID-19 in this country. The fact that we can't say for sure indicates how little we still know about this disease. But unlike in other places hit hard by the virus early, Santa Clara was able to flatten the curve and limit deaths in a way that's unquestionably admirable. In a county that houses nearly 2 million people, 382 people have died of COVID-19 since March.
Obviously, each death is a tragedy in its own right, full stop. But viewed in totality, that's a third of the deaths in similarly sized San Bernardino County.
Santa Clara County believes its aggressive public health orders and conservativeness in relaxing restrictions has been a key to this relative success. We've known for months that fans in the stands would be one of the last bits of normal to return. That's logical. And the county isn't keen to pretend this pandemic is over.
Given the constant battles between the county and the 49ers, it's unsurprising that they were not given a break. This is not an opening salvo for negotiations between the team and county — this is the verdict. The county, after all, forced the Sunday Night Football broadcast crew to wear masks while announcing the game last Sunday and two Sundays before that. Both Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth passive-aggressively voiced their displeasure with the decision ahead of the Niners' game against the Eagles, but the masks stayed affixed.
I can't say if Santa Clara County is being over the top or safe. I'm not smart enough to break all of this down, but I do know that science and politics are a particularly toxic mix these days and I like the current crazy level of my inbox.
What I can say is how much I personally miss fans in the stands.
Listen, there are some people who annoy me. Folks who are too loaded. Fans who have outsourced their entire emotional well-being to a team that has never and will never care about them. The guy who treats games like Halloween. I don't miss any of those fans.
But those folks are the significant minority. The vast majority of folks at games are just there to spend time with family and friends, cheer on their favorite team in person, and buy one or two $19 beers.
Put enough of those people together — even 14,000 in a cavernous stadium — and you can create an atmosphere.
I'm enjoying the ease of my commute to the Denim Dungeon, but I'd trade that in a second for some of that atmosphere. The games are boring without it.
I miss fans getting on the referees for taking too long for a replay review. I miss the crowd getting loud on third down.
And this one is specific, but I really miss it:
You know that collective gasp on a deep pass? That moment where everyone reacts to a throw for or against their team, guessing if the outcome is good or bad? I miss that so much.
Beyond that, it's just depressing to look out on empty stadiums. Sports are meant to be a distraction, but it's impossible not to remember how messed up the world is when you look out at a building built to be filled to the brim — and instead it's left vacant.
My hope is that by the time baseball season starts, we're in a position to have some fans in the stands in San Francisco and Oakland. Forgive the pot shot, but you can't convince me the Coliseum couldn't have operated as per usual this past year — the team barely pulled more than 20% capacity pre-pandemic.
As for the Sharks and Warriors, keep those fingers crossed for a widely-distributed vaccine before their seasons start — whenever that might be. Indoor stadiums are a whole other problem and neither building can open the windows like in Sacramento.
(Quick, bad idea: What about some outdoor games for the Dubs and Sharks at Oracle Park?)
This pandemic has forced everyone to reckon with some harsh truths as we've stripped down life to the brass tacks. What's important? What was just fluff?
Professional sports might be elaborate reality television, but as we play more and more games in front of empty stadiums — with more on the horizon, it seems — it's clear to me that fans are a vital part of the overall game experience.
This is a show that really needs a live studio audience.
Visit The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com
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