COVID-19 reaction draws parallels to pertussis outbreak on a much larger scale
The last week has been extremely difficult for sports fans at all levels. Beginning with the NBA's suspension of operations last Wednesday night due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, sports leagues and events large and small have been dropping like flies, suspending or postponing events, if not canceling them all together. The list of effected events and leagues reads like a who's, who - included but not limited to the following:
The NCAA men's and women's basketball tournament;
The Masters Golf Tournament;
The Boston Marathon
Virtually all major professional sports leagues including the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the PGA Tour, NASCAR, the XFL and many others.
Pick any significant event sports fans were looking forward to over the next month and it will not happen as scheduled, if at all.
On a local level, the WIAA canceled its state boys' and girls' basketball tournaments after an odd scene last Thursday that saw the state girls' basketball tournament, and several boys' basketball sectional semifinal games, go on with extremely limited fan access.
It's a bizarre set of circumstances, to be sure. However, at least for those who follow Rhinelander sports, it is not completely unprecedented.
On a much smaller scale, what the sports world is witnessing took place right in our backyard in the winter of 2016-17 when an outbreak of pertussis (a.k.a. whooping cough) swept through Rhinelander High School.
It was a bizarre scene as, on Dec. 16, 2016, the district and the Oneida County Health Department took action to shut down schools and put a moratorium on any practices, sporting events or any other extra-curricular activities until Jan. 2, 2017, when the district was scheduled to return from the Christmas holiday break.
The result was an unprecedented three-week layoff that some adhered to better than others, and an impassioned debate during a Dec. 19, school board meeting in which the health department explained the rationale of its decision while parents and coaches pleaded for it and the district to reconsider its edict.
Health and government officials - as we in Rhinelander witnessed then, and those around the globe are witnessing now - are operating out of "an abundance of caution." That's another way of saying, as Oneida County Health Director Linda Conlon bluntly stated in 2016, "That's our job, to protect all of you from becoming ill."
Hence the recommendations of gatherings of no more than 50 people and the practice of "social distancing." That phrase is a buzzword amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but was also used by Conlon during the pertussis outbreak of 2016-17.
Certainly the health and welfare of everyone should be of utmost priority. As sports fans, we will miss sporting events for however long health officials deem necessary. For professional athletes and teams, this will be a blip on the radar and they will return to full strength either next season or whenever the all-clear is given.
I feel most for the student-athletes at the collegiate and high school levels, especially the seniors at those levels, who had the opportunity to compete for a championship taken away from them. I also feel for those who could, potentially, end up not having any sort of spring season at all.
As of this writing, the decision regarding most local events going forward was up in the air, but the prospect of teams losing most if not all of their spring sports seasons is a distinct possibility.
We know that the spring sports season is already on hold until at least April 6, the earliest governor Tony Evers' mandated state-wide closure of schools could be lifted. The WIAA affirmed that in a press release on Sunday, placing a suspension on spring sports that runs congruent with the statewide school shutdown.
With minimum practice requirements in place - and Easter occurring the following Sunday (April 12) - at best spring games will not begin until April 13.
That's the best-case scenario and, should that come to pass, would mean a temporary delay in the spring sports season. That's something that the majority of spring sports teams - especially in the northern half of the state - are accustomed to, given the cold and snowy Aprils that have truncated each of the last two spring sports campaigns. Late April starts to the spring sports season have been the rule, rather than the exception, pretty much every year since 2013.
At best, it will be another spring of doubleheaders galore for basketball and softball teams, and short regular seasons for everyone before the playoffs begin in earnest in late May.
However some schools will be out of commission even longer than April 6. Mosinee School District, for instance, announced late last Thursday that it was canceling all after school activities through April 10. Others, such as the Howard-Suamico School District, home of Bay Port High School are shut down through at least April 13.
The worst-case scenario? We've already seen it at the collegiate level where the NCAA canceled its spring sports championships. Taking that a step further, the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which sponsors sports for several NCAA Division II schools in the upper Midwest decided on Friday to cancel "all athletically-related activity for all sports through May 31, 2020."
On Sunday, the prospects of a spring without sports increased when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out new guidance for large events.
"CDC, in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers ... cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States," it said. "Events of any size should only be continued if they can be carried out with adherence to guidelines for protecting vulnerable populations, hand hygiene, and social distancing."
Eight weeks would put us at May 17. Should the WIAA or individual schools follow the same course of action, an entire season of interscholastic sports would be completely obliterated.
Though there was plenty of angst among coaches, players and parents in late 2016 in the midst of Rhinelander pertussis outbreak, credit must be given to school and health officials. Looking back in hindsight, the 17-day practice ban was far from ideal for teams, but the tactic was effective. Pertussis was an afterthought following the ban and the remainder of that winter's schedule went on without interruption.
That's the hope in this instance, albeit on a much larger scale. Hopefully the preventative measures taken around the state, country and world will curtail the spread of the virus and we can return to a sense of normalcy sooner rather than later.
Pro sports will return soon enough and sports fans will have to cope in their absence. It's just my hope that the situation will sort itself out as soon as possible to give the athletes in the Class of 2020 a chance to have their last chance to leave it all out on the playing field.
Because a spring with no sports at all would be a very sad spring indeed.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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