The Pandemic Diary: May 16

Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.

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May 16: The governor saw those photos of the packed bar patios I posted in yesterday’s entry:

After a large crowd packed the patio of a Short North restaurant on Friday evening, the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine warns the state will enforce its coronavirus precaution guidelines against “irresponsible” offenders . . . DeWine press secretary Dan Tierney said: “Those who operate their businesses while disregarding safety guidelines, designed to protect the health of their customers and all Ohioans, are being irresponsible and need to understand that these guidelines will be enforced.

Except they did not say what, if anything they’d do to enforce it besides “do drive-bys” and be refer bars to the city attorney’s office for “a citation.” Which is the process followed for bars which violated the anti-smoking bans back in the late 90s, which was effectively toothless. Those referrals resulted in a small fine and nothing more because once city attorneys started going after stubborn, non-complying bars in a serious way the bars fought back and the cities lost their nerve.

To be sure, there aren’t many smoke-filled bars these days, but that’s because people voted with their wallets. They decided that, once they got the taste of smoke-free bars via the majority of the places that abided by the smoking bans, they wanted more of it. It was not because of enforcement action. There are still some smoke-filled bars that fly under the radar and serve a loyal smoking clientele, especially if you go out of town a bit. The law is essentially meaningless as it relates to smoking in bars because the law showed itself uninterested in the matter and a norm has been established despite the law.

That dynamic won’t happen with crowded pandemic bars. Unlike non-smoking bars, there is no natural constituency for a socially-distanced bar. People will only become more and more comfortable being in crowded places because that’s what they want. So, in the face of what will almost certainly be ineffective enforcement, the bars will continue to fill up. The scofflaws from last night immediately, the majority of the others within the next few days and weeks. If the authorities try to crack down they’ll find themselves in the crosshairs of the same people who forced the re-openings. Right wing media. Conservative legislators. Militias, maybe. No one is going to buy themselves that kind of trouble just because people want to pack some patios and drink on a Friday night.

You reopen or you don’t. If you don’t, you have the full power of state law behind you with offenders easily identified and dealt with. If you do, it’s up to various cities to do something and, practically, they’re not going to do anything. Mike DeWine decided to reopen. The half-measures will never take. We’ll be back to pre-pandemic normals before the first of June, I suspect.

 

Major League Baseball leaked its health-and-safety manual for post-COVID-19 playing It’s certainly detailed. Far more detailed than anything the government has come up with as far as testing, distancing and safe practices go. I suppose that when you have a profit motive like baseball does you’re more incentivized to make things work compared to those whose job is to merely protect the general population from harm. There’s no money in that I guess.

The problem: the MLB’s plan is so complicated and onerous that I don’t think they can actually pull it off.

There are diagrams of where players and coaches can and cannot sit in the dugout. Rules about where players can be during the National Anthem. Bans on high-fives and fist bumps. Bans on spitting tobacco juice and sunflower seed shells. Players would be discouraged from showering at stadiums after games. Players will be banned from taking taxis or use ride-sharing apps on the road. There will be 10,000 COVID-19 tests administered a week.

Like keeping crowds out of bars, these protocols seem almost impossible to implement and enforce. The micro-level of behavior control it requires, implemented in a matter of a few weeks, seems extreme. Especially given how routine and habit-driven athletes are. Ballplayers spend decades learning to automate almost everything they do and tune out all distractions in order to be able to maximize performance on the field. They truly embody the “don’t think, it’ll only hurt the ball club” ethos described in “Bull Durham.” Now they’re being told that they have to think, constantly, about every move they make lest they fuck up and accidentally kill the 63 year-old pitching coach.

It’s still only an incomplete draft of a plan, but it’s pretty clear why it’s out there. Indeed, the gambit is clear to anyone who follows how news typically flows in baseball. The upshot: leak the idea to a couple of league-friendly reporters. Let it float around the fandom and the non-critical parts of the baseball press by virtue of those reporters’ stature for a couple of days until it coalesces into something that seems almost official. As if it’s an all-but-done deal. In so doing, an air of inevitability is created that serves to cast anyone who takes issue with it as if they’re some kind of contrarian or as if they’re tilting at windmills.

I tend to be the guy in baseball media who pushes back against that air of inevitability and who, as such, is often cast as the contrarian. I’m doing it again now. The plan doesn’t seem workable and, if they press on despite its unworkability, they’ll simply ignore the plan in practice, leading to an unsafe environment for ballplayers. As much as it pains me to say it, I think they should just chuck the baseball season entirely. As much as it pains me to admit it, I doubt they will.

 

I took another long walk through New Albany today. Seven miles. As I did I was still thinking a lot about what I wrote in yesterday’s diary about not knowing my neighbors very well. Because of that I was probably paying closer attention to the people I passed than I normally do.

I have spilled a lot of anxiety and worry on these pages every day for over two months now, but by all external appearances I keep it together pretty well. If you pass me on the hiking trail I look composed and even pleasant. I nod and smile to people who nod and smile at me. If I’m trying to create some distance between myself and someone else as we pass and we both zig in the same direction instead of zag in opposite directions I laugh like they do and we figure it out. If I happen to see one of the few people in my little town with whom I have a chatting relationship I’ll make the normal small talk and tell my usual jokes. It’s hard sometimes. I feel like I’m wearing more than just a cotton mask when I’m out in the world these days.

Today, with every person I passed, I wondered: are they wearing a mask too? Are they, despite outward appearances, as anxious as I am? Are they as concerned about the pandemic as me? Have they been as disappointed in their country as I have been and are they as worried about their children’s futures as I am? I would, normally, say “yes, we’re all fighting the same battles” but we live in such a fractured society right now that I don’t know if we are. I don’t walk by the country club most of the time. For all I know their patio is just as packed as those bars downtown. It’s a nice day today.

I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anyplace else in my life, but I’ve never felt at home in New Albany. I don’t feel like I know the people here or relate to the people here very well. Maybe I did when I moved here fifteen years ago, but I’m such a different person now than I was then. Nearly everything about me has changed in that time. I don’t feel like I share most of their values. I don’t feel like I’m raising my children in the same way they are. I’m not saying that my values are superior or that I’m raising my kids better. I just feel very different than everyone around me.

There are some people who wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve had friends in my life who embrace and even revel in nonconformity and who make it a central part of their identity. I wish I could say I was one of those people, but I’m not. Not really. I don’t feel comfortable here but I’m no rebel or iconoclast and I don’t get off on feeling different than these people. As I wrote last year, I don’t stand out. I chafe.

I often feel like the unconventional path I’ve chosen to take through life is unnecessarily complicated. That it has made my life harder. I wonder sometimes how much easier my life might’ve have been if I had figured out how to chafe less. If I had stayed on the path I was on when I moved here. Kept the high-paying job and the car and the social status I had then and, if I had kept at it, the greater social status I would’ve assumed by now. I was invited to join that country club once. I was asked to sit on boards and things. I’m happy with my life as it has turned out — and I was pretty unhappy then — but there’s no escaping the fact that I willingly drove the old one I had into the ditch and that has brought a whole different set of preoccupations, consequences, and anxieties that, because I still live where I live, are right in front of my face every day.

I pass by entire families on the trail in New Albany who look so content — two kids on expensive bikes in front, wearing branded athletic gear, husband and wife following them closely on their expensive bikes, dressed the same — and wonder if they haven’t figured out something I’ve simply refused to figure out. I wonder if by not going on bike rides like that with my kids — if by not pushing them into sports or taking them to Hilton Head every summer or steering them to Miami University or whatever —  I’m raising kids who are going to chafe in the same way I do. I wonder if, like me, they’ll be completely unable to conform no matter how beneficial it might be to do so but, because of either my example or my DNA, they’ll also be temperamentally unable to comfortably assume the role of non-conformist. I wonder if they’ll find themselves in this in-between I seem destined to inhabit forever.

I wonder sometimes if I’m not compounding it all with respect to everything I’m thinking and writing about the pandemic. If I’m making this all too difficult for myself. I wonder if I’d just be happier and better off if I simply turned off that part of my brain that keeps me from simply accepting things as they are and walked down the path each day without need of a mask.

(Featured image: iDuke, via Wikimedia Commons)

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.