Nine days ago, Michigan’s athletic department issued a 14-day shutdown of all University athletic activities due to the detection of cases of the more contagious B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant within the athletic department.
At the time, the directive seemed to be an unnecessary blanket response to a targeted issue. The new variant of COVID-19 was discovered in a handful of teams, so teams that had no COVID-19 cases at all also had to shut down? Despite teams not having contact with one another? All while the rest of the state went about life with minimal restrictions?
Since then, we’ve learned a little bit more about how the decision came into being. It was technically a “recommendation” from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, not an order. Understandably, though, the University viewed it as an order. A public university ignoring a cut-and-dry, stop-it-now directive from its own state government is a non-starter, no matter what label you use.
We’ve also learned that the University proposed only affected teams be isolated. That would’ve enabled Michigan’s moneymakers — men’s basketball, women’s basketball and hockey all of which had no COVID-19 cases as of last weekend — to keep playing. The state refused.
Teams were sent scrambling to make socially-distanced travel arrangements back from away competitions. Players were resigned to their apartments for two weeks, unable to work out or practice in team facilities.
Both of those realizations serve to absolve the University of blame. What they don’t do is make the state’s directive any more logical.
“While U-M has worked diligently on testing and reporting within state and Big Ten Conference guidelines, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is mandating a more aggressive strategy for this B.1.1.7 variant, which exceeds current program efforts designed around the standard form of the virus,” the University said in a release on Jan. 23.
Here’s the thing: The state isn’t mandating a more aggressive strategy for the B.1.1.7 variant anywhere outside of the Michigan athletic department. And that’s the problem.
If the state cared about preventing the spread of the new variant, it would have enacted wide-scale lockdowns. A year of evidence from around the world shows that’s the only way to actually stem COVID-19. If the state didn’t care about preventing the spread, it should’ve let teams without positive cases continue playing. Because ultimately, they’re the same as everyone else in the community who hasn’t been exposed to the new variant.
Instead, nine days of inaction from the state has revealed the forced shutdown of Michigan’s athletic department to be little more than a PR stunt.
On Wednesday, Washtenaw County issued a stay-at-home recommendation for Michigan students. What happens if students don’t follow the recommendation? According to the Washtenaw County Health Department, that would force more recommendations. In a shock to absolutely nobody, the recommendation has proved meaningless, because it carries no repercussions.
On Monday, restaurants and bars will be allowed to open for indoor dining, even though maskless, indoor activities create a perfect environment for COVID-19 to spread.
So does the state really care about stemming this new variant or was last week’s directive truly a PR stunt? Its actions — or lack thereof — in the last week indicate the latter.
And if you find yourself looking at the CDC dashboard and thinking, ‘Hey, there are only 22 recorded cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in Michigan,’ consider the parallels to March.
Testing reveals the variant is virtually non-existent, yet it’s still shown up in multiple Michigan counties and is present in 30 U.S. states. As of Sunday, there have been 467 reported cases in the country. For comparison’s sake, there were 403 reported cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. on March 7. Two weeks later, there were 26,025 cases. Without real restrictions, the B.1.1.7 variant can and will chart a similar course.
If the state really wanted to curb the variant’s spread, the blueprint is in place to do so. Instead, it’s opted for a half-baked approach that helps no one.
This means that if Michigan athletics return to action next week as they’re currently scheduled to, they’ll return to a community with more spread of the B.1.1.7 variant than there was a week ago. Eventually, odds are that someone else in the athletic department will contract the variant because the spread hasn’t been stemmed within the larger community.
By that point, though, the Michigan athletic department won’t be the state’s B.1.1.7 epicenter. Yet another new definition of normalcy will arrive. The PR value of taking faux action will be gone. The men’s and women’s basketball teams will head off to the NCAA Tournament.
When they get there, it may be too late. Their seasons may have been derailed by two weeks off practice. Even if not, seniors will have still lost two weeks of their fleeting college careers.
Eleven months into the pandemic, that’s the cost of PR.
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