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The 2021 MLB season is fast approaching, and it looks the vast majority of teams, if not all of them, will allow fans into their stadiums.
No team will be filling their stadiums to full capacity, however, due to dangers of worsening the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Being able to admit fans at pre-2020 rates remains the final frontier in the return to normalcy for not just MLB, but sports and entertainment in general.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's chief medical advisor, discussed what it would take to get MLB stadiums back to full occupancy during an appearance on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight with Buster Olney" podcast, but stopped short of predicting when that day might come.
Fauci: MLB needs herd immunity to get full stadiums
When asked about the possibility of full stadiums, Fauci outlined a number of factors. Basically, MLB needs around three quarters of the population to be vaccinated, COVID-19 infection levels to drop dramatically and, perhaps most crucially, the recent variants of the virus to stay under control.
It's difficult to give an exact date because it's contingent on certain things falling into place. If we vaccinate 70 to 85 percent of the population and we get what's called 'herd immunity' and these variants don't give us much of a problem and the level of infection is way, way down in the general population, the virus doesn't really have any place to go because most people are protected. Then at that point, I think you'll be able to do what you're talking about. Whether that's going to be in the 2021 season or not, I don't know.
I tend not to give a date, because the next day, I see it's all of a sudden in The New York Times that I predicted something, because I'm not, because I don't know the answer.
COVID-19 infection rates have been dropping significantly since January, as vaccines are rolled out and people hold fewer indoor gatherings. On the vaccination front, Fauci has recently predicted the U.S. will hit widespread vaccine availability between mid-May and early June, though that prediction is obviously beholden to a number of factors like production rates and how individual states handle the roll-out.
Fauci said the overall trends have been encouraging recently, and there's reason to believe MLB will be able to have a full season with fans masked and socially distanced:
It's a moving target, but the way it's moving now, if you look at the number of infections per day and you chart it, right now it's on a rather sharp decline.
That, together with the fact that as each day goes by we vaccinate more and more people, it is conceivable that if that curve keeps going down, down, down and stays down, we could have a pretty good chance of having a baseball season that's a full season. That you're going to have people in the stands, maybe not right next to each other. There are going to be public health restrictions like mask wearing and things like that.
Fauci did warn about the dangers of recent strains in the United Kingdom and South Africa reversing gains in America. The U.K. strain has been found to be both more transmissible and potentially more deadly, and could reduce the efficacy of the vaccines as well.
Fauci: Athletes concerned about vaccine
Fauci also mentioned he has discussed the vaccines with athletes, and said not all of them seem sold on vaccination:
I've had discussions with athletes. They're very concerned about their health — that's their livelihood, their physical health — and I try to convince them by saying 'Give me the reasons that you have hesitancy.'
The biggest concerns Fauci said he has heard is the quick arrival of the vaccines, which he said came thanks to years of preceding work and scientific advances, and suspicions that the vaccines may not be as safe and effective as they're being pitched, which he said is unlikely given the transparent and independent nature of the testing.
Those concerns mirror the reported hesitancy from NBA players to appear in PSAs promoting the vaccine.
Fauci declines to discuss MLB, union talks
Olney did ask Fauci if he could reveal anything about the squabbles between MLB and the MLB Players Association over a proposed one-month delay for the season, which the union rejected. White House officials reportedly spoke with both sides about the potential delay and vaccinating players, but Fauci declined to divulge any details about the discussion.
Fauci explained he didn't want to take sides in a labor dispute, and specifically didn't want Max Scherzer to be mad at him, a known Washington Nationals fan:
The last time we were there, I was joking with the Players Association. Max Scherzer was on the Zoom with us. I was joking around saying 'The last thing in the world I want to do is get Max Scherzer pissed off at me.'
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