The Shelby County Health Department heard you, Memphis football fans.
It heard your questions and complaints about the 12-foot social-distance policy that will limit Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium capacity to about 4,500 people when the Tigers are scheduled to open the college football season against Arkansas State on Sept. 5.
“We’ve received a lot of feedback on that,” Dr. Alisa Haushalter, the director of the Shelby County Health Department, said during the opening comments of Tuesday’s COVID-19 task force briefing, “but I want to clarify why we think 12 feet is the most appropriate number of feet for social distancing.”
Thus began her initial explanation, an explanation that probably won’t satisfy longtime Tigers football fans who aren’t able to attend the season opener. But it was at least an explanation, an explanation that essentially boils down to this:
“What we do know,” Haushalter said, “is 6 feet is not enough.”
More: Memphis mandates face coverings for football games
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this national health crisis is that some of us have decided that doctors don’t have our best interests at heart. That, for whatever reason, they’re just like our elected officials, swayed by politics and making decisions based on agendas.
Medical experts aren’t always right. There are second opinions for a reason. But it felt like before all this, before we became so divided, before this pandemic got so political, doctors weren’t questioned like this. We could trust their decisions were coming from an unbiased place.
Memphis fans cheer after wide receiver Antonio Gibson runs for a touchdown during the AAC championship game against Cincinnati at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in December. (Photo: Henry Taylor/The Leaf-Chronicle)
I still choose to believe that.
So when the director of the Shelby County Health Department says she and the COVID-19 task force full of medical degrees much more significant than my bachelor’s degree determined 12 feet of social distance is appropriate for sports venues here, I’m going to trust them.
Even though Tennessee and Arkansas and Ole Miss and Mississippi State will begin their college football seasons with upwards of 20,000 fans in the stands.
Even though 12 feet seems to be different than just about every jurisdiction around the country, including those with similar transmission rates to Shelby County.
Even though it’s unclear why movie theaters are opening with only 6 feet of social distancing, and no mask requirement once patrons sit down, and folks at the Liberty Bowl have to be separated by 12 feet with their masks on at all times.
But considering all that, considering the weight these health department decisions carry right now, considering the skepticism and division about anything related to our COVID-19 response, the health department could be better at explaining the medical rationale used to reach these decisions.
They owed it to the restaurant and bar owners who were forced to open their books to stay open, who wondered why some establishments on Beale Street could stay open and similar establishments in other parts of the city couldn’t. They still owe it to the parents and communities that should be receiving information about positive COVID-19 tests on a school-by-school basis, not just by municipality. And yes, they owe it to Memphis sports fans who aren’t able to enjoy their favorite teams like they normally would.
I feel for those fans, particularly those who have made Tigers football games at the Liberty Bowl a decades-long tradition and can’t be there this year. If Memphis had the same rules as Tennessee or Ole Miss or Mississippi State or Arkansas, the university at least would be able to accommodate its season-ticket base.
So I also feel for the Memphis athletic department, which is suffering even more financial damage than expected because of this 12-foot policy that, at least until Tuesday, felt more arbitrary than scientific.
It’s why I asked Haushalter to explain the scientific and medical reasons behind this decision. Why is it 12 feet of social distance at the Liberty Bowl and AutoZone Park, but it’s 6 feet at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville and Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford? What information was relied on to make that determination?
The answer she gave was enough for me, but I doubt it will be enough for the folks who were looking for answers.
Haushalter reiterated 6 feet is not adequate for the screaming that typically takes place at a sporting event. She mentioned local music venues were initially required to have 18 feet of social distancing and how, given all that, they split the difference and picked 12 feet “because we know at sports venues people are more likely to yell, be loud and that’s more likely to cause transmission of disease,” Haushalter said.
She explained that the county’s COVID-19 task force, in conjunction with the Back to Business committee, initially debated whether to open sports venues to fans at all. Like what Nashville decided to do, announcing last week there would be no fans for at least the first Tennessee Titans game.
“We could have issued a directive to not have fans,” Haushalter said.
But they didn’t. They attempted to account for the yelling and the drinking that goes on during a football game or a soccer match. They debated whether 10 or 12 feet was the best option. They discussed a “zoning and cohorting” approach to re-opening these stadiums “so that in some places you can keep groups to a small area,” Haushalter said.
And they ultimately decided they didn’t have enough information about how air conditioning and air flow work at the venues to do that.
“So we agreed collectively, based on the data we had, 12 feet was a fair distance and still allowed for facilities to open,” Haushalter concluded.
Fair isn’t exactly a scientific designation. It isn’t an explanation for why Memphis is going with 12 feet of social distancing when that number isn’t being used just about anywhere else, including other parts of Tennessee. It isn’t much more than “We believe this is the best course of action right now.”
“We will continue to look at it, and that’s why data is so important locally,” Haushalter said. “As these venues are opening, we can begin to look at the data to see if we’re having transmission in those facilities or not, and go from there.”
That sounds reasonable and thoughtful if you believe these doctors, whether they end up being right or wrong, are making decisions they believe to be in the public’s best interest.
The real shame here is that not everybody does anymore.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto