As they trickle back, fans served powerful reminder to take care

Both Georgia Tech and Central Florida fans showed up in lesser numbers for the Sept. 19 game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Mask usage was widespread but not unanimous. And no hiding which side was more pleased. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Lest we forget or become otherwise numb or complacent, this coronavirus scourge is still very much with us. No one is immune, from the most powerful in the world to the anonymous. And with that, and with apologies up front, I shift to the role of nagging elder. Ask my son, it’s a task I take quite seriously.

Don’t make me turn this car around because I will.

To those 20,000 or so fans gathering Saturday at Sanford Stadium for a confusingly early yet massively large game between Georgia and Auburn: Be smart, OK?

To the crowd over at the great metal canyon of Talladega for Sunday’s 500-mile playoff race, reduced as it is to 20% capacity in the stands and the infield: Keep a little more distance between yourselves than will the drafting race cars, please.

After months in solitary confinement, the world aches for interaction. Tentatively, sport has tried to reintroduce an audience after too long being reduced to a sterile, studio experience. We badly want our favored teams to cut a live album.

That is a particularly tricky step, one accompanied by no shortage of incongruities. But, hey, we’re just making this up as we go along.

For instance, the Braves, like every other wild-card home team playing last week, didn’t allow admission to their two games against Cincinnati (save for a few of the players' relations). Yet, when they begin play in Houston on Tuesday in their Division Series, they will host a watch party for socially distanced fans at Truist Park. It was not acceptable to have people on hand for the real thing, yet it is when the players are 800 miles away? Those players will be bubble-wrapped. Their fans, however, won’t be.

As the Braves were sweeping the Reds, people did gather outside the park on the artificial lawn of the Battery Atlanta. By the second game, the lawn was teeming with people. I’ll have to admit that – even as one who believes we can’t/shouldn’t completely hide away from this virus – I winced at the closeness of the quarters and scenes of unmasked children as they climbed over one another on the Battery lawn.

Baseball, by the way, plans to sell about 11,500 tickets for each National League Championship Series and World Series game held later this month in Arlington, Texas. Baby steps, until it is proved that people can be trusted to gather safely, or an effective vaccine readily is available. Frankly, both those alternatives require a lot more testing.

We, of course, just got a slap in the face with the news that the president has tested positive. Ultimate testimony to the fact that this virus is pervasive and indiscriminate and quite eager to exploit any carelessness or hubris.

A stadium certainly is no more a fortress against infection than the White House. Just last weekend, those working the press box at Mercedes-Benz Stadium during the Falcons-Bears game were exposed to someone who soon thereafter tested positive. Fortunately, there has been no sign of a spread among that mask-wearing group.

The playing of games has been dependent upon the athletes observing basic safety guidelines – and the best intentions don’t always yield the best results, as the Tennessee Titans can attest. And now the watching of games comes down to fans being able to follow the restrictions that are now included in the price of admission. It’s the only chance that this defiance in the face of a pandemic can work.

Still, we’ll hold our collective breath and hope that is good enough.

Before this next stage of gathering for sport, we just got a big, loud reminder about the need to do it as right as possible.

So, mask up.

Keep your distance.

And try – here’s the hardest part – not to get carried away by the emotion of the game and the usual alcohol-fueled foolishness and throw all caution to the wind.

I’ll transition here from nagging elder to the police sergeant in the old drama “Hill Street Blues,” whose final words to the squad at the end of morning roll call ring useful now:

Let’s be careful out there.

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