The match went on

The football must go on.

On March 6, at 2:43 p.m., the health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, the hardest-hit region in the first state to be slammed by COVID-19, sent an email to a half-dozen colleagues, saying, “I want to cancel large group gatherings now.”

The county’s numbers — 10 known deaths and nearly 60 confirmed cases as of late morning — were bad and getting worse. Many local events had already been called off for fear of spreading the coronavirus. Oyster Fest. The Puget Sound Puppetry Festival. A Women’s Day speaker series at the Gates Foundation. King County had ordered a stop to in-person government meetings unless they were considered essential.

Duchin had the authority under state law to make it an order.

But.

Duchin sent his email 28 hours before the Seattle Sounders, defending MLS champions and one of the league’s biggest draws, were to host a match at CenturyLink Field. No event in the coming days would generate a gathering to compare. The game would draw people from across the Puget Sound area, and maybe beyond.

In the end, the match went on. Two days after the public health department wrote on Facebook, “We are making a recommendation to postpone or cancel events greater than 10-50 people,” officials in King County allowed a soccer match to be held with 33,000 fans, squeezed together.

I live in that county. I wish officials hadn’t done that.

How that happened is captured in hundreds of pages of emails exchanged among federal, state and local officials, as well as executives from the Sounders, Seahawks, Mariners and XFL Dragons. Those records, obtained by ProPublica and The Seattle Times, show how one meeting would beget another, one email would beget a dozen more, all while the virus was taking rapid hold.

“Which side should we err on? Public health and safety, or a football match?”

A vendor at CenturyLink Field had tested positive. A Sounders executive wrote that once the public knew that, the Sounders execs would need every “positive talking point” they could get.

The records show how county officials struggled to send the public a clear, consistent message. They also reflect the extolling of sport, even in a time of contagion. In one email sent to the county officials after the match, a Sounders executive lauded the power of Sounders matches to provide “catharsis and community.”

Which is totally worth spreading disease and death, closing all the schools, putting thousands of people out of work. Yay catharsis and community!

Reporters made interview requests for this story to five Sounders executives and two Seahawks officials who also work with the company that operates CenturyLink Field. All seven either didn’t respond or declined to be interviewed.

Imagine our surprise.

In Italy, a Feb. 19 soccer match, later dubbed “Game Zero” and described by a respiratory specialist as a “biological bomb,” has been cited as a possible reason that one province became an epicenter of the pandemic.

But that match was played before the country’s first confirmed case of locally transmitted COVID-19. In Washington, community spread had been recognized at least a week before the Sounders match. The governor declared a state of emergency on Feb. 29, the King County executive on March 1.

It was that Kirkland outbreak. (Kirkland is a suburb across Lake Washington from Seattle.) I remember it all too well. It’s pretty stunning that they chose a football match over public health after that.

On the evening of March 7, a Saturday, hundreds gathered in Occidental Park for their traditional March to the Match. They stood shoulder to shoulder and marched three blocks down Occidental Avenue to CenturyLink Field.

Fans, tens of thousands of them, streamed into the stadium, using, if they wished, extra hand-sanitizing stations scattered about the concourses. The fans waved scarves, as they always do. The lower bowl stood for most of the match, as it always does. The crowd, in blue and green, chanted and cheered. In the 12th minute, they sang Woody Guthrie’s “Roll on Columbia.” Everyone was mere inches apart.

Some forms of catharsis and community can, shall we say, have a dark side.

Sounders fans’ March to the Match before the game on March 7. A police officer said there were 500 people marching shoulder to shoulder. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Saturday night, after the match, Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said at a news conference, “We were really, really grateful to have the support of our fans.” He described various precautions the team had taken: “The kids didn’t walk out with the players today. We didn’t do a ceremonial handshake.”

Peter Tomozawa, the president of business operations and a former partner at Goldman Sachs, said the crowd was bigger than he had expected, adding, “Seattle turns out.” He described walking around before the match, talking with fans: “A really cool comment that was made to me was: ‘Thank you for hosting this event tonight. It gave us and our city something to cheer about.’”

Yes, spreading the virus around; definitely something to cheer about. Rah.

On March 15, the Sounders announced that a member of the club’s support staff had tested positive for COVID-19. The staff member had worked the March 7 match but “did not have access to the general public,” the announcement said. The individual fell ill four days after the match but was now recovering and “in good spirits,” the announcement said.

King County now has more than 4,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 320 deaths, according to its data dashboard on the virus’ spread.

There’s your community; I’m not so sure about the catharsis.

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