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It could be tough to get Metro Detroit sports fans back in the games

Eric Coughlin
The Detroit News

If large public gatherings are banned for a long time under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, the sports industry in Michigan stands to lose millions. But if venues are allowed to open back up and games are played, many Michigan residents would be uneasy about going back to the ballgame before a coronavirus vaccine.

“I’ll just stay away because of the unknown and how scary it is,” Grand Rapids native John Pusta said. “Both my parents and my brother have tested positive (for COVID-19) and were in the hospital. They’re out now, but not being able to go see them and not being able to communicate with the doctors in-person was really hard. The thought of not having more time with them was the scariest thing for me.”

Michigan Stadium is one such venue where fans are packed in close together.

Pusta, 35, grew up in Flat Rock, attended Michigan and went to many football and basketball games in Ann Arbor, but without a vaccine, he won’t be going to any more sporting events.

“I have a baby coming in July, and I wouldn’t want to put myself at any extra risk.”

That risk would be extra because Pusta is already on the front lines in the battle against coronavirus as a certified registered nurse anesthetist at Mercy Health St. Mary’s in Grand Rapids.

“I work in the hospital currently, so I’m pretty familiar with everything, with the risks,” Pusta said. “I’ve had to put breathing tubes in COVID patients. It’s scary but you’ve just got to follow the protocols and hope to heck you don’t get it. It’s a really weird, uneasy time.”

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Pusta’s thinking reflects the opinion of Americans at large. According to a Seton Hall poll, 72% of Americans said they would not feel safe attending games without a vaccine. The percentage dropped to 61 among people who identified themselves as sports fans; they made up about half the respondents in the poll.

Scott Langille, 34, of Ann Arbor, likes to attend Michigan basketball and Tigers games, but if things opened up right now he wouldn’t be in the seats without a vaccine.

“Currently, it’s not worth the risk,” Langille said. “We know so little right now, so I don’t see it happening. It’s such a fluid situation. If we find out the severity of it is a lot less worse than we think it is because we haven’t been testing, it might change my decision, but I think the testing that’s been done hasn’t been thorough.”

Widespread testing and tracing is a key theme for Metro Detroit sports fans when determining their comfort level in going to a game. Mark Collyer, 35, of Ann Arbor says it wouldn’t take a vaccine to get him back into Michigan Stadium or Yost Ice Arena, but he also wouldn’t do anything reckless.

“I wouldn’t go now, but I could see a scenario where we learn more about the virus, how to trace who has it and we get to a place where we can be out with other people, so I could see a path where I would go to a sporting event prior to a vaccine,” Collyer said. “It would help if the venue took precautions, but vaccines take a long time, and it’s hard to envision not going to a sporting event for three or four years if it takes that long.”

Even if society achieved some sort of “herd immunity,” not all Metro Detroiters would be lining up at the ticket office.

“I’d probably wait a few weeks after that ‘immunity’ is announced by the government just to make sure another outbreak doesn’t occur,” said Kyla Bazzy, 23, of Dearborn. “I love attending Tigers games, but sporting events are packed with people and seats are close together. No thank you.”

Right now Metro Detroiters are spending most of their time in an environment that they have some hygienic control over — their homes. And the idea of stepping into crowded, public place like Comerica Park before a coronavirus vaccine seems to be causing some consternation.

“As careful as I can be, it’s others I’m worried about,” Bazzy said. “I can wash my hands before I eat or drink, and I can wipe down the arm rests, but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t cough in my face in line for the bathroom.”