A med tech in Orange County, California, and a Charleston, South Carolina family reunion have something in common with an actors’ union and Major League Baseball (MLB). All are relying on negative tests for the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) to keep them safe. Unfortunately, using the test result as the gold standard for ending social distancing could be a mistake.
With a younger-skewing demographic than JDate or corporate siblings OK Cupid and Match.com, Tinder users also seem less likely to avoid new encounters. The app initially gravitated towards “virtual dates” and even unlocked its Passport feature so that users didn’t have to pay to connect with people around the globe. Media outlets reported on “dates” where one person paid for the other’s food delivery. Still, as social distancing orders stretched into the summer, “virtual” disappeared from many users’ new date plans. Although Tinder abounds with profile pics of healthy young people in masks, few bios mention social distancing or staying at home. A few people like the OC Medical Tech referenced above use a negative test as a prerequisite for meeting –– 2020’s version of a negative HIV test. Unfortunately, this may give a very false sense of security.
No crying – but lots of COVID – in baseball
Baseball offered an unique opportunity. In late winter, COVID-19 cases were rising in the U.S. while football season was ending. A few weeks later, basketball player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus, and the National Basketball Association cancelled the rest of their season. Soon professional and amateur leagues including the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer followed suit.
Although spring training was delayed, professional baseball seemed the ideal test case. Unlike soccer, basketball, and American football, baseball games are primarily socially distant with far less contact between players. Well-compensated MLB players travel by private planes; they stay one-to-a-room in hotel suites. They would play to near-empty stadiums, their salaries supported by television audiences hungry for live sports. Utilizing regular testing of players, coaches, and support personnel, the League hoped to showcase a virus-free game often called the United States’ “National Pastime.” It didn’t work out that way.
Spring training took place in the summer with players running practices in home ballparks rather than the usual locations in Arizona or Florida. Everyone involved was tested. Proof of a negative COVID-19 was the price of admission. All involved tried to adhere to the new 103-page manual outlining procedures and guidelines. Massive amounts of disinfectant was employed, and mask wearing was mandatory off the field. Yet St. Louis Cardinals’ Paul DeJong seemed prescient when he told a reporter that the hardest thing to control wouldn’t be on the field but off of it. He realized that too many positive tests could put an end to the already abbreviated 60-game season. Just a few weeks after the July start, dozens of players and staff members across the League have tested positive. Some are alleged to have gone to a casino; others are accused of a night out in Atlanta. Yet most contracted the virus after spending time with fellow players, feeling comfortable enough to share a table at a bar or a booth at a restaurant. On August 4th, it was reported that DeJong was one of 13 Cardinal players and staff members who had tested positive for the virus.
In the United States, actors’ union SAG-AFTRA, in conjunction with a number of other production unions, has set guidelines for testing not dissimilar from MLB. Anyone connected to a production is to be tested before work. Performers and those who are in close contact with them are to be tested three times a week; those in production offices will be tested weekly. It’s a rigorous, demanding set of tests. It also might not work. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in June, “If you test negative for COVID-19 by a viral test, you probably were not infected at the time your sample was collected. However, that does not mean you will not get sick. The test result only means that you did not have COVID-19 at the time of testing. You might test negative if the sample was collected early in your infection and test positive later during your illness. You could also be exposed to COVID-19 after the test and get infected then.” Contact with an infected person can change that negative test to positive very quickly.
Last year, multi-hyphenate Tyler Perry fulfilled a long-held dream. The actor-writer-director had earned hundreds of millions of dollars. He spent some $30 million of it when he purchased over 300 acres in Southwest Atlanta that once housed U.S. Army base Fort McPherson. He spent several years and tens of millions more dollars transforming it into a state-of-the-art production facility complete with one dozen sound stages and a fake White House. It seemed a shrewd move. Driven by tax incentives and lower-cost, well-trained crews, producers have filmed everything from The Hunger Games trilogy to TV shows like The Vampire Diaries and Legacies in the Peach State. Even before Tyler Perry Studios was completed, the Miami, Florida-set action-comedy Bad Boys for Life actually did most of its filming there. The studio’s grand opening was in October of 2019. A few months later, COVID-19 shut everything down.
Across the world, productions were cancelled. While highly-paid actors and producers like Perry get the attention, the vast majority of film and TV production workers are middle class. They are the grips who move equipment, the drivers of vans, the production assistants who run errands. They were hit the hardest by the shut down. A few months later, Tyler had a plan for resuming work. The cast and crew of the BET show Sistas were tested 14 days before they took a private plane to Atlanta. Then they were retested, remaining sequestered in private rooms until they got the results. Those who tested positive were quarantined. During work everyone wore masks whenever possible and were retested every four days. Yet the biggest reason that no one contracted the virus during production may be because everyone involved took up residence –– living for the duration in a section of the Studios Perry nicknamed “Camp Quarantine.” During off-work hours they remained at the studio, living in the pre-existing military barracks or one of the trailers Perry had purchased for housing.
It seems almost as unlikely that the modern workplace will be transformed to live-work as it is that twentysomethings will remain socially isolated for months. While August’s NPR/Ipsos poll shows nearly 60% support a mandatory national stay-at-home order in the face of rising infections, it also reflects a real and growing divide between health care professionals and the general public. A virus isn’t an election and when nearly 40% are resistant to such orders–national or otherwise–it represents millions of people. This can be seen in the increased numbers of social gatherings, parties, and, yes, family reunions over the summer. Tinder users under age 40 face only a very slim chance of hospitalization or death. Before the virus, many people born after 1980 held the cohort that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s responsible for everything from rising student loan debt and climate change to Donald Trump’s election. “Okay, Boomer” was a common insult. Never before have so many young, healthy people been asked to sacrifice so much for the old and the sick. So maybe a negative COVID test isn’t the perfect solution but in the absence of any real solutions it may be the best one available.
John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.