News that the West Virginia Book Festival has been canceled because of concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic falls under the category of disappointing but not unexpected. Another marquee event that draws thousands to Charleston scrapped this year for precisely that reason.
But this latest cancellation raises some questions about the novel coronavirus and the timeline for getting back to normal, public activities on some level. Notably, the book festival was scheduled for Oct. 2-3. When the pandemic first broke, some thought it would last for only a few weeks, then perhaps a few months. There was general optimism that this would be over by the fall.
As COVID-19 has progressed, with the U.S. death toll approaching 110,000 and accounting for more than 25% of global virus deaths, Americans have started to realize there’s more than a good chance the virus isn’t going to simply disappear today or tomorrow or sometime next week. Public health officials and political leaders have made and enacted plans for people to re-engage with aspects of everyday life and business, but under guidelines that would best slow the spread of the virus — all the while keeping an eye out for spikes in cases.
If a book festival that brings thousands of people to a downtown area over the course of two days can’t go on in October because the health risk is too great, what does that say about public schools reopening in the fall? What about colleges and universities? What does this mean for high-revenue fall sports, like college football?
The risk assessment from the Kanawha County Public Library might differ from that of a public school district or the governing boards of larger universities, like West Virginia University and Marshall. But everyone is still trying to figure this out, and there doesn’t seem to be an airtight answer that guarantees everyone’s safety in the absence of a specific drug or vaccine.
At Oklahoma State — one of WVU’s Big 12 Conference opponents — three football players tested positive for COVID-19 this week, and the school’s program told freshman players not to report for spring camp.
WVU President Gordon Gee, in a virtual meeting with Gazette-Mail editors last month, said the campus plans to open to students in August but there would be strict public health guidelines in place, including spreading students out in what he called “checkerboard patterns” to keep everyone at an appropriate distance in large classes.
As for football, Gee said at the time that maybe the games would be played with no fans, but it was something officials at every conference and the NCAA were talking over.
It’s early June, and a lot could happen before late August, but it’s hard to envision tens of thousands of fans packing a stadium for a game, or a game that involves continuous body contact with 22 people on the field at a time even being played. It’s equally difficult to see students returning to campus or public schools — never the optimal environment for quashing a contagious bug.
It’s impossible to know for certain, but it looks less and less like fall will be a return to ordinary or even a relaxed form of “new normal” life. Schools likely will have to get creative, perhaps considering reduced class sizes — if that’s a possibility — or staggered schedules.
As for high school or youth athletics, there are plans in place for a limited return for soccer and Little League Baseball. Workouts for sports like high school football are being phased in slowly.
There’s a long way to go yet in this fight. Hopefully, everyone can still muster the patience and diligence necessary to keep cases and deaths from spiking.