Even in times of social distancing, you can't kill fun — or the human need for play. (iStock)

The swings in the park dangle like loose ropes, with nothing to push them but a little breeze. The park sign says “Closed,” and yellow tape bars the entrance. With an uneasy downward parachuting of the heart, you see that the tennis nets have been removed and the basketball rims have been detached. The backboards have a bare, blank, dead, purposeless look. But the craving for a contest is hard to break. Your eyes turn toward the only games you can find: the ones in the neighbor’s backyard.

Dylan, the teenage boy from across the street, runs restless circles around the neighborhood, his Nikes scuffing on the asphalt. You’re tempted to ask whether you can time him. The two girls who live around the corner, Mia and Leonora, ride skateboards with a kerlunk-kerlunk noise down the middle of the empty road, and you stare after them wondering who will finish first. One evening after a day-long gusting rainstorm, three little scamperers under the age of 8 in striped pajama bottoms emerge from a house and begin racing their scooters through the mud puddles, kicking up geysers of brown water and drenching themselves. It’s clearly a breakaway.

“Ten on red to win,” you say.

How long until sports can return? You might not like the answer.

A lone boy, whose name you don’t know, is so full of nothing-to-do that he bounces a basketball off a beech tree. He’s about 10 and has a rampant tousled head. He picks a spot high up the tree about where the backboard should be and shoots at it. The ball makes a soft, ragged, uneven sound, leather on bark, and rebounds at a bad angle. He calmly deals with the untrue bounce, moves around the tree to catch it. He shoots it up again and again, titch, titch.

It’s a little town, but it has a great big park, the bequest of a rich old lady who left several acres. There are two baseball diamonds with bleachers and a playground with a creaky roundabout. People sneak in and meander around. You follow a soft chinking sound to the far diamond and come upon a man hitting grounders with a metal bat to two boys of about 13. The ball kicks up gray dust on the hardpan, and the man says, “Hurry!” The infielder, being a boy, saunters to it. But when he whips it to first with a surprisingly strong, practiced, wrist-snapping throw, you realize he’s who brought them out here. He is happily sweaty, all salt and water. You can almost smell his young animal scent.

From behind, there is a noise somewhere between a whap and a thump. Another boy, a slim high schooler in billowy sweats, is pitching hard into a blanket hung on a chain-link fence. He reaches into a bucket of balls, and then he unfurls in a loose wave of motion, thin and flexible as a sheet flapping on a line. You enviously roll your own sore, overused, locked-up shoulder. Another older man watches the boy, too.

“It’s so nice to see someone play a game,” you say, and he nods and replies, “Isn’t it?”

Svrluga: Sporting events should be among final parts of everyday life to return. Not the first.

The other night an ambulance crawled down our main street. This is Long Island, a coronavirus hotspot, with almost 19,000 cases in the county — up 2,000 from just a day ago. Local officials are talking about using the farm fridges as spillover morgues. Do you know anyone sick, the neighbors ask? “Just one, thank God, and he’s okay,” you say. Everyone has strange anxiety dreams. In one of yours, you’re playing an evil, deadly black video game in the dark because all the lamps in the house have burned out. In another, an immense stranger, innocuous but somehow menacing, knocks on the door and calls your name. You tell him you don’t know him, but he insists that you do and starts scratching at the lock, trying to pick it and get in.

Nevertheless, you begin to find a strange magic in the stillness. Without all the incessant chatter of play-by-play from your former life, the music and the shouting, you find some surprising new enthusiasms. Such as running in a cold spring rain. And neophyte birding. “Is that a loon?” you ask. “Do loons live here?”

But it’s the kids, the green shoot kids, who have become your primary new pastime. As you watch them and their made-up, truncated, skipping-stone, chalk-on-the-walk contests, you realize that, though you always thought games were important — meaningful, not just trivial escapism — you never quite knew why until now. It’s because they’re our vitality. Humans play. Try and stop them. They play, even as they march out into the world in masks along with their work boots or heels or neckties, trying to put food on the table in the midst of a very bad time. You can’t kill fun — not with a gun or a bomb or a disease. Play is elemental. It’s how young mammals learn their survival skills.

Pickup basketball goes dark, and the regulars feel the pain

In the next house over, the neighbor Chris, manager of the town grocery and therefore member of an at-risk population, has turned his backyard into an open-air wonderland for his two girls. “It’s their world,” he says. He has strung up a circus-acrobat line with rings and bars. Between two trees runs a red ribbon of a tightrope. The youngest girl, Leonora, walks the rope teetering on one foot and then the other with that innate ease that belongs to the very young, who are featherlight and don’t have far to fall. She makes it three full steps across before she trips lightly off the line. She sees you watching and waves. You smile through a bandanna, raise gloved hands and applaud.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

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