The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Everyone has feelings about crowd size at ballgames. Let’s stick with facts.

Anthony S. Fauci smiles as he watches last season’s Opening Day game between the Nationals and the Yankees. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Writers dream of finding a complex, controversial topic with wide local readership that has a simple, perfect solution. It took a few decades, but maybe I found one.

The D.C. government decided to allow the Washington Nationals to have 5,000 fans at their Opening Day game April 1, the first pro sports event in the city in more than a year with any fans allowed.

As the season progresses and the coronavirus pandemic abates (hopefully), the Nats will ask — regularly and justifiably — to have more fans at their games. D.C., which has been at the strict end of the spectrum on public health rules, must figure out that moving target of optimum seating capacity.

What a tough job. Who could make such decisions between conflicting interests of profit and safety and have them be universally accepted?

Such a person would have to be one of the world’s leading experts on immunology, pandemics and public safety who also knows the D.C. area intimately and, for good measure, is a rabid follower of the local baseball team.

Yes, Anthony S. Fauci, the D.C. resident who wore a Nationals face mask to give testimony before Congress.

Patrick Corbin is again saying he wants to throw more change-ups. Here’s why.

Because I really, really want to enjoy the return of fans to Nationals Park and because I know that fans of D.C. United are longing to see their soccer team play at Audi Field a few blocks away, I consider Fauci to be the first sports godsend of this past miserable year.

Because Fauci will be studying the reopening pace of every major metropolitan area anyway — and lots of other tough subjects, too — this won’t require extra lifting. It will be a tough job. He probably will err on the side of caution because the next 100 days may define the extent to which America wins its war on covid-19 this year.

But in the spirit of “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” let’s just ask Fauci to whisper to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the Lerner family.

They don’t even have to acknowledge they have spoken to him. “Shhhhh.” But, seriously, do you think D.C.’s decision regarding the Nats and D.C. United, announced Monday night, was done without Fauci’s views?

Of course, I’m using Fauci as a symbol — of the legion of public health experts who litter the D.C. area. No midnight calls to the workaholic 80-year-old are absolutely needed.

But in a metro area where we find the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the pandemic-studying division of Health and Human Services, getting a sane science-based estimate of a safe fan-count at Nationals Park should take two minutes.

For once, D.C., its teams and its fans should get lucky. We may lead the world in elite immunologists within a 50-mile radius. We can agree to say: “Nothing to see here. Nothing to argue about. No controversy in D.C.”

And then we can just enjoy the games.

That may make D.C. almost unique. Many cities will be in turmoil for months over fan capacity. It’s monumentally important, and in places such as Texas, where noble “Don’t Tread on Me” has turned into shameless “Let Me Infect You,” we may watch a year-long brawl.

The Rangers plan to have a full house for their opener, then reduce crowds somewhat after that. Why not just make it “Superspreader” T-shirt giveaway day?

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who often has common sense, said the Orioles could use half their seats. To the O’s credit, they cut that to about 25 percent.

While the Nats’ crowd of 5,000 (12 percent of capacity) is at the low end of MLB’s range, it’s certainly not an outlier with the Red Sox at 4,500 in Fenway Park. The Yankees and Mets are at 10 percent of capacity, and their fans, like anyone attending events in New York, must test negative for the coronavirus in the previous 72 hours.

Clearly, the battle between fevered regional politics and worldwide-accepted immunological science, as well as varying virus infection levels, will create constantly changing crowd sizes in different parks.

Meet the Nats fan who starred in MASN’s classic Wil Nieves commercial. (Who? Exactly.)

Despite the residual know-nothing-ism of recent years, this is exactly the proper moment for patience and gradualism in reopening sports, even outdoor events.

“If we can have indoor dining, I think we can have fans in an outdoor stadium,” Max Scherzer said this week. “That’s where I’ll follow the experts. . . . We definitely want to see as many Nats fans out there as we safely can.”

Scherzer nailed the nub: Follow the experts. Science does not look for evidence to confirm a preference, such as the sweet sound of loud cheering and turnstiles spinning. It amasses the facts, then follows them.

Because the facts in a pandemic vary by region and change over time, scientists, unlike politicians, must learn to say, “That depends” to people who would much rather hear an answer like “30 percent capacity.”

You may be surprised that this baseball-besotted columnist is satisfied with a paltry 5,000 fans on hand for a 12-month-delayed roar to celebrate the Nats’ 2019 World Series championship. The Nats wanted more fans. My family and friends, with our fractional season ticket plan, certainly won’t make the cut for tickets at that limit.

But now is when we need a sense of proportion. On a scale of 1-10, I rate Opening Day as at least a “9″ on my personal calendar. But beating the coronavirus — right now, when we have the chance to knock it out and not let it back up off the canvas — is a “1,000” on that same scale.

After being let go by MASN, Dan Kolko announces he will work for the Nationals

In three months, all we will remember is: Did we win the war vs covid-19, or did we get impatient about various beloved trivialities and mess up again?

Just two countries in the world with a population larger than New York City (12 million) have a worse death rate per million people than the United States. America has almost twice the death rate of Germany and 24 times that of crowded Japan.

The United States got an F — and soon 550,000 dead — because the ignorant or infantile among us, wanting what they wanted when they wanted it, defeated the nation’s adults.

That can’t happen again. If we have to wait longer than we would prefer to see Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg or Patrick Corbin pitch, if we’re delayed in giving Juan Soto, Trea Turner and others the cheers that have been stuck in our throats since October 2019, that’s how it needs to be.

We will get there. We will pack the parks — everywhere — again. And it will be a hell of a time. But not yet. Not until the facts, rather than our emotions, say the time is right. That is the pandemic’s great lesson: Reality makes the rules, which the wise obey — not the other way around.