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In Seattle, a soccer match during the coronavirus feels both routine and extraordinary

Seattle Sounders fans attend their traditional gameday March to the Match before their season opener on March 1. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Seattle Sounders fans attend their traditional gameday March to the Match before their season opener on March 1. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — The puzzled fan had to repeat the question.

“Why am I here?” Brian Lamb asked. “Why wouldn’t I be here?”

He put his right hand on the bill of his gray Seattle Sounders FC 2019 MLS Cup champions hat. He sipped his beverage. He looked briefly at the television in a sports bar called “The Ninety,” an aptly named soccer hub near CenturyLink Field. It was about 75 minutes before his team — the defending champion — would face the Columbus Crew on an achingly beautiful Saturday night, a respite from winter’s gloom. For the 48-year-old carpenter, this was just routine March entertainment and bonding time with his adult son, Luke. But in an area regarded as the U.S. epicenter of a novel coronavirus outbreak, the typical act somehow felt extraordinary, awkward and maybe even dangerous.

Why are you outside having fun? For many, the worth of public enjoyment is a question now in Washington state as the vicious covid-19 disease claims more victims. The local death toll had climbed to 18 as of Sunday night, and the total cases here surpassed 100. Worldwide, there are now more than 100,000 reported cases and more than 3,000 deaths.

Sports are usually about diversion, fellowship and, above all, joy. There’s some trivial pain involved, too, particularly when your team loses. But for the most part, there’s no real suffering. There’s no real anything. You just relish the ability to get worked up over the blessed inconsequential spectacle of it all. It’s a wonderful shelter, but it’s not impenetrable. As the coronavirus spreads worldwide, sports cannot be the escape it is known to be.

In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency and encouraged social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. Businesses and schools are closing. Movie theaters are empty. Reservations aren’t essential for fancy restaurants. Seattle is far from a ghost town, but the city sleeps currently — with one eye open.

Lamb shrugged.

“No worries, honestly,” he said. “Practice normal hygiene methods. That’s no different than the flu, and we deal with that every year.”

After I expressed concern that he was being too cavalier, Lamb hedged a little and acknowledged the risks. But he refused to panic.

“You can’t be scared of the unknown,” he said. “I run into people every day making bad decisions because they’re scared of the unknown.”

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On Saturday night, Lamb was among an announced crowd of 33,080 fans who went to CenturyLink Field and did the most natural thing in this soccer-rabid region. They came to watch their beloved Sounders play. It was an entertaining match that finished in a 1-1 tie.

Most nights, people at home would be envious of what those spectators experienced. This time? Nah, probably not.

The announced attendance — which probably was a few thousand more generous than the actual number of attendees — represented the smallest MLS regular season audience the Sounders have had since their inaugural season in 2009. The previous Sunday, when details of the outbreak were just emerging, a crowd of 40,126 gathered at CenturyLink Field for the season opener. They reminisced and celebrated last season’s championship as the franchise unveiled the second MLS Cup banner in team history.

As he talked with his father Saturday, Luke Lamb thought back to November’s triumph and the energy pulsating through the city that day. Before the title match, thousands of fans overtook Occidental Square and the surrounding streets and participated in the team’s March to the Match tradition. And now, four months later, look at this. There were only hundreds of marchers Saturday.

“It was a different feeling,” the 21-year-old said.

Before the fans marched, the pregame host declared: “I don’t think there will be much of a line as you enter the stadium. So enjoy that.”

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Minutes later, the marching crowd was singing one of its favorite songs, “Sounders ’Til I Die.” Yes, it would be quite melodramatic to consider the chanting number some kind of metaphor. But in this current state, one in which even toilet paper is sold out at stores and every cough makes the heart beat a little faster, it was impossible not to have an eerie feeling listening to the lyrics. So irrational. So human, too.

Normal is weird, and normal is going to feel weird for quite a while. The Sounders game was the largest Seattle sports gathering for a single game over the past week, and the franchise had to operate with more diligence and collaboration than ever to keep adjusting to an ever-changing situation and make the decision to play.

Listen to the Sounders explain their process, and it illuminates the difficult choices facing every sports league in America and throughout the world. The priority is public safety, but business is a major factor. There’s also a civic responsibility to try to entertain during a difficult time. There are medical factors, political factors, societal factors and historical factors. There are so many possibilities to weigh. Play, postpone or cancel? Compete in an empty venue? How to send the proper message to athletes, fans and media? How to determine the right thing to do knowing that everything is fluid?

“It was an extraordinary week,” said Peter Tomozawa, the Sounders’ president of business operations. “It was anything but normal. We spent an incredible amount of time thinking through all the issues of hosting a game, the permutations and combinations of what might happen, with one thought: public safety. We recognize the responsibility that we have to the community. People are looking at us and how we behave here in Seattle.”

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The organization seemed to handle the burden responsibly. It provided the public with more than two hours of diversion Saturday. It is normal for the Sounders this time of year, but now it’s a monumental feat. And just because it seemed to work for them on this day, there’s no telling what challenges tomorrow may present.

It seems inevitable that, at some point, a major American sporting event — or possibly a grander event such as the Olympics — will have to make the difficult decision to postpone, cancel or play without fans. It could be forced by civic leaders. Or it could be a proactive choice. Whatever the form, history suggests that moment is coming if the spread continues. And the sports world will just have to live with it. It’s better than the dire alternative of more people dying.

“In reality, what we’re doing is more of a hobby for everybody,” Sounders midfielder Gustav Svensson said. “We’re very fortunate to have it as a job. We understand that safety comes first.”

As he walked through the stadium Saturday, Tomozawa heard positive feedback. The fans who attended were enthusiastic. The precautionary measures, such as extra hand sanitizers and embedded tips to reduce risk for contracting coronavirus into every aspect of the game presentation, could not be ignored. The soccer was good for an early-season game. The Sounders left, at least for the night, without any bad news.

“One of the things people would say was: ‘Thank you for hosting this event tonight. It gave us and our city something to cheer about,’ ” Tomozawa recalled.

Here in the U.S. epicenter of the outbreak, sports managed to be sports Saturday night. In this time of health crisis, it seemed more remarkable than routine.