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The story first appeared on CNN's website Tuesday morning.

"We're still having, on average, 2,000 deaths a day," Dr. Zeke Emanuel, a health adviser for the Obama White House and a member of the Biden Transition Covid-19 Advisory Board, told the 24-hour news giant. "We cannot become inured to that. We should not ease up, allow indoor dining, big groups ... getting rid of mask mandates. We have to hold on for another two or three months in this condition."

We have been holding on for almost 12 full months now, waging a daily internal tug of war between hope and hopelessness, isolation and fraternization, bitterness and betterment, obedience and obstinance, fear and fearlessness, life and death.

No one would argue that it hasn't gone on too long, that far too many — now 515,000 and counting — have lost their lives, that probably twice as many more have suffered health issues they may never fully recover from.

So we ask day after day, month after month, (year after year?): "When will it end, this coronavirus pandemic?"

Or, worse: "Will it ever end?"

Yet at roughly the same time government and health officials are begging us to hold on a little longer, to do whatever is possible to avoid large crowds and indoor activities, to keep wearing our masks and washing our hands for at least 20 seconds at a time, a number of college athletic conferences — the Atlantic Coast, Southeastern and Southern among them — are altering former plans to play their league basketball tournaments in arenas as empty as possible to now allowing anywhere from hundreds (the SoCon) to thousands (ACC and SEC, to name but two) to watch the action live and in person.

Then there is Texas governor Greg Abbott, who announced Tuesday that he is not only lifting his state's mask mandate, but also allowing businesses of any type to open 100% beginning March 10.

Sadly the Lone Star State being the lone wolf went out the window when Mississippi announced similar measures later in the day.

Point is, why?

WHY?

Especially now, when almost every important number is trending downward, in the right direction, our recovery, if not just around the corner, at least not all that far down the road?

After all, a few hundred fans in Asheville, or a few thousand fans in Nashville or Greensboro, isn't going to do much to refill the much depleted coffers of those leagues. Television revenue does that and we've been proving for months that television ratings, though down, can still keep much of the sports world from drowning.

But what if those few hundred, or thousand fans, somehow rain just enough microscopic particles of COVID-19 through the arena air to infect a player or two? And what if that player, or coach, or trainer, infects others, enough that COVID-19 protocol forces them to forfeit their way out of the NCAA Tournament, which is not only the only reason this college hoops season was played beyond the TV revenue, but also the only sure money maker for the sport? What if enough teams get sick to cancel the whole stinking tournament?

Will it have been worth it then?

Let me be clear. No one misses being in a college basketball arena more than me. The smell of popcorn wafting through the concourses. The sound of squeaking sneakers, bouncing balls, the roar from a breakaway dunk or a "Tennessee Three" inside the Vols' Thompson-Boling Arena. I even occasionally miss the officials screwing up block-charge calls 70 percent of the time.

I miss the matchless pageantry of Rupp Arena on the night of a big Kentucky game. I miss the historic charm of Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym, its team seats in the end zone, its "cat walk" for visiting media high enough up to touch the ceiling of the grand ol' structure.

I miss those times Auburn comes to UT and Big Orange fans face the awful conundrum of wanting Tigers coach (and former Vols coach) Bruce Pearl to know they still love him while rooting for Tennessee to crush the Tigers.

I miss sitting on press row at McKenzie Arena and looking across the court to see so many of the same faces in the same seats I saw in 1986, my first of five seasons on the UTC hoops beat.

I dearly miss climbing into my 2013 Honda Accord after a night game in Knoxville or Nashville, pouring a cup of strong, dark coffee — Seattle's Best Post Alley No. 5 is my favorite — from my thermos, putting my favorite Pat Metheny, Motown, James Taylor or Beatles recording on the car CD and driving quietly home through the chilly night.

And on those rare occasions I haven't pushed my deadline too far past its limit when in Knoxville, I miss attempting to reach the Burger King just off I-75's Exit 49 in Athens before it closes at midnight in order to get a $2.29 bacon double-cheeseburger.

But I fully believe all those experiences will be there again if we'll just be patient with protocols two or three months longer.

The questions are — Can we? Will we?

In that same CNN article, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said of the need to remain vigilant: "Please hear me clearly. At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress."

Added Emanuel: "Really what's at stake here, by taking off that mask, by dining indoors, is really thousands of people's lives. That just doesn't seem like a very big burden to save other people's lives and maybe even your own life."

No, ignoring that small burden would be March Madness at its worst.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

 

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