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SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Mackenzie Salmon talks with Nancy Armour to break down the steps that need to happen before professional sports can resume in America.

USA TODAY

Don’t take off your mask just yet, but we’re getting close.

The NCAA has lifted its moratorium on college basketball and football. The NBA and MLB are mulling comebacks that could begin within weeks. And the NFL has a fair chance of starting as scheduled this fall.

But everyone involved has to ignore President Donald Trump, who’s been dropping dangerous hints about having fans attend games, something scientists say will put us right back where we started in this nightmarish COVID-19 pandemic.

“When Alabama has a football game against LSU, I don’t want 20,000 people in the stands with seven empty seats in between everybody,” Trump said this month in an interview with ABC News from the Honeywell factory in Phoenix. “I want 110,000 people like they got. And they get even more than that — that’s what I want. … I hope it’s gonna be soon.”

We all hope he’s right, of course.

But anecdotal evidence and hard data are telling us that we shouldn’t even entertain fans as a possibility for the foreseeable future.  

‘Right back in the same hole’

The Korea Baseball Organization has resumed play in empty stadiums. Germany’s soccer league, Bundesliga, is playing without spectators.

And domestically, UFC and NASCAR are back in operation with no fans.

The numbers, meanwhile, show that things are getting better, but the U.S. remains in the grip of the pandemic. The nation has had nearly 1.6 million cases and 95,000 deaths since the first case was reported in late January, according to Johns Hopkins University and Medicine data. Infection rates have slowed from a high of close to 35,000 cases a day last month to about 21,000 daily cases currently.

But states have reopened, and the numbers are starting to tick back up.  

Few things could be more dangerous than packing tens of thousands of strangers into close quarters for hours at a time — especially when flu season starts in October.

Medical experts are warning of a second wave that could be more deadly than what we’ve already seen.

“If we let our desire to prematurely get back to normal (guide us), we can only get ourselves right back in the same hole,” Trump’s top medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said in a recent interview with the New York Times.

He left open the possibility for a cautious return to sports — which we’re seeing.

“We’ve got to make sure that when we try to get back to normal, including being able to play baseball in the summer and football in the fall and basketball in the winter, that when we do come back to some form of normality, we do it gradually and carefully,” he said. “And when cases do start to rebound — which they will, no doubt — that we have the capability of identifying, isolating and contact tracing.”

He later said that leagues “if they’re going to play, play in front of a TV camera without people in the audience.”  

‘Not putting dates on the calendar’

The NCAA made a step toward return, saying that “Division I football and basketball student-athletes can participate in on-campus voluntary athletics activities beginning June 1 … as long as all local, state and federal regulations are followed.”

DI Council allows football, basketball to have voluntary athletics activities starting June 1: https://t.co/NdoiDbPaSRpic.twitter.com/FGTZ7q985h

— Inside the NCAA (@InsidetheNCAA) May 20, 2020

The NBA is expected to release guidelines June 1 that could serve as a roadmap for getting back on the court to conclude the season.

MLB has been in negotiations with the players’ union over how to split profits from potential games this summer.

And the NFL, which optimistically could start in September, has taken a wait-and-see approach, with the league’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Allen Sills, saying, “we are not putting dates on the calendar at this point.”

We all want sports back.

It would be good for the nation’s psyche, a signal that if we do things properly we can get through this.

But we simply can’t rush.

Even if the staggering death toll and illness rates don’t give you pause, consider that we’re still trying to find ways to return to basic levels of humanity.

Fathers are dying, and children can’t grieve together at funerals.

Mothers are dying, quarantined on hospital gurneys with no one but strangers in masks and gloves to hold their hands.

Children are dying, days after reporting symptoms but being turned away from overcrowded hospitals that have triage units set up in hallways.

Rich people can stay safe at home and work remotely. Working-class people are getting infected on the job.

Let’s applaud Trump for his optimism, but let’s also remind him of the responsibilities of his office.

When the president drops hints, people take action.

And if that action leads to fans in stands at sporting events, it could have grave consequences.

We’ve come a long way, and we’re getting close.

But it’s not smart to take your mask off just yet.

Follow Greg Moore on Instagram and Twitter @WritingMoore.

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