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Lightning Emerge From Bubble To Lure Fans To COVID Superspreader Event

TAMPA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 30: Braydon Coburn #55 and Curtis McElhinney #35 of the Tampa Bay Lightning wave to fans at the Tampa Bay Lightning Victory Rally & Boat Parade on the Hillsborough river on September 30, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Florida, in the best of times, looks like another country, one completely removed from the standards and strictures of the rest of us here in America. Tampa, then, is another planet. It is a subtropical paradise where normalcy goes to die. It is the home of the Stanley Cup–winning Lightning, who on Wednesday held the first large championship celebration since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic seven months ago. The world has changed since then, but Tampa and St. Petersburg have tried their damndest not to change with it, a corrupted offshoot parallel universe where masks are for pussies and social distancing is for losers, and where you can just go to a crowded restaurant—inside!—and sit down and eat, and where fear and concern for fellow man may not exist.

So it was an extreme bummer to see what some of the Lightning did and said at their celebration. I know, hockey players are golden retrievers, and since we aren’t surprised by dumb guys saying dumb things, maybe we can’t technically be disappointed by it either. But still: come the fuck on.

Yes, Florida last month reopened its bars. After reopening them in June and immediately seeing a spike in COVID cases. And yes, Florida last week allowed bars and restaurants to seat at 100 percent capacity. Despite indoor dining (and drinking!) being the single activity most linked with COVID infection.

The Lightning and local government tried to make the celebration safe, and not a superspreader event. Maybe not very hard, or barely at all, but there was a sliver of trying. Instead of a traditional parade which would see fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder, they held a boat parade—with fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder on the banks of the Hillsborough River. There were not a lot of masks visible. “It almost feels like what we’re doing now is, like, wrong,” one reveler said.

The flotilla was supposed to consist of just players and staff, but it was immediately overwhelmed and outnumbered by fans’ boats, who mingled with the parade and the players. The Lightning then disembarked and headed for the Buccaneers’ stadium. They got there via an open-air trolley, and fans lined the streets—the celebration specifically planned so as not to have a parade had a planned 2.4-mile parade segment. And when the Lightning got to the stadium, they mingled with fans some more.

Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Only 15,000 people were allowed in the stands to watch the ceremony and the speeches, and were supposed to be spread out and required to wear masks. Some even did! One stadium usher said she would be strictly enforcing the mask rule. “I can’t afford to go back to no work and no interaction,” she said. “None of us can.”

That’s the frustrating thing here, isn’t it? Do the mask skeptics and refusers think we like this? We just want this to be over, and wearing masks and observing basic social distancing are the best and only ways to make that happen. If people would just suck it up, this pandemic would be gone in weeks, and we could all get back to normal. If people had done so when it first started, we’d be back to normal now, like so many other countries. Instead the entire NHL playoffs was conducted in a bubble with no fans, and the randy Lightning, understandably after two months in isolation, are here to drink beer and put Tampa at risk of another outbreak, and they’re nearly out of beer.

I do not really blame the Lightning or their fans for this, just as I find it hard to lay much blame for the pandemic’s continued reign at the feet of any regular folks. Human nature is what it is, and more importantly we all know what it is. If you open bars, people will fill them. If you hold a parade, people will come. So blame institutions, not individuals, for repeatedly failing to provide cohesive or effective rules and recommendations. It’s not Alex Killorn’s fault that Florida has had hundreds of thousands of COVID cases, with 1,948 new cases and 174 new deaths reported on Wednesday alone. After all, it’s not like the Lightning players are out here swapping spit in the parking lot with a bunch of randos.

Ah.