The development of a highly contagious global pandemic threw an unexpected spanner into the works of the ASL world this spring, causing a number of ASL tournaments and informal get-togethers to be canceled around the world. While some have resorted to VASL to get their ASL fix in, other players have now found themselves spending more time playing other games with suddenly homebound children. Or other activities altogether, such as finding toilet paper.
While we all ought to be grateful that the pandemic does not have a fatality rate like SARS or, even worse, Ebola, it’s bad enough. As I write, the number of dead in the U.S. in just a few months is 39,115, while the European death toll has surpassed 100,000 (and the true numbers are likely higher still for both). Even for those who survived the coronavirus, all too many people have had to be on respirators, have had trips to the hospital, or have suffered for up to weeks at home. I have one friend who had a “moderate” case of Covid-19 who was in the hospital twice, was extremely sick for weeks, and still has not fully recovered. It’s nasty.
For health and work reasons, I was unable to attend the Winter Offensive ASL tournament in Bowie, Maryland, in January 2020. It was my first no-show in the nearly 20 years I had been going. Naturally, this has made me look forward to the other big tournament I regularly attend, ASLOK, held each year in Cleveland, Ohio, in early October. That’s nearly half a year away, but it’s an open question as to whether or not ASLOK will be held–or whether it should be held, or whether people should attend. And it’s not just ASLOK. From ASL tournament directors to ASL players organizing “play days” with their local friends, the question of the coronavirus should loom heavily over decisions that people make for themselves or others in the coming months.
As the Covid-19 “curve” flattens around the world, and infection and death rates go down, different countries will slowly begin re-opening themselves, gradually emerging from the restrictions imposed to protect people from the pandemic. In the United States, it will be on a state by state basis. In an ideal world, lockdowns would last as long as possible, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and lockdowns put considerable strains on economies and societies. Though there will be variations, and different strategies, generally speaking re-openings will be slow ones. Few societies are going to say, “Well, it’s over, whew, back to normal.”
Societies with widespread testing will be the easiest to reopen. The United States, sadly, is nowhere even close to widespread testing. In Ohio, for example, where I live, less than 1% of the state’s population has currently been tested for the virus. This means that, for practical purposes, we have no idea who in Ohio may or may not have the virus. Thus planners have to assume that anyone may have it. Which means that social distancing guidelines such as staying six feet apart are likely to remain in the workplace, as well as other places such as restaurants. In some areas, temperature checks may be required for people to return to work or engage in certain other activities. Widespread testing would make all of this easier, as would widespread antibody testing, once that is developed, but most places in the U.S., and many other places where ASL is played, are simply not there yet.
And we should remind ourselves that ASL is a game in which people sit facing each other for hours just two to three feet apart, all the time touching the same objects (and Covid-19 can remain active on cardboard for 24 hours). ASL is an activity almost designed to transmit the virus. I, like many ASL tournament goers, have caught colds, sinus infections and other bugs from time to time thanks to playing ASL. I, like many people, have groaned when a sniffling, coughing person has sat down across me at the gaming table to play the next scenario in the mini. “Why would you come to an ASL tournament when you are sick,” I can’t help but silently bemoan, but at the same time I realize that many people plan for months and may travel hundreds or even thousands of mile to go to a tournament like ASLOK, and the thought of giving all that up (including the money spent on air fare, hotel, etc.) because of a last minute cold must be agonizing to people. So some show up. Only now, it might not be just a cold, it might be Covid-19.
We also ought to keep in mind the population that plays ASL. The average age of an ASL player is probably mid-to-late middle age, which means that a substantial number of ASL players fall into the Covid-19 vulnerable category just on the basis of age–leaving aside other conditions, such as diabetes, heart problems, lung problems, etc. The ASL community is, collectively, not exactly the sort of community likely to come through coronavirus infections unscathed. And, of course, every ASLer has other people–family, friends, coworkers–whom they might transmit the disease to, if infected.
So the question for people organizing ASL events is when or even whether to start having them again. In some places, continued social gathering restrictions may not make it possible for some time to come. But given that some states in the U.S. really don’t seem to care if their citizens get the virus, there will no doubt be some states that more or less throw the gates open. But just because someone legally could hold an ASL event, does that mean one should?
Obviously, when and if a vaccine is developed, and people are able to be given it, all such decisions become easier. But experts tell us that’s likely a year away at best. There are currently some promising antiviral treatments in testing that may make it much easier to heal and treat people who become infected. If any of those turn out to truly work, and are able to be cheap and widespread, that may make decisions easier, too. And if antibody testing becomes widespread as well, that would be great, because if people showed up at an ASL event with proof they have antibodies, they are not likely to be infected by anybody, nor to be infected themselves.
In the absence of one or more of these things, the only other option might be to wait until so many people in the population have had the disease that a true herd immunity effect becomes demonstrable, rendering it much less likely that the remaining population are likely to have the disease transmitted to them. It’s not clear how long that would take and, even then, there would be some risk.
All of this goes to say that ASLers should not rush to organize, or to attend, ASL events, just because they legally can. Everybody has a responsibility to protect themselves, other ASLers, and anyone they come into contact with from the coronavirus. We have already seen instances where gatherings like funerals and conferences have resulted in extensive coronavirus spread. We need to make sure that it is not an ASL event that ends up in such headlines in the future. We owe it to each other and to everybody else.
Every ASLer is eager to once more see carnage on the cardboard battlefield again. But ASLers must be cautious, conservative, and responsible in “re-opening” ASL play, lest the casualties not be constrained to those engaged in fictional fighting.