Video screenshot, WGHP-TV

Over Memorial Day weekend, a small North Carolina race track opened up for stock car races, drawing a capacity crowd of more than 4,000 spectators, and ignoring the state's public health rules because county officials gave the go-ahead. Raleigh News & Observer reporter Andrew Carter wrote a hell of a good feature story about the return to what a lot of the people there wanted to call "normal," as the racing season finally got underway at that Ace Speedway in Altamahaw, after a two-month delay. This isn't a big old NASCAR venue, just a little local track, a four-tenths of a mile oval. Most of the people Carter spoke to said they'd been cooped up for too long, and so it's time for everybody to get back to business, but safely. If "safely" means cramming close together and yelling loudly over all the engine noise, which is a super-efficient way for the virus to spread.

The people at the racetrack all seemed vaguely aware that the pandemic isn't over, but they're largely over the pandemic, and just don't want to think about it anymore. So they probably wouldn't have cared that in the week prior to the race, North Carolina's COVID-19 hospitalizations were actually increasing — from 481 on May 16, to 589 on Saturday, May 23, the day of the festivities. Since then, the number of current hospitalizations statewide is up to 702, as of yesterday.

To be honest, it's a difficult story to read, because it feels like an early chapter of And The Band Played On. There's a strong likelihood of a future story, profiling people who'll get sick or die after attending the race. Maybe not — viral outbreaks are a matter of risk, not certainty. But the odds are far higher than if all those folks had stayed home and held nice cookouts in their own backyards.


Gentlemen, Start Your Outbreak

Carter notes that the people in the audience had come from all over the state, and that they seemed motivated as much by politics as by any desire to see cars scream around an oval track: "To many, it wasn't as much about racing as it was freedom." Again and again he talks to folks who are glad to be out on a holiday weekend, to show they're taking control over their own destiny, as they see it. That included two of the very few people he saw wearing face masks, a couple of fellows in their sixties who said sure, it was "a little scary, but we can't live under a rock forever," and also those darn liberals just don't give Donald Trump credit for anything.

Under "Phase Two" of Gov. Roy Cooper's reopening plan, which went into effect the day before the race, mass gatherings are still banned. That means no more than 10 people in indoor venues, or 25 outdoors, so nah, 4,000 packed into grandstands is not yet approved.

But the track's owners weren't about to wait, so they met earlier in the week with Alamance County officials, who gave the go-ahead. The county attorney, Clyde Albright, told a local paper that the governor "cannot constitutionally limit the number of people who can peaceably assemble," which is some dubious law-talking, but it was enough to inspire Ace Speedway co-owner Robert Turner, who praised the county officials:

I'm very thankful that we have people in Alamance County that are willing to stand up for our constitutional rights (to) peacefully assemble, to gather together and just be amongst ourselves as normal.

There's nobody here rioting. We're not speaking against any kind of thing. We're here just to have some fun and be Americans. And that's what we needed. But somebody, at some point in time, had to stand up for these people and for all of us, together.

Turner went on to explain that it was also about the flag, and freedom, and our great military, and being American in general, because he really believes America is "in jeopardy right now. Because of some of the things that are going on."

And if America isn't about the right to cram into grandstands and share respiratory droplets during a pandemic, then there may as well not even be an America. Turner said he'd gotten some "dirty phone calls" and "threats on my life" from people who said opening up was a dangerous idea, but he concluded most of the naysayers were "people who probably wouldn't come to Ace Speedway, anyways." Ergo, resuming racing was a good thing, and those people were clearly wrong, as proven by the full attendance:

"What this tells me is that nobody is really scared," he said. "... If you want to take a poll, here, nobody is scared."

Brakes? What Brakes?

Gov. Cooper, a freedom-hating Democrat, said Tuesday that his office was "considering all options" to make sure similar large gatherings won't happen until public health experts deem it safe. He called the crowded racetrack grandstands "a dangerous situation that ought to concern all the local officials and all the citizens surrounding that venue. [...] It is a completely reckless way to operate." But don't people go to car races to see recks anyway?

Cooper added,

It is dangerous and reckless to try and draw a crowd. [...] I hope and pray that no one gets sick or even dies from that gathering that occurred this weekend. We hope that that doesn't happen. But the way to prevent that kind of thing is not to do it. We are deeply concerned about that kind of activity.

For contrast, Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, head of the state's Department of Health and Human Services, pointed to how the grownups at NASCAR ran the "Coca-Cola 600" race at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday: No spectators at the venue, social distancing in the pits, and limited media at the racetrack. Cohen said at Tuesday's presser that she'd prefer local track owners act like Gallant, not Goofus:

They took precautions seriously and had a great event that was enjoyed by millions. [...] Let's all take the precautions that NASCAR did.

Well sure, expert doctor lady, but a local racetrack can't show races or sell ads on national TV, and what about the beer revenue? Commie.

Where We're Going, We Don't Need Ventilators

As for Mr. Turner's insistence that nobody at the racetrack was scared, Carter did talk to one race fan who had shown up and mistakenly thought the raceway would attempt some social distancing, Jewell Stewart, 70, who'd come with her boyfriend. Carter found Stewart sitting "alone at a picnic table behind the bleachers, between the concession stands," wearing a mask, reading a book and missing the races.

At the start of the night, she'd been sitting in the grandstand. Then the space around her became full, strangers sitting nearby. [...]

At first, she hadn't given much thought to attending a race here. But then she arrived and saw that hardly anyone was wearing a facial covering. And there were all those people sitting around her. It was enough to send Stewart to seek refuge.

She didn't even want to return to the stands for the biggest race of the night, featuring her favorite driver, because she worried that with her health, "If I were to get this, I wouldn't make it." Why weren't people even wearing masks, she wanted to know.

Well, because this is America and we don't let people tell us what to do, is why. As Carter notes, that was central to the script:

For the people there, the spectacle became something of a celebration. For as much joy as there might have been in the gathering, there was also a sense of shared pride in an act of defiance. Before the start of the final race, the public address announcer spoke of American freedom and people who'd died fighting for it.

He spoke of Memorial Day and how "tonight is a big display of our freedom."

And then the 4,000 fans went back to their cars and drove home, to locations all over the state, where absolutely nothing bad will happen, the economy will start booming again, we'll all be free and unafraid, and some percentage of the crowd, and the people they meet in the coming weeks, is just expendable.

[Charlotte News & Observer / NYT / Yahoo News]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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