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The day America took the coronavirus seriously

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Basketball fans sit in an empty section after it is announced that an NBA basketball game between Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz in Oklahoma City has been postponed, Wednesday, March 11, 2020.

Associated Press

Sean Higgins scored off a rebound of a Terry Mills jump shot to beat Illinois and send Michigan to the championship game of the 1989 NCAA Tournament, which they would win two nights later against Seton Hall.

I wore a Michigan sweatshirt often that year, but not that day. When Higgins’ shot went in, I was at my local Latter-day Saint meetinghouse with my dad and brothers watching a session of general conference. I caught the drama afterward on my VCR. Thankfully, the timer had worked.

Duke erased a 22-point deficit against Maryland in 2001, but I was oblivious to the drama. By the time I got to the car in the parking lot of that same meetinghouse and turned on the radio, Duke had taken the lead. Which was great. I had the Blue Devils winning it all in my bracket.

Two years ago, I caught some of the Wolverines’ Final Four game against Loyola Chicago while driving between general conference sessions. I streamed the TV broadcast on my phone, but I only listened. I promise.

The Final Four and April general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been a tight bundle in my mind going back decades. It’s not that way for most people in the world, but I suspect most people’s lives and memories are similarly rooted in large-scale, seasonal gatherings that generate excitement and anticipation.

These days, most of those events are being canceled or altered drastically. One of the most sweeping announcements for American sports fans hit unexpectedly close to home for Utahns when it was announced that a Jazz player — later confirmed to be All-Star Rudy Gobert — had tested positive for COVID-19. The entire professional basketball season was promptly put on hold. By morning, his All-Star teammate Donovan Mitchell had tested positive.

And it’s all because of a virus that changes our perspective every day (sometimes every hour) like a big turn of the dial. And the question I keep asking myself is, how do I react — as a dad, as a member of a community and as a citizen of the world?

The first day of the Final Four — the showcase event of the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament — and the Saturday sessions of April’s general conference almost always fall on the same day. And on Wednesday, before the NBA bombshell, we learned that this year would be different.

The public will not be admitted” into the 21,000-seat Conference Center in Salt Lake City for the five sessions scheduled for April 4-5, it was announced in a letter Wednesday morning to church members. Later that day, the NCAA released a statement saying its upcoming championships will be played “with only essential staff and limited family attendance.” By the next day, the entire tournament had been called off.

We should all know that the coronavirus outbreak is far more serious than sports. Thousands have died. There’s no vaccine. The market is plummeting and 401Ks are being hit. This is hurting a lot of people.

What’s becoming more clear every day is that everyone is being affected in some way. It’s bewildering to see the rapid pace at which everyday life is changing.

Wednesday was a big news day long before the massive news out of Oklahoma City. I was working from home while recovering from a non-coronavirus illness and worried about how my colleagues would react if I coughed when I returned to work. I had a replay of ESPN’s “First Take” playing in the background, where some commentators I hold in high regard talked about how serious and even scary the situation was becoming.

The news about general conference had already hit. Then came the report that the Golden State Warriors would play to an empty arena on Thursday night. News about the NCAA tournament followed.

I spent the rest of the afternoon at a high school track meet in Eagle Mountain — seemingly as far away from news of global significance as possible. Still, kids in the stands joked about getting the coronavirus from a shared water bottle. The people I was sitting with started talking about NCAA tournament games being played in empty arenas. “Can you imagine?” One wondered aloud if this is something we would tell our grandkids about. I was left to wonder how many track meets we would have this season — or if the school year would even finish.

I thought about the young men and women who were expecting to go to the Missionary Training Center in Provo — and who will now begin their service by being instructed at home instead.

These types of gatherings and life events, both small-scale and large, matter to us. And it’s also OK to be a little sad about how they’re being affected. These aren’t paradigm shifts that we’re experiencing. They’re paradigm shoves.

It may take some canceling and altering for the gravity of the situation to settle in. And it probably won’t do a lot of good to shove back by complaining about overreaction or entertaining conspiracy theories. It also doesn’t do a lot of good to panic the wrong way, as my colleague Lois M. Collins wrote about recently.

I spent a recent drive home listening to a New York Times podcast on the global coronavirus outbreak. It had everything I needed — good information. So when I came home and my 7-year-old daughter asked if it was really true that a bad virus was coming to Utah and was going to kill everyone, I could at least combat some fear with facts and help calm a little girl on the verge of tears.

Good information was all I had to address the concerns of my seventh-grade son, who started feeling a lot skittish when I picked him up from karate and he heard the serious tone of my work conversations about the breaking NBA news as we drove home.

Upheaval from the virus is part of our new reality. And it seems like the only socially responsible thing to do — as parents, members of communities and global citizens — is seek out good information and not push back against the reality of a world trying to deal with a pandemic.

And if the games, events and gatherings we love have to be canceled or altered — and it takes that to help us appreciate the severity of the challenges ahead — then so be it.