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Crowds should listen to NASA, not the sheriff, on space launch

opinion

The Editorial Board
FLORIDA TODAY

Published 12:33 PM EDT May 5, 2020

We’re getting mixed messages regarding whether it’s safe for spectators to flock to Brevard County during the COVID-19 pandemic to watch the first human space mission leave from Kennedy Space Center in almost a decade.

On one side, we have NASA asking people to stay home to watch SpaceX’s rocket launch with two astronauts inside, scheduled for May 27. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said “We don’t want an outbreak.”

On the other, we have Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey encouraging people to come to Brevard. According to him, the county is “absolutely” open for launch business, though people should follow social distancing guidelines.

“If NASA is telling people to not come here and watch the launch, that’s on them. I’m telling people what I believe as an American. And so NASA has got their guidelines, and I got mine,” Ivey said at a news conference Friday. 

More: Unlike NASA, sheriff asks people to come to Brevard to see historic space launch

So, who should space aficionados listen to? 

This question should answer itself.

In case it didn’t: Please listen to NASA. There will be other launches to watch, hopefully when the worst of the pandemic is over.

“When we launched to space from the Kennedy Space Center, it draws huge crowds and that is not right now what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make sure we have access to the International Space Station without drawing the massive amounts of crowds that we usually would for these activities,” Bridenstine said.

With people’s lives on the line, we’d rather side with the experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who last week warned states against skipping critical milestones in efforts to reopen their economies. 

Even Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is heeding such advice. His executive order to reopen parts of the state specifies local jurisdictions should prohibit gatherings larger than 10 people in places that don’t allow for physical distancing at least for the time being. And while that might loosen closer to the launch, it would seem surprising if by the end of the month all precautions against crowds were eliminated. 

Choosing whether to invite large crowds to our backyard isn’t a matter of preference or politics: It should be based on science and data. Even President Trump, who has encouraged states to reopen, has said over the weekend the death toll from COVID-19 could reach 100,000, up from his prediction last month of 60,000 (it’s currently more than 69,000).

Let’s be realistic: Social distancing will be hard, if not impossible, if thousands of viewers descend upon the Space Coast.

Ivey pledged that his deputies will be looking to ensure launch viewers are maintaining social distancing. And he said if people see visitors not following CDC guidelines, they should say something so deputies can take action.  

We appreciate that but:

We once expected up to half-million people to attend the May 27 launch. That’s roughly how many attended the last shuttle launch in 2011. Pictures better explain what that looks like: Thousands standing shoulder to shoulder on A. Max Brewer Bridge in Titusville and lining up within inches of each other along Beachline to watch Atlantis’ last flight on July 8, 2011.

Suppose that 500,000 estimate — or, say, half or a quarter of it — materializes on May 27. It would be virtually impossible for law enforcement to police whether thousands of people are standing at least 6 feet apart while also contending with traffic and other issues that may arise. 

To be fair to Ivey, Brevard has not been dealt a fair hand by NASA. By choosing the middle of a pandemic to launch the first humans from U.S. soil since 2011, the agency took away the economic boost local hotels, restaurants and retail desperately need. It also left it up to Brevard County to figure out how to contend with those who don’t follow Bridenstine’s request that they watch the event online or on TV.

It’s understandable that an elected official like Ivey is eager to see our economy thrive again. We are, too. We live here and own and rent homes in this community and patronize its shops and restaurants and attractions. We want our local economy to thrive again, too. Not to mention newspapers rely on advertising dollars and a bad economy is bad for the news business. 

But it’s irresponsible to encourage people to visit our area when there’s clear evidence large gatherings have led to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Take for example an annual gathering in early March of active and retired sheriff’s officers in Detroit that left at least seven partygoers sick with the coronavirus, dozens more infected at the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and one commander dead.

Now extrapolate that to thousands potentially gathering at our beaches, parks and causeways, going to restaurants, gas stations, pharmacies. The timing just isn’t right for that kind of gathering.

Listen to NASA. 

FLORIDA TODAY’s editorials are decided collectively by its Editorial Board. Please consider subscribing to support local journalism. To respond to this editorial in a letter to the editor, email up to 250 words to letters@floridatoday.com. Include your name, place of residence and phone number.


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We need help to find a way to prevent COVID-19

COVID-19 studies are enrolling now.

Those who qualify:*

  • may receive the investigational vaccine or placebo at no cost
  • may receive compensation for time and travel
  • may receive free testing for COVID-19