For several reasons, I have been following this new coronavirus and its spread closely. On one hand, I am the health expert on a local TV station here in Charleston, South Carolina, and I have discussed the spread and mortality rate of it on the air. Second, I am a huge NBA fan, and I have tickets to a game across the country in the coming weeks, and I am worried that the game will be played in a closed arena without fans in attendance. And most importantly, I am worried about catching it myself. And I know much of the population worries about this new coronavirus, COVID-19. For those reasons, I decided to discuss its effect on pro and college sports in my latest newspaper column.
COVID-19 forces major changes to sporting events across the country and world
As the new coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads across the United States, sports leagues, teams and fans must prepare for the possibility that games might be played without spectators, or even canceled altogether.
Here’s where we stand as of the morning of March 10, 2020:
Locker room and clubhouse access
The NBA, MLB, MLS and NHL restricted access to team locker rooms and clubhouses to players and essential employees only. The media is not allowed in locker rooms.
The NBA’s plan to deal with coronavirus
The NBA mandated that teams develop a plan to handle the spread of the virus, including limiting the people who travel to road games, cutting the number of team and arena staff with access to players, and having an infectious disease specialist. ESPN NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski said Monday night that with each passing day, executives from many teams increasingly worry that games will be played without fans in attendance.
The NCAA’s plan for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments
At this time, the NCAA still plans to hold its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments as scheduled, but executives have explored the possibilities of narrowing the number of sites hosting games and even playing the tournament in closed arenas.
Some countries, leagues and counties have canceled sports
While these measures might seem drastic, some countries and leagues have decided to cancel their competitions altogether.
Italy has suspended all sporting events through April 3. On Sunday, tennis officials canceled the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, which typically draws close to 450,000 spectators. The International Ice Hockey Federation canceled the women’s ice hockey World Championship in Nova Scotia later this month.
And on Monday, the public health department in Santa Clara County in California announced a ban of all gatherings of at least 1,000 people for the rest of March, placing the homes games of the San Jose Sharks and Earthquakes and games of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament to be played at Stanford at risk.
How the coronavirus spreads
To explain steps teams and fans can take in response to this coronavirus, we must understand how this virus spreads.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus spreads predominantly from person-to-person in close contact with each other through respiratory droplets created when an infected person coughs or sneezes. If you are within roughly six feet of the infected person, you could inhale these droplets into your mouth and lungs.
To a lesser extent, the CDC warns that you can contract this coronavirus by touching an object or surface that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth or nose.
Steps leagues have taken to limit spread to the athletes
Leagues are using this information to prevent spread to and between the athletes. The NBA encouraged players to fist-bump fans rather than high-five them and avoid taking pens, balls and other items from fans to autograph. The English Premier League has eliminated the pre-match handshake between players and officials. Expect other leagues and sports to adopt similar restrictions.
Steps teams can take to limit spread to fans
As for the teams hosting these events, the CDC recommends that event organizers have prevention supplies on hand for staff and attendees, including sinks with soap, hand sanitizers, tissues, and even disposable facemasks for persons who start having symptoms.
What fans can do to limit the spread and risk of coronavirus
As long as sporting events take place as scheduled, we need to do our part as fans to limit spread of the virus and decrease the risk we contract it ourselves.
Who should consider staying home
People currently sick should not attend games. People at high risk for serious illness from this virus should consider staying home, as your risk increases in crowded, closed-in settings with little air circulation. According to the CDC, that group includes older adults and people who have serious chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease.
Steps to limit risk of coronavirus if you attend sporting events
For those who decide to go, you should take steps to limit your risk.
Avoid touching surfaces like elevator buttons, door handles and handrails. Use a tissue or your sleeve to cover your hand or fingers if you must touch something. Avoid shaking hands or giving high-fives to nearby fans. Don’t touch your face, nose, and eyes. And wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after touching surfaces and other people.
While I believe there is no reason to panic, I also believe there is no reason to ignore the risk either. Leagues, teams, athletes, and fans should take all precautions to try to avoid the spread of this coronavirus. Follow the situation closely, as it changes every day.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the March 10, 2020 issue of The Post and Courier.
Get Your Mass Gatherings or Large Community Events Ready for Coronavirus Disease 2019. CDC.gov.
People at Risk for Serious Illness from COVID-19. CDC.gov.
How COVID-19 Spreads. CDC.gov.
Santa Clara County bans gatherings of 1,000-plus after first death. ESPN.com. March 9, 2020.
NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS Issue Statement, Limit Locker Room Access Amid Coronavirus. By Megan Armstrong. Bleacher Report. March 9, 2020
How the coronavirus is affecting sports leagues and events. By Austin Knoblauch, Chuck Schilken. Los Angeles Times. March 9, 2020.
Coronavirus: British sporting events to continue as normal, says Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden. BBC.com. March 9, 2020.
N.C.A.A. Weighs Using Fewer Tournament Sites Amid Coronavirus Outbreak. By Alan Blinder. New York Times. March 7, 2020.
Coronavirus and sports: NBA, baseball, MLS considering restrictions. The Associated Press. March 7, 2020.
Women’s worlds canceled, NHL considering media changes due to coronavirus. By Craig Custance. The Athletic. March 7, 2020.