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Sports teams brace for coronavirus outbreak

Operators of Naples Services sanitize the sports facility of Palabarbuto to counteract the danger of contagion from coronavirus, Naples, Italy on Tuesday.
Operators of Naples Services in Italy sanitize the sports facility of Palabarbuto to counteract the danger of contagion from coronavirus.
(Ciro Fusco / European Pressphoto Agency)

Much of the sports world is already dealing with a new reality: life amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Major competitions have been postponed, moved or canceled throughout Asia. In Italy, government officials announced that no fans may attend sporting events, including big-time soccer matches, for at least a month.

Could the same thing happen closer to home?

Los Angeles County declared a health emergency on Wednesday, with officials discussing the possibility of banning spectators from stadiums and arenas across the region. In other parts of the U.S., the NBA and Major League Baseball have issued safety recommendations and at least two colleges are skipping games.

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All of this comes as crowds are expected to flock to spring training baseball and the upcoming NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

“If at any point we think that there’s good reason for us to be worried about extensive, extensive community transmission … we may ask for modifications at large public events,” L.A. County health director Barbara Ferrer said. “This could be that games are played but there are no spectators. This could be that there are limits to how people are going to gather at public events.”

As Dodgers president Stan Kasten said: : “None of it is great news, but they have stressed also that this is not a time to be panicking.”

A look at how sports leagues, including the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, are monitoring the coronavirus outbreak.

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The current version of the coronavirus, COVID-19, has infected more than 95,000 people and killed more than 3,200 worldwide since it was first detected in China late last year.

There have been 157 reported cases and 11 deaths in 16 U.S. states, according to the coronavirus COVID-19 database of Johns Hopkins.California reported its first death — an elderly adult with underlying health issues — on Wednesday.

Globally, the outbreak has forced schedule and location changes for soccer games, car races, a cycling tour and other competitions. At a news conference on Wednesday, the leader of the International Olympic Committee faced a barrage of questions about the 2020 Summer Games, which are scheduled to begin in Tokyo on July 24.

Though many countries have been forced to delay qualifying events, the IOC has said on numerous occasions that, in consultation with the World Health Organization, it expects the Games to take place as planned.

“I can assure you I will not get tired of repeating the statement I made,” IOC president Thomas Bach told reporters. “The IOC is fully committed, and we are not participating in any kind of speculation.”

Some health experts agree it is too early to make any predictions about the spread and lethality of the virus over the next six months. Others have expressed concern about the prospect of large public gatherings.

There is a history of external forces disrupting the sports world. The Olympics were canceled three times during the first and second World Wars. NFL games were played but not televised following John F. Kennedy’s assassination and baseball halted games for almost a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

This time, American sports officials have generally reacted cautiously, instituting relatively minor changes while vowing to consult with health officials, monitor the situation and take further steps if necessary. Few have been willing to discuss the potential for drastic action, though Kasten acknowledged: “We could, in the extreme, wind up either canceling games or holding games without spectators, as has been done in some places.”

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Operators of Naples Services sanitize the sports facility of Palabarbuto to counteract the danger of contagion from Coronavirus, Naples, Italy on Tuesday.
A Naples, Italy, sports facility is sanitized for the coronavirus. The Italian governments announced that no fans may attend sporting events for at least a month.
(Ciro Fusco / European Pressphoto Agency)

College basketball faces a particular challenge with men’s and women’s conference tournaments and March Madness prompting hundreds of thousands of fans to follow their teams around the country in coming weeks.

Staples Center is scheduled to host a men’s West Regional beginning on March 26.

“As a result of the latest briefing update from the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, we have posted messaging throughout our venues reminding fans to engage in safe hygiene practices and to stay home if they feel unwell,” a Staples Center statement read. “We also have increased access to hand sanitizers throughout the building.”

A campus task force at Stanford has recommended postponing or adjusting events through mid-April. Other schools, such as Chicago State University, have canceled road trips and some home games.

The NCAA has established an advisory panel to address the issue.

“Today we are planning to conduct our championships as planned,” chief operating officer Donald Remy said in a statement. “However, we are evaluating the COVID-19 situation daily and will make decisions accordingly.”

This announcement follows an NBA memo that was circulated among teams and later obtained by the Times. It recommends that players limit physical contact with fans, meaning no high-fives or accepting pens and other items for autographs.

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“I think everybody has a common sense feel of what’s being reported and what’s out there,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after a practice Wednesday, “and we all have to be cautious.”

People walk outside San Siro stadium where a notice advising that the Serie A soccer match between AC Milan and Genoa is postponed to May 13, 2020, in Milan, Italy.
A sign at San Diro stadium in Milan, Italy, advises that the Serie A soccer match between AC Milan and Genoa is postponed to May 13.
(Claudio Furlan / Associated Press)

Before the Clippers’ game Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, reserve guard Lou Williams was signing autographs for fans who leaned over the tunnel railing. As soon as he finished, a team security guard waiting nearby squirted a glob of sanitizer into his hands.

One NBA official called it a “fist-bump-only league right now.”

Major League Baseball has issued similar advice during spring training, a time when teams make an effort to interact with fans after games or at special events. Players have been told to get flu shots and avoid taking balls or pens from spectators; teams have been warned about disinfecting clubhouses.

“Would you tell our players to carry their own Sharpie for autographs?” Kasten said. “I’m going to ask more doctors before we carry out a policy.”

Additional concerns have been raised about scouts traveling overseas. Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi, who is from South Korea, has reportedly been giving interviews to media from his homeland away from the rest of the team, saying: “I just want to be cautious, especially around the players.”

The NHL has banned business travel outside of North America for its employees and will quarantine scouts returning from Europe.

Though there are no plans for postponing the playoffs next month, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told The Canadian Press that the situation is “day-to-day” and that the league is “aware of and focused on all possibilities.”

The NFL, which has its draft in late April, said it is similarly monitoring developments.

Locally, the 2020 L.A. Marathon is scheduled for Sunday and organizers are offering to defer entries until next year for runners who must travel from affected countries. This comes shortly after the Tokyo Marathon abruptly downsized its field to elite and wheelchair athletes only.

Otherwise, official responses from Southern California pro teams and university athletic departments followed a similar theme: a wait-and-see approach amid daily news reports.

A spokesman for AEG, which operates Staples Center and Dignity Health Sports Park where teams from the NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLS and XFL play, said his company will follow the guidelines set forth by health and county officials.

For now, “the teams are being administered essentially by the league,” said AEG’s Michael Roth, who pointed out while one league might postpone games, another could play as scheduled. “We’re providing a safe and clean venue for everybody, and if the team shows up to play, if the league wants to play, we’re opening our doors.”

A spokesman for LAFC, which consistently sells out its 22,000-seat stadium in Exposition Park, said the conference call with county health officials included some discussion of worst-case scenarios.

“And obviously the worst is the city can come in and cancel events,” said Seth Burton, the team’s vice president of communications. “And another option would be for games to be played with no fans.

“Everyone knows that could happen,” he continued. “But hopefully we’re not there yet.”

Times staff writers Kevin Baxter, Mike DiGiovanna, Ryan Kartje, Jeff Miller, Andrew Greif, Soumya Karlamangla, Helene Elliott, Arash Markazi and Jack Harris contributed to this report.


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