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Column: Coronavirus fears beginning to impact the major sports leagues

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers talks with the media after a game against the Orlando Magic on Jan. 26.
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers talks with the media after a game against the Orlando Magic on Jan. 26.
(Reinhold Matay / Associated Press)

North America’s major sports leagues have crossed the next fearful frontier in fighting the incursion of the coronavirus.

A ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people was issued by the Santa Clara County Public Health Department late Monday, leaving the NHL’s San Jose Sharks with the possibility of playing their next three home games in an empty SAP Center, playing at a neutral site or postponing those games until public health officials deem it safe for large crowds to assemble again. The ban will take effect Wednesday and last three weeks, affecting the Sharks’ games March 19 against Montreal, March 21 against Boston and March 29 against Arizona. Arena officials said in a statement they will review each event scheduled at SAP Center and provide an update “in the coming days.”

Some college basketball and college hockey games have been or will be played in arenas without fans in an effort to keep players safe, but this is the first time a major professional sports team has been affected by extraordinary actions intended to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Sadly, it won’t be the last of measures that were considered unthinkable not so long ago.

Earlier on Monday, the NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer announced they will temporarily ban media from locker rooms before and after games and will limit locker-room access to essential personnel. Although the media corps is small compared with the number of fans in an arena or stadium, reporters and videographers often are within arm’s distance of players. Frequently, at the end of that arm is a germ-bearing cellphone that’s recording players’ comments from the distance of a foot or two.

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The reasoning behind the ban is simple: These leagues can imagine the ugly magnitude of what could happen if merely one player were to test positive for COVID-19, and the intrusion of the media is one risk that’s easily diminished.

The disruption of a positive test in any league would be immense, resulting in quarantines of players — as well as those who are in close contact with them — and interruption of the season. If the player’s home arena is shared by NHL and NBA teams, as many are, the other league would feel the impact as well. It’s a nightmare no one wants to experience.

Every league must plan ahead and anticipate the worst, while hoping for the best. That’s the way we all have to think.

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As of Monday afternoon, there were 133 confirmed coronavirus cases in California. On Saturday, signs were posted at the entrance to Chase Center in San Francisco to warn people to not enter the building if in the previous two weeks they had experienced fever, dry cough, aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea or had traveled to any location subject to Level 1, 2, or 3 travel notices by the Centers from Disease Control, such as Iran, China, Italy, South Korea, Japan or Hong Kong.

When Stephen Curry was held out of Saturday’s game the Warriors, knowing speculation about his health would spiral out of control, posted a tweet that quoted team physician Robert Nied as saying Curry had been diagnosed with influenza A, or seasonal flu, by positive viral testing. The tweet added, “He has no specific risk factors for COVID-19.”

Until Monday’s announcement that locker rooms will close, the NHL and NBA had simply advised players to avoid close contact with fans such as high-fiving them or accepting pens to autograph items. A few NHL teams closed their locker rooms to the media after games and practices last week, but others had opted to leave their rooms open. The choice isn’t theirs to make anymore.

“After consultation with infectious disease and public health experts, and given the issues that can be associated with close contact in pre- and post-game settings, all team locker rooms and clubhouses will be open only to players and essential employees of teams and team facilities until further notice,” the leagues’ joint statement said. “Media access will be maintained in designated locations outside of the locker room and clubhouse setting. These temporary changes will be effective beginning with [Tuesday’s] games and practices.

Coronavirus: Officials are expected to decide in the next few days if the world figure skating championships will be held in Montreal from March 16-22.

“We will continue to closely monitor this situation and take any further steps necessary to maintain a safe and welcoming environment.”

The leagues’ announcement came a day after organizers of the prestigious BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells announced the tournament would not be held as scheduled because the Riverside County Public Health Department had declared a public health emergency for the Coachella Valley following a confirmed case of coronavirus. Many players had arrived on site and were surprised by the news. On Monday, some practiced on sunny courts with no fans watching, an eerie sight at a place where the closeness of fans to the practice courts was an attraction.

Playing in front of empty stands, while drastic, still wouldn’t remove all the risks to baseball, basketball, hockey or soccer players because equipment managers, medical staff, security staff, stat crews and camera operators would have work in the building. The step after that is postponing or canceling games, which would be an annoying inconvenience for fans but potentially devastating for arena and stadium employees and those who work in restaurants and bars near arenas and stadiums.

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Any venture out in public carries some risks, whether the destination is a grocery store or a game. We take risks without thinking, and we can minimize some of those risks. Drive sober. Don’t text and drive. Now, add wash your hands frequently and stay home if you’re sick. Staples Center has installed hand sanitizing stations. Use them. And hope the people sitting next to you used them too. This is a strange new world we’re entering with no path to guide us. Tread carefully.


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