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Major League Baseball decides to continue playing games amid coronavirus concerns

Amid the spread of the coronavirus across the United States, Major League Baseball decided Monday not to call off remaining spring training games or postpone the start of the regular season.

The determination came on the same day the Japanese league said it would postpone the opening of its season, which had been set to start next week, and on the day after the annual BNP Paribas tennis tournament in Indian Wells was called off.

“While MLB recognizes the fluidity of this rapidly evolving situation,” a league statement said, “our current intention is to play spring training and regular season games as scheduled.”

MLB did decide to join the NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer in closing clubhouses to reporters and limiting access to “players and essential employees of teams and team facilities,” effective Tuesday. Players would be expected to make themselves available for interviews outside clubhouses and in news conferences.

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In a joint statement, the leagues said the decision was made “after consultation with infectious disease and public health experts” and cited “issues that can be associated with close contact in pre- and post-game settings.” The statement called the decision “temporary.”

MLB did not bar fans from attendance, despite the fact that a crowd is by definition full of people in “close contact.” The difference, according to a league official, is that players are showering and dressing “in an area of personal hygiene.”

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

The MLB regular season is scheduled to start March 26, with the Dodgers playing at home and the Angels playing in Houston. The league’s decision to proceed could be overtaken by unforeseen developments between now and then.

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The league’s response to the coronavirus threat has evolved as the number of domestic cases has jumped. Two weeks ago, the first memo from the commissioner’s office provided players, staff and team executives with basic advice from the Centers for Disease Control: wash your hands; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; stay home if you get sick, etc.

In a second memo sent last week to team executives, the league urged each team to form an internal task force and consult with local public health officials and infectious disease specialists. MLB also suggested the installation of additional hand sanitizer stations and a reduction in hand-to-hand interactions with fans, perhaps by distributing cards and other items autographed in advance.

The league did not disclose how it might deal with any games scheduled in an area where a particularly severe outbreak has been detected, or where a public health emergency might have been declared.

On several occasions, MLB has moved games scheduled for a hurricane-impacted area to an alternate site. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the league halted play until Sept. 17 and made up the postponed games after the scheduled end of the regular season.

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In Asia, where the virus first surfaced and where more cases have been reported, professional sports leagues and other organizations have been quicker to cancel public events.

In Taiwan, an Olympic baseball qualifying tournament was postponed from April 1-5 to June 17-21.

Following the cancellation of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells over coronavirus concerns, the WTA and ATP are hoping to keep the ‘status quo.’

In South Korea, the baseball league called off exhibition games and announced late Monday it is postponing Opening Day indefinitely, with hope to start sometime in April. It was originally scheduled for March 28.

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In Japan, the baseball league played its exhibition games but banned fans from attending. On Monday, the league said it would delay the start of its regular season, which had been set for March 20.

The league now hopes to open its season “by at least the end of April,” commissioner Atsushi Saito said during a news conference.

Saito called the possibility of playing regular-season games without fans “the final option” for the league and said it would be “highly unlikely to happen.”

The Japanese soccer league interrupted its season Feb. 25 and has yet to resume play. In France, the government ordered Ligue 1 -- the country’s top soccer league -- to limit crowds to 1,000 or ban fans entirely for games through April 15. In Italy, the government Monday imposed a national lockdown that will preclude Serie A and B league games from being played through April 3.


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