In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Major League Baseball should focus on playing games without fans, not on moving games to alternate locations, public health experts said Wednesday.
“Nobody is going to enjoy a game when the person sitting next to them is coughing and they’re like, ‘Well, did I just watch one game and now do I have coronavirus?’ ” said Dr. Armand Dorian, chief medical officer at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital.
The Seattle Mariners said Wednesday they were working with MLB on “alternative plans” for their first home games this season after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people in three counties, including the one in which the Mariners play. The ban extends through the end of March. The Mariners are scheduled to open the regular season at home March 26.
In San Francisco, as Mayor London Breed announced a two-week ban on events with more than 1,000 fans, the Giants said they would not host the only game they had scheduled during that period, a March 24 exhibition against the Oakland Athletics. The Giants said they were working to “finalize alternative arrangements” for that game.
On Wednesday night, after the city of Oakland banned through March all events in city-owned venues with 1,000 or more people, the A’s said they were “working with Major League Baseball on alternative plans” for scheduled home games.
The Mariners, for instance, could play their first two series at their spring training home in Peoria, Ariz., or at the home stadiums of their opponents, the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins. The state of Washington had 267 reported coronavirus cases as of Wednesday afternoon, while Texas had seven, Arizona five and Minnesota three.
But the restricted availability of testing means no one really knows how widely the coronavirus has spread, said Dr. Dena Grayson, a Florida-based expert in Ebola and other pandemic threats. The notion that Minnesota has only three residents infected with coronavirus is nonsensical, she said.
“If you don’t look for it, you can’t find it,” Grayson said. “We’re not testing people. So we don’t know how many people have been affected. I guarantee you it’s many, many, many times more than three.”
Many infected people show no symptoms, she said, but still can pass on a virus that she described as “extremely contagious.” As a result, she said, MLB should follow the example set by European sports that have played games without fans present.
“The worst thing you can do is to have a bunch of large gatherings,” Grayson said. “Large gatherings are basically a cauldron for this virus.”
MLB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn., said: “Players want to compete and provide entertainment to fans. The Association’s focus will remain finding ways to do so in an environment that protects not just players’ personal health and safety, but also the health and safety of fans, umpires, ballpark employees, club employees and everyone in the baseball family.”
Dorian suggested that moving games to alternate locations would be imprudent when no one can know whether the pandemic might soon erupt in one of those alternate locations.
“For us to plan and move things in a hurricane zone to another location, when the hurricane is still moving and it’s dynamic, makes no sense,” Dorian said. “It’s actually unnecessary energy and brain time wasted.”
He added: “While the players may be willing to go out and play, that’s for your enjoyment, and you can enjoy it [on television] from the comfort of your home, where you’re safe. That’s probably a more reasonable decision.”
Rather than commit to playing before any fans on opening day, Grayson said, MLB should assess the situation on a week-by-week basis.
“We’re in the acceleration phase of this viral spread,” she said. “We’re seeing cases take off.”
If that means playing with no fans for weeks until the virus recedes, she said, so be it.
“People go to see their teams,” Grayson said. “This is just begging for more people to get infected, and more people to die. It’s a very bad idea.”