If you’re a sports fan, you might have had some questions this week as cases of the coronavirus increase in the region and anxiety intensifies.
Why are some games being played without fans and others aren’t? Is it inevitable that all games in Philadelphia will soon be played fan-less, or be canceled or postponed? Should you skip the coming Flyers game you have tickets for?
The answer depends on whom you ask. The Philadelphia Health Department on Tuesday discouraged residents from attending gatherings of more than 5,000 people, which accounts for about a quarter of the spectators at a sold-out Flyers or Sixers game at the Wells Fargo Center. A city official later acknowledged that number was “arbitrary," and some health experts advised greater caution.
The NBA suspended its season indefinitely on Wednesday night, after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus.
But other games and concerts at the Wells Fargo Center had not been canceled as of Wednesday, and the city said it did not plan on prohibiting attendance at any events. The NHL said it was consulting with medical experts and evaluating its options and expected a further update Thursday, while the Union’s home opener on Saturday was set to go on with fans in attendance.
Which left some fans to make risk analyses for themselves and their families, said Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“People need to decide what kind of gamble they want to take,” he said, “and people will take it differently if they’re physiologically vulnerable or if people who depend on them are physiologically vulnerable.”
On Tuesday, hours after the city Health Department issued its warning, nearly 20,000 fans packed the Wells Fargo Center for the Flyers game. The Sixers took on the Pistons in the same arena Wednesday. Before the NBA announced its suspended season, the Sixers put out a statement asking sick people, people with underlying health conditions, and those who had been in contact with anyone who possibly has the coronavirus to watch the Wednesday game from home.
Meanwhile, the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be closed to spectators, as will all sporting events at some local universities, including Swarthmore and Villanova, for at least the next several weeks.
Elsewhere in the country, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine banned public sporting events in indoor arenas. The Ivy League canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as well as its entire spring sports season.
In California, where there have been more than 150 cases of the coronavirus and three deaths, Santa Clara County banned sporting events through the end of March, and the Golden State Warriors announced they will play home games without fans in light of a San Francisco prohibition on large events. In Washington state, where there have been about 300 cases as of early Wednesday, such events have also been canceled, leading the Seattle Mariners to announce plans to move games.
Joel Maxcy, a sports economist who heads Drexel University’s Department of Sport Management, said he’s been surprised to see different courses of actions being taken by different organizations.
“There’s just a lot of uncertainty, and no one knows exactly what to do," he said. “It’s a new and different situation, unlike anything we’ve seen previously.”
Nationwide, league officials have had a variety of factors to weigh when making decisions about how to handle the virus, he said.
“There’s certainly a safety issue and some legal issues if you open your stadium and the virus spreads,” Maxcy said. “That’s weighed against the pretty significant lost revenue," which can be about $1 million to $2 million per game, if games are canceled or shut off to fans.
While that’s a loss, “teams can usually weather that,” he said.
Of more immediate concern, he said, are the wages lost by stadium bartenders, vendor employees, and ushers.
From a psychological perspective, spectators with tickets to events that were still on were tasked with making difficult decisions, said Fischhoff.
“Generally speaking, people can understand risk that they either observed directly or that are explained to them in a clear way,” he said. “These risks are difficult, right? Because you can’t see the virus.”
If you have tickets to a game, or the Dan and Shay and Billie Eilish concerts scheduled Thursday and Friday at the the Wells Fargo Center, you’ll likely go through an intuitive mental checklist beforehand, he said.
“First, we say, ‘What is the probability someone in the crowd is [spreading] the virus?’ ” said Fischhoff, noting that’s a question without an easy answer given the current limitations on testing.
Then, he said, ticket holders might consider what their chances are of contracting the virus and how well they can protect themselves.
If someone already has severe anxiety about the coronavirus, or about other risks in life, he said, they might add their mental health to the mental equation. He said that person might think: “If I’m going to worry about this the whole time while I’m also worrying about the Flyers, then I’ll just watch on TV.”
As of Wednesday, there had been 16 presumed positive cases of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania and 23 in New Jersey. A 69-year-old man from Bergen County died Tuesday after being sickened with the virus. Officials said he had a history of health problems.
Most coronavirus cases are mild, but health officials say older people, smokers, and those with chronic, immune-weakening conditions are at greater risk.