With the busiest sports season of the year about to collide with concerns about a worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus, sports officials in the U.S. continued to take a wait-and-see attitude Monday.
The NCAA’s signature basketball tournament begins later this month. Baseball is deep into spring training and its regular season is just 24 days away. The NHL and NBA are heading into the home stretch of their schedules. And the Masters, the golf tournament that brings an international crowd to Augusta National Golf Club, will take place April 9-12.
The major professional leagues all announced that they’ve been in contact with the Centers for Disease Control and that they’ve suggested precautions for participants and fans. But so far none of their events has been scrapped.
While the NCAA announced that it was assessing the disease’s spread, a college-player-advocacy group urged the organization to consider staging its March Madness games in empty arenas.
“In the wake of the emerging coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA and its colleges should take precautions to protect college athletes,” read a statement by the National College Players Association. “Precautions should include canceling all auxiliary events that put players in contact with crowds … In regard to the NCAA’s March Madness tournament and other athletic events, there should be a serious discussion about holding competitions without an audience present.”
In related news, an NCAA Tournament media event scheduled for next week in New York was canceled by the sponsoring TV networks.
The monitoring message was similar from the PGA, although golf’s shepherding body did postpone the start of its tour series in China.
“We conduct more than 175 tournaments across our six tours,” a PGA statement read, “and the health and safety of our players, employees, fans, partners, volunteers and everyone associated with the PGA Tour continues to be our No. 1 priority. … There are no planned schedule changes beyond what has already been decided. … However, we are establishing additional protocols to promote the health and safety of all participants and fans at our tournaments, and we will regularly review our schedule in light of revised CDC and World Health Organization reports.”
Augusta National has yet to comment on whether it is revising plans for the first of golf’s majors. But officials at the airport in Augusta, Ga., a destination for private jets from around the world during tournament week, said they were waiting for guidance from the CDC.
“We have not heard back from them yet. We want to talk with them to see … if quarantine or review protocols should be put in place,” said Herbert Judon, executive director at Augusta Regional Airport.
As of late Monday afternoon, the virus, which emerged in China, had infected nearly 90,000 people worldwide. There had been 62 cases reported in the U.S. and at least two fatalities, both in Washington state.
The NHL’s deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, said the hockey league has not yet canceled any games or events. According to Flyers coach Alan Vigneault, his team and the other 30 clubs received a league memo urging such health precautions as frequent hand-washing.
“We are in regular communication with our clubs on the issue and have passed along best practices being recommended by CDC and Public Health Canada medical experts,” Daly said. “Most of these steps are common sense precautions.”
The responses from Major League Baseball and the NBA were similar.
“The health and safety of our employees, teams, players and fans is paramount,” the NBA said in a statement. “We are coordinating with our teams and consulting with the CDC and infectious disease specialists on the coronavirus and continue to monitor the situation closely.”
At least one NBA player, Portland’s CJ McCollum, said on Twitter that he was “taking a break” from signing autographs.
An official of MLB, whose teams are playing exhibition games in Florida and Arizona, said it has been providing its clubs with advice gleaned from the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Around in the world, especially in places hardest hit by Covid-19, sporting officials have been more aggressive. France has banned all public gatherings of more than 5,000. China has postponed a scheduled Formula One race and the World Indoor Track Championships. China also forfeited a Davis Cup match because its men’s team was unable to travel to Romania.
In Japan, soccer and baseball games are being contested in empty stadiums. The 2020 Tokyo marathon was run Sunday, but organizers reduced the field from 38,000 to just a few hundred and the race was contested on near-empty streets.
Planning for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo continues to come under scrutiny, although local officials and the International Olympic Committee have indicated that the Games will not be canceled.
In Italy, where more than 1,000 citizens have tested positive for coronavirus, at least six Italian Serie A soccer matches were postponed, including a much-anticipated match between Juventus and Inter Milan. The Coppa Italia Final, set for May 13, was pushed back a week.
Swiss soccer league teams refused to play in empty arenas, so the league has shut down until at least March 23.
At Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, the first-Saturday-in-May race that is the biggest in American horse racing, officials noted that they still had time to react.
“We also will learn from others as they hold events over the next number of weeks,” a Churchill Downs statement said. “We are consulting with relevant authorities and will take any and all necessary steps to ensure the safety of all who attend and participate.”
The virus outbreak has brought to mind the panic that gripped much of the world during a virulent outbreak of Spanish Influenza in the fall of 1918. U.S. colleges and high schools canceled thousands of games and events. In Philadelphia, where an estimated 16,000 died, Penn called off at least one football game at Franklin Field and all area high school sports ceased.