Sports leagues take cautious approach with coronavirus

Major U.S. sports leagues are taking precautions and considering contingencies as the coronavirus spreads across the country.

Public health officials have urged Americans to go about their everyday lives, while also warning major disruptions could be coming as the virus becomes more widespread.

One such change could see Americans avoid large gatherings where the virus is more likely to spread, such as sporting events at stadiums and arenas. 

Officials from the NCAA, NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and MLS all said they are monitoring the coronavirus. They’ve been in contact with health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to get updates on the virus and communicated with teams about efforts to avoid contracting the virus.

But while other countries have banned large gatherings and ordered games played in empty stadiums, the U.S. is not yet considering such drastic actions, and sports officials would not say if changes will need to be made in the future.

MLS, which kicked off its season last weekend, has formed a task force to manage its response to the virus. Members include league executives and MLS Chief Medical Officer Margot Putukian.

“The task force has been monitoring the most recent developments and communicating with MLS clubs regarding appropriate measures to take as the situation continues to evolve,” a league spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill.

The Seattle Sounders played their first home game on Saturday in front of a full stadium after the team said it saw no reason to alter the schedule due to the virus. 

But health officials have since confirmed seven additional coronavirus deaths in the state, bringing its total death toll there to nine.

The team’s next home game is scheduled for Saturday. The Sounders had not issued additional guidance as of Tuesday afternoon.

The NBA this week issued guidance encouraging players to avoid direct contact with fans during autograph signings and courtside interactions.

Among the league’s suggestions, according to a memo obtained by The Hill, was for players to avoid high-fiving fans and strangers “and offer fist bumps instead.”

At the college level, an organization representing college athletes urged the NCAA to consider playing tournament games later this month in front of empty arenas.

The NCAA on Tuesday announced the formation of a coronavirus advisory panel comprised of medical experts, college athletes and the organization’s chief medical officer, Brian Hainline. The group will meet regularly and provide recommendations as the CDC issues new guidance about the virus, Hainline said.

NCAA Chief Operating Officer Donald Remy said in announcing the panel that college championships, including the March Madness tournament, will take place as planned.

“The NCAA is committed to conducting its championships and events in a safe and responsible manner,” Remy said. “Today we are planning to conduct our championships as planned, however, we are evaluating the COVID-19 situation daily and will make decisions accordingly.”

President Trump told reporters on Tuesday that he had no plans at the moment to restrict domestic travel in the U.S., and he dismissed the need to ban fans from attending NCAA tournament games due to the virus.

“I don’t think it would be necessary, no,” Trump said.

As the virus spreads across countries and continents, foreign governments have stepped in to try to blunt its reach.

France this week announced a temporary ban on public gatherings with more than 5,000 people and canceled a half-marathon in Paris that was expected to draw more than 40,000 participants. 

Those decisions came days after Switzerland said it would outlaw events with expected crowds of 1,000 or more.

The danger of coronavirus in the U.S. is not as high as other countries. Federal officials have reported more than 60 cases, with six deaths. But new cases are being announced on a near daily basis.

Still, Trump administration officials have insisted the immediate risk remains low for Americans to contract the disease.

Vice President Pence, asked Monday if he would be comfortable with his family visiting Disney World, said he would encourage citizens to wash their hands and use common sense.

Health experts have said ordering event closures is an extreme action, and it is too early to determine if such steps are even needed.

“We are not at the stage right now of mitigation for this,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC News on Monday.

“It may come to a point where when you have enough community spread that you switch from trying to contain it, from coming into the country or contain it from spreading, and trying to protect yourself and your community. We’re not there yet,” Fauci said.

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