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What sports leagues are doing to keep players and fans safe amid coronavirus concerns

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - 3/9/2020

As the number of positive cases of coronavirus rises in the United States, nearly all sports leagues and organizations currently in season across North America are privately preparing contingency plans should the outbreak worsen.

To date, the short list of measures put in place to combat the growing concerns include some leagues advising against high-fives, restricting overseas travel and the addition of hand-washing stations at sporting venues. The boldest step, the potential of playing games with only essential staff and no fans if the situation escalates, is being discussed by the NBA, although that contingency plan is only in the early discussion stage.

That step has not been employed by any professional league in the United States, however, in Italy the government has banned fans from attending all sporting events for the next month in the wake of 233 deaths from the virus and almost 6,000 cases. Worldwide there have been more than 3,500 virus-related deaths and more than 105,000 cases.

The concern in the United States, which has seen 19 deaths and nearly 400 confirmed cases across at least 29 states as of Saturday afternoon has already altered normal operations on a few levels. The NHL announced Saturday that locker rooms will now be closed to media, on recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control. Media interviews will be conducted in formal press conference areas, as opposed to the standard smaller intimate huddles in hallways or team locker rooms, a practice held by most of the major team sports leagues.

John Hopkins University banned fans from attending games this weekend for an NCAA Division III men's basketball tournament at Goldfarb Gym in Baltimore. Even family members of players and staff were not allowed into the arena. The school is offering refunds to those who had purchased tickets for the games in Baltimore, according to ESPN.

Other leagues could soon follow the NHL's lead, including the NBA, MLB and MLS.

One of the biggest sports stars in the world said he won't play in an empty arena. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James was asked out the possibility of not playing before fans Friday night.

"We play games without the fans? Nah, that's impossible," he said. "I ain't playing if I ain't got the fans in the crowd. That's who I play for. I play for my teammates, and I play for the fans. That's what it's all about. So if I show up to an arena and there ain't no fans in there, I ain't playing. They can do what they want to do."

NBA memo implores teams to prepare contingency plans

In a memo sent to NBA teams Friday night, the league has told teams to prepare contingency plans should the coronavirus continue to spread.

Teams should identify "actions required if it were to become necessary to play a game with only essential staff present" and without fans or media, according to a CNBC, which obtained a copy of the memo, along with the Associated Press.

The league told teams to "prepare for the possibility of implementing temperature checks on players, team staff, referees, and anyone else who is essential to conducting such a game in the team's arena."

Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said on CNBC that he wasn't in favor of playing with games without fans. If necessary, Fertitta said, he'd prefer to suspend play until it was deemed safe to play in front of fans.

"I don't think you ever want to play games in front of no audiences," he told CNBC's "Power Lunch. "[Suspend games] for a week, or two weeks or whatever. But you don't want to play games with no fans. That's never going to work."

TCU watching closely and ready to adapt

TCU took a business as usual approach to its men's basketball regular-season finale against Oklahoma on Saturday afternoon at Schollmaier Arena. Athletic director Jeremiah Donati said no extra steps were taken, although the school was "watching closely and ready to adapt if necessary."

TCU is not scheduled to host another men's or women's basketball game this season, although the men's team could potentially host NIT games later this month. The baseball team is on a road trip in California, but returns home for a three-game series against Maryland next Friday.

Rangers, MLB tells players to be careful with fan interaction

The Texas Rangers open the regular season on March 26 with a four-game series against the Mariners in Seattle, which is just a few miles away from the nursing home that is the epicenter for the outbreak of the virus in the United States.

MLB produced a video for teams to educate players on the virus. The league has left fan interaction up to the players. The Rangers said they'll supply balls and Sharpie pens if players would prefer not use the pens often offered by fans when signing autographs.

Dickies Arena stepping up sanitation efforts

Dickies Arena, meanwhile, is scheduled to host the American Athletic Conference men's basketball tournament next week.

In a statement to the Star-Telegram, the American said the conference and Dickies Arena is "monitoring the situation surrounding coronavirus and will be taking extra sanitation measures for the men's basketball championship.

"Commissioner Mike Aresco and Dickies Arena are working closely with the local health authorities to determine strategies as required and provide CDC information regarding coronavirus in fan and team areas at Dickies Arena.

"The health and well-being of the student-athletes, fans, coaches, administrators and staff is paramount to the conference."

Trail Drive Management Corp. (TDMC), the not-for-profit operating entity that runs Dickies Arena, supports the American's statement as far as next week's basketball tournament.

Dickies Arena has other events scheduled in the coming weeks such as WWE's Monday Night Raw on March 23 and singer Michael Buble performing on April 4.

"As the operators of Dickies Arena, we are proactively preparing the venue, implementing cleanliness and sanitization efforts, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," TDMC's Matt Homan, the president and general manager of Dickies Arena, said in a statement. "We have established processes to provide the safest environment for our guests, team members, athletes and artists, and all those who visit Dickies Arena."

How TCU and Dickies Arena are going about business falls in line with how the NCAA is approaching the virus scare from a national standpoint.

NCAA monitoring status of virus with tournaments looming

With dozens of men's and women's college basketball teams vying to play in the upcoming NCAA Tournaments, the organization has formed a COVID-19 Advisory Panel with a number of doctors around the country.

"At present, the panel is not recommending cancellation or public spacing of athletic and related events scheduled to occur in public spaces across the United States," the NCAA said in a statement.

That includes the Dallas Regional of the NCAA women's tournament scheduled for March 27 and 29 at Moody Coliseum, which is the home of SMU's basketball teams. In a statement, the school said it "will follow NCAA, City of Dallas and SMU guidelines."

"The panel members believe that we need to better understand COVID-19 while continuing to work with local, state and federal health authorities such as the CDC," the NCAA said in a statement. "The key is for all stakeholders and athletes to practice risk mitigation at all events."

Meanwhile, Big 12 spokesman Bob Burda said the conference is planning to hold the men's and women's championships next week in Kansas City, as scheduled. "We have been in consistent communication with our partners in Kansas City," Burda said. "There are no changes currently planned."

NASCAR, IndyCar series don't expect any issues

NASCAR has consulted with federal, state and local health officials to monitor any health risks at events. Both NASCAR and IndyCar released statements on the situation. Both organizations have kept race teams and track managers updated on any concerns. NASCAR released a join statement on Wednesday with IMSA and ARCA.

"The health and safety of our fans, competitors, employees and everyone associated with IMSA, ARCA and NASCAR remains our top priority," the statement read. "We are in regular communication with relevant authorities and will continue to monitor the situation closely."

IndyCar said in a separate release that its March 15 season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Indianapolis 500 won't be altered.

"We are actively monitoring the situation and working closely with public health officials to ensure the well-being of our spectators and event participants," the IndyCar statement read. "We don't expect any disruptions to the IndyCar schedule, including next week's race in St. Petersburg and the Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway."

The biggest sporting event this month in the area is three weeks away when NASCAR visits Texas Motor Speedway for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.

TMS president Eddie Gossage said the track is taking its cues from public officials and have stepped up cleaning plans for race weekend.

"Texas Motor Speedway is closely monitoring facts and recommendations from public health officials," Gossage said." The CDC's current risk assessment says COVID-19 is not currently widespread in the United States and for most people; the immediate risk of being exposed to the virus is low. To prevent the spread of cold, flu or COVID-19, experts are encouraging prevention, not panic, and asking people to practice good hygiene -- frequent hand-washing, using hand sanitizer and covering sneezes and coughs. We are adding hand-washing stations and will encourage our guests through our many means of communication to use good hygiene while enjoying our events."

No overseas business travel for the NHL

The NHL has told its players to limit the amount of contact they have with fans since the outbreak of coronavirus. The league has advised its players to avoid handshakes with fans, and to not accept items to autograph.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league has barred its employees from overseas business travel. If league employees made personal trips to any nation affected with the virus, they must be quarantined out of the office for two weeks. Also, some scouting efforts in Europe have been disrupted.

XFL has COVID-19 task force to monitor concerns

The XFL has established a task force to monitor the outbreak, which includes the league's medical advisory board along with consultation with local and national health officials.

A food vendor who worked the Seattle Dragons-Dallas Renegades game February 22 at CenturyLink Field has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The King County officials said the risk was low for those in attendance.

"There are no extra precautions required for those who attended the Feb. 22 game or who will attend upcoming events," the statement said, "but all King County residents should know that the risk for infection with COVID-19 is increasing in our community."

"The health and safety of the extended XFL family -- especially our fans in Seattle -- is of the utmost importance," said XFL president Jeffrey Pollack in a statement, reported by ESPN. "We share everyone's concern about this public health issue and understand it is evolving on a daily basis."

MLS, FC Dallas add sanitizer stations at soccer stadiums

Major league soccer and FC Dallas have mirrored other sports by adding sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer throughout the league's venues, including Toyota Stadium in Frisco.

"FC Dallas' primary commitment and focus at all times is on the health and safety of all our players, staff and our fans," the team said in a statement to the Star-Telegram. "We, along with MLS, are monitoring the situation closely and staying up-to-date as additional information becomes available. We know this is a constantly changing situation and are working with team doctors to take all necessary precautions."

The cleaning staff at Toyota Stadium focused on sanitizing high-traffic touchpoints during and after Saturday's game against Montreal.

UIL state tournament steps up sanitation at Alamodome

The UIL has been in regular communication with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and other government agencies who are closely monitoring the impact of the virus. The girls basketball state tournament is at the Alamodome in San Antonio this week while the boys tournament will start next week.

"We are continuing to follow the recommendations of local authorities and, at this time, have not been advised to cancel or postpone the UIL basketball tournaments in San Antonio. We are also working with the San Antonio Alamodome to ensure appropriate preventative measures are being taken," the UIL said in a release. "We will continue to keep participating schools updated on any developments."

The facility has added several safeguards, including anti-bacterial sanitizing stations and enhanced cleaning initiatives before and during the tournament.

"The Alamodome, in cooperation with the Bexar County Office of Emergency Management, continues to make the safety of our guests our utmost priority. We will remain vigilant regarding all COVID-19 developments. We again look forward to hosting the UIL State Girls and Boys Basketball Tournaments and wish all of the teams safe travels and the best of luck," said Alamodome general manager Steve Zito.

Six girls teams from the greater Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex made the trip to state eight including Lipan and Muenster. The boys tournament runs March 12-14.

"The health and safety of our student-athletes and patrons remains our top priority," said UIL executive director Dr. Charles Breithaupt. "The UIL will continue to work with the Alamodome and other governmental entities, including health officials, on the measures being taken to keep all tournament attendees safe and will provide updates as this situation evolves."

Staff Writers Drew Davison, Mac Engel, Brian Gosset, Clarence E. Hill, Jr. and correspondent Anthony Andro contributed to this report.


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