How will sports avoid a ‘biological bomb’ when returning from coronavirus hiatus?

Thanks in large part to swift action by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, North America’s major professional sports leagues got it right earlier this month in shutting down arenas, stadiums and training sites as the novel coronavirus surged worldwide.

“Unhesitatingly high marks,” says Ronald Waldman, a professor of global health at George Washington University who has worked with the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations in the fight against infectious diseases.

Now, the far more complex part: How and when to reopen, and of utmost importance, avoid a “biological bomb” that, thanks to a sporting event, spread fallout in two European countries.

Thursday was supposed to be opening day for Major League Baseball. When will it be safe for it and other sports return to play? (Photo: Jeff Chiu, AP)

Restrictions on large events are now in week three in most states and even as confirmed COVID-19 cases spike as testing increases, sports leagues and other entities are preparing multiple contingencies in the hope social distancing slows the spread.

Ultimately, the coronavirus itself and the data chronicling its spread will provide the “when” portion of that answer.

The how? That may require significant creativity and unprecedented actions.

The NBA, whose teams have about 17 games left in its regular season plus the playoffs, is brainstorming numerous scenarios for a re-start, including regional sites playing host to multiple teams and multiple playoff series, according to a person familiar with the league’s thinking. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because discussions are ongoing.

Major League Baseball, meanwhile, is regularly speaking with other leagues to share best practices and insights as it ponders a new opening day, according to a person with direct knowledge of those discussions.

While President Donald Trump floated a goal of April 12 to mark a symbolic re-start of larger gatherings, MLB, the person said, will be guided by the CDC, WHO and a group of infectious disease specialists to gain the best possible understanding.

The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because the conversations are private.

In an interview with ESPN on Wednesday, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the league’s preference is to “have fans in the ballpark as soon as health considerations would allow,” with the CDC’s recent recommendation pushing that earliest possible time into mid-May. 

While every league is navigating uncharted waters, there’s at least one cautionary tale to avoid.

A Feb. 19 Champions League match in Milan, Italy, pitting Atalanta of Bergamo against Spanish club Valencia, was memorialized as a “biological bomb” by Fabiano di Marco, the chief pneumologist at the hospital in Bergamo, in comments to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The equation is simple enough: 40,000 fans, including thousands who traveled from Spain to Italy, gathering two days before the first case of community spread COVID-19 was confirmed in Italy, according to The Associated Press. The teams shared a meal and gifts the night before the match.

At least five Valencia players were infected, as was a Spanish journalist, but the bigger toll came in Bergamo, where the first COVID-19 case was discovered less than a week after the match. It soon became a flashpoint of coronavirus in Italy, which has more than 80,000 confirmed cases and 8,000 deaths.

That scenario certainly reinforces the NCAA’s decision to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and illustrates how fans in North America are fortunate that awareness spread here before COVID-19 did.

The weapon of choice against the coronavirus for most states and municipalities is social distancing, a strategy lauded by disease specialists, but also one fraught with ambiguity on the back end.

After all, the statistical curve of infections and fatalities may flatten, but it won’t disappear, a concept the leagues must wrestle with in assembling groups of more than 50 – merely to play – let alone congregating thousands of fans.

“We’re not going to have a clear playing field when it’s over,” says Waldman. “With the magnitude of this and the way it’s behaving, people have to realize this approach we’re using will lengthen the period of time in which the virus is transmitted.

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“If we have fewer people infected in the short term, it’s going to result in people being infected for a longer period. It’s the choice we’ve made. How that plays out at the other end of the curve, I’m afraid to say we don’t know. When you press down on the peak, it spreads out.”

While MLB, MLS, the NBA and NHL worked in concert to ban non-essential personnel, including news media, from their locker rooms three to four days before the total shutdown, it’s unclear whether they will work in lockstep to start playing games once again.

By the time the curve has sufficiently flattened, the NFL and college football, too, may be grappling with similar issues as training camps open and exhibition games loom.

Going first may please its fans, but it will carry risks.

“Months from now, is somebody is going to say, ‘We can’t go on forever like this, we’re going to open up?’ ” asks Waldman. “And they’ll open up and studies will be done and see if transmission is occurring. And if it goes OK, someone else will pop their head up and give it a go.

“I suspect there will be incidents of transmission early on, and maybe some freaking out. So, it will probably be a recovery in fits and starts in the large congregation/venue sector, and not just sports – churches, concerts, an election campaign with a lot of events going on.”

Those decisions are still weeks or months away, with the implications lasting well into 2021, given the unrelenting construct of the sports calendar.

Waldman was recently discussing the virus with a Spanish colleague who noted his countrymen lack social distancing in their culture.

Same with the American sports fan, who has remained patient, a quality that may wither as sports-less weeks and months stack up and numbers may suggest to the layman that it’s safe to congregate.

“We’re going to find out what we’re made of,” says Waldman. “The only people who can stop this is us. And we can. We just have to choose to do it, and that may force us to change our habits and customs longer than we’d like.”

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