Coronavirus more disruptive to sports than SARS and with more uncertainty

Autograph seekers wait for players before a spring training baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros. (Elise Amendola/AP)

TORONTO – First off, let’s stop pretending like we actually know where things are headed with the COVID-19 outbreak. The current hysteria in North America – people taking temperatures at entranceways to public places, grocery stores wiping down shopping cart handles on the way inside, panic buying of goods and selling of stocks – can certainly seem over the top. On the flip side, there’s a disconcerting amount of not-my-problem-not-going-to-happen-to-me hubris still out there, too, which only helps to fuel the former.

Everyone has a part to play if things are going to get better, rather than worse, and the coming days and weeks are truly uncertain. This isn’t the time for lazy assumptions on how it all ends.

Now, perspective can often be hard to find at the best of times, and especially so under such circumstances. In this 24-hour-news-cycle age, widely disseminated, uninformed opinion can do real damage, so, as always, consider the source of information consumed.

There are very few experts legitimately in the know about what’s happening, and they’re all too busy working to be filling up your news feed.

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So, real life is happening in a major way, and rather than serving as a comforting distraction, the way they did during the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington and other major periods of tumult, sports may very well inadvertently contribute to the current problem.

Bringing masses of people together is a good thing unless you’re trying to stop the spread of an easily transmissible contagion. If that’s the goal, large gatherings in confined spaces are the opposite of what’s needed right now – Health Canada is already encouraging social distancing, even though it still describes the risk to Canadians as low – and that’s why a number of prominent sports events have been postponed or cancelled.

Consider some of what Health Canada is currently saying about mass gatherings:

If the coronavirus outbreak continues to progress in North America at the current pace, major sports leagues will surely have to either play at closed venues, or postpone events. Santa Clara County in California has already prohibited gatherings of 1,000 people or more for the next month, leaving three San Jose Sharks games, NCAA women’s basketball tournament games at Stanford and an MLS contest in limbo.

That came on the heels of the NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer taking the unprecedented step of closing off locker-rooms and clubhouses to all non-essential personnel, including media.

Even without using the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto as a point of reference – when the World Health Organization warned travellers to avoid the city – we’re legitimately in uncharted territory from a sports perspective.

Consider that back then, ahead of an early-season, nine-game Toronto Blue Jays homestand, Sandy Alderson, then MLB’s executive vice-president of baseball operations, and Gene Orza, the players’ union No. 2 official, spoke to players to reassure them that their risk was minimal.

I remember entering the Kansas City Royals clubhouse with other reporters before the series opener that April and hearing one player yell, “They’re breathing on me, they’re breathing on me,” triggering an outburst of laughter from his teammates.

Save for a few outliers, it was all jokes.

“Players don’t face any hazard here greater than anywhere else if they take reasonable precautions,” said Orza.

In contrast, rather than being told to be careful and not to worry, players are being isolated.

Additionally, the scope is currently wider, the caution is different, and the language far more careful, like in this baseball statement Monday: “While MLB recognizes the fluidity of this rapidly evolving situation, our current intention is to play spring training and regular season games as scheduled.”

There’s a lot of latitude wisely worked in there, and with two weeks to opening day, there’s contingency planning aplenty going on right now.

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In 2003, then Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey said the WHO’s warning about Toronto led to the cancellation of group orders totalling 10,000 seats, and significantly slowed other sales. Ted Rogers, the late founder and head and team owner Rogers Communications Inc., bought all the unsold tickets – nearly 34,000 of them – for the opener of an April 29-May 1 series against the Texas Rangers, and resold them for $1 to show that life in Toronto was normal.

A crowd of 48,907 showed up that day, including Rogers, Paul Cellucci, who was the American ambassador, Dr. Sheela Basrur, Toronto’s medical officer of health, Ernie Eves, who was Ontario’s premier, longtime Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman and Paul Martin, then a Liberal leadership candidate.

Compare that to the current cancellations and postponements, and things like the International Skating Union informing media members that they must have their temperatures taken before receiving accreditation, among other precautions.

That’s cautious and responsible, but how much is enough and what’s overkill? How do sports officials justify isolating their athletes while allowing large groups of fans to sit together in close or cramped quarters for a few hours at a time? Will leagues screen people at the gate and offer refunds to those turned away? And who’s guaranteeing athletes or team employees or anyone else on or around the team won’t cross paths with the wrong person on their way to work, or at a restaurant, or at a store, anyway?

These are questions for society in general right now, not just the sports world. The closing of clubhouses and dressing rooms to the media is an easy first step, but an inconsequential one relative to the larger problem.

More steps, both from sports leagues and, in the bigger-picture, governments, will be needed, and they’ll only get more and more complicated from here on out.

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