Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading public health expert on United States president Donald Trump’s COVID-19 task force, continues to urge caution among major sports leagues attempting to navigate the novel coronavirus crisis, emphasizing that it may be very difficult for play to resume this year.
One of the most significant variables affecting sports’ return, according to Dr. Fauci, will be whether or not countries can create a testing system that is both widely accessible, and offers quick results — an area that manufacturers have made strides in, but have not yet been able to execute well enough for sports to resume.
“I don’t want to make this conversation sound like it’s going to be an easy thing,” Dr. Fauci said in an interview with the New York Times published Tuesday. “We may not be able to pull this off. We’re going to have to see: Is it doable?
“Do we have the capability of doing it safely? Because safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything.
“If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season.'”
Professional sports leagues across North America have been put on pause since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The NBA recently announced plans to begin re-opening practice facilities for individual workouts in states that have loosened stay-at-home orders on May 8, with heavy restrictions remaining in place for social distancing and hygiene.
MLB was scheduled to begin March 26, but Opening Day was delayed — with the most recent reports suggesting a late-June start date is being discussed.
The NHL is still evaluating its options for resuming play this year. Recently, discussions have included nine to 12 teams bidding to host four NHL playoff “tournaments,” should the league be able to resume its playoffs this summer but not be able to finish its regular season. No specific plans have been officially set in motion, though.
“What we need to do is get it, as a country and as individual locations, under control,” Dr. Fauci said. “That sometimes takes longer than you would like, and if we let our desire to prematurely get back to normal (win out), we can only get ourselves right back in the same hole we were in a few weeks ago.”
Despite recent optimism over reductions in how many positive tests are being reported week-to-week — Ontario, for example, reported its lowest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases in more than three weeks on Wednesday — the potential for a surge in cases once areas of society begin opening up again remains a threat, one that must be accounted for before sports could resume.
“We’ve got to make sure that when we try to get back to normal, including being able to play baseball in the summer and football in the fall and basketball in the winter, that when we do come back to some form of normality, we do it gradually and carefully,” Dr. Fauci said.
“And when cases do start to rebound — which they will, no doubt — that we have the capability of identifying, isolating and contact tracing (the process of identifying who an infected person has come in contact with).”
Across many sports leagues, the idea of that gradual, careful resumption has included playing games in empty stadiums or arenas to mitigate the chance of fans spreading the infection. That said, Dr. Fauci emphasized the fact that such mitigation efforts would not be a perfect solution.
“If you can do that, it isn’t completely free of risk, but you diminish the risk substantially,” Dr. Fauci said. “The density of the infection in the community will dictate the degree to which you can loosen up.
“I’ve said that many times, and I’m quoted as saying that the virus decides how quickly you’re going to get back to normal.
“You can try and influence the virus by your mitigation programs, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to get the virus under some sort of control before you start resuming normal activity.”