SportsPulse: The Korea Baseball Organization started its 2020 season with no fans and coaches wearing masks
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas was on the front lines on the sudden shutdown of sports two months ago, declaring a state of emergency that effectively canceled the Big 12 Conference basketball tournaments.
Now, as spring slips toward summer and COVID-19 has killed more than 80,000 in the country, Lucas and dozens of mayors and governors are on the other end of the equation, this time charged with giving the go-ahead to restart sports.
Major League Baseball could be the first team sport to get back to competition, with hopes of contesting games without fans in attendance as early as July in as many of its home cities as possible.
Lucas says he knows the nation is starved for sports and knows Kansas City is fortunate to have weathered the first wave of the deadliest health crisis in a century better than most. Despite that, he has a difficult time seeing its imminent return.
“Early July would be an aggressive timetable,” Lucas tells USA TODAY Sports. “And I say that as a market in Major League Baseball most blessed to not have a large number of cases. We’ve been fortunate. If the public health (statistics) support such a move, we could find a way.
THE FUTURE: Sports world has no choice but to take orders from somebody else to determine return
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ANTIBODY STUDY: Fewer than 1% of MLB employees test positive for coronavirus antibodies
“That said, nobody’s going to be the mayor, nobody’s going to be the health official who encourages it (prematurely). I’m very worried about that.”
He’s not alone.
Protesters drive past City Hall encouraging Mayor Quinton Lucas to open businesses up, allow people to work, and return lives to normal last month in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo: Jamie Squire, Getty Images)
Multiply Lucas’ dilemma across 28 cities, one international border and a vast array of government restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus, and the challenges MLB faces in executing its latest plan to start its season — and recoup as much of its estimated $10.5 billion in annual revenues as possible — crystallize.
USA TODAY Sports contacted the mayors of all MLB cities, as well as governors in select states, and the roughly one-third who responded revealed a caution to bringing back sports before data indicate it is safe — something that could be weeks and likelier months down the line, according to various reopening plans.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine — who has spoken with officials from MLB, the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds — said it’s a “possibility” to have baseball return this summer without fans.
“I am sure that Major League Baseball is putting together a plan about how they would do that,” DeWine said. “We’d have to obviously see what that plan looks like, but they’re in a situation where (you) would assume that they would be able to have adequate testing if they did it. And they’d be able to have obviously good healthcare for the players.”
Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown professor and director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National & Global Health Law, said MLB teams can reduce risk by not having fans but they can’t eliminate the possibility of spreading the virus.
Games could return soon, Gostin said, “but we would have to be prepared to say that there are going to be transmission cases and hospitalization and possibly even death as a result and whether or not we’re willing to take that chance.
“How low can you push the risk and how much risk will you tolerate in the name of baseball? That’s the bottom line.”
The pressure to play ball is not just internal; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently called MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and said the country “needs baseball.” President Donald Trump used multiple White House press briefings to encourage the expeditious return of sports and, in a videotaped message broadcast during Saturday’s UFC event, said it’s important to “get the sports leagues back.”
Yet the ultimate power is held by state, county and city authorities.
“They’re going to have to come forward with a plan,” says DeWine, “and the state is going to have to say if that plan’s OK.
“The most important thing is to try to control the spread, so sports presents a unique challenge. It doesn’t mean it’s an insurmountable challenge.”
When the nation’s mayors are comfortable with baseball returning, could South Korea’s games be a model for what we will see in the U.S., at least for a while? (Photo: Lee Jin-man, AP)
While some states start to cautiously reopen their economies, still others have extended stay-at-home orders and maintained restrictions on the size of gatherings. How soon both of those could be eased will go a long way to determining when sports can return.
Amid a growing health crisis and evolving government response Major League Baseball has explored various contingencies.
“Major League Baseball continues to actively consider numerous ideas that would allow play to commence after public health conditions have improved to the point where it is safe to proceed,” the league said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. “Amid significant uncertainty, the unpredictability of COVID-19 and evolving state and local orders, our paramount concern remains clear: the health and safety of our players, employees, fans and the public at large.
“MLB will begin to formalize as full a 2020 schedule as possible after receiving guidance from governmental and public health officials and the feedback of the Players Association. We appreciate the patience of fans as we await clarity on this season’s schedule.”
The next few weeks will be crucial in determining if baseball will happen this summer.
Any spike in COVID-19 cases due to recently-relaxed distancing guidelines likely won’t be seen until June, leaving MLB a tight window to determine if it’s safe to proceed with training in many markets later that month.
“If MLB says, ‘We can crank this thing up and have games in June,’ I’d be more skeptical of that,” says St. Petersburg, Florida mayor Rick Kriseman. “If we’re looking at July and August, the possibility is greater. It really depends on how the public responds to the restarting of this community and the testing results – are our positives holding steady, and if not, does contact tracing allow us to quarantine right away?”
Plenty of obstacles
MLB’s proposed plan to return in teams’ home ballparks faces obstacles in the varied approach among state and city responses to the coronavirus.
Most of its cities remain under stay-at-home restrictions, with several set to expire in mid-to-late May. They could, however, be extended depending on conditions.
The 12 mayors’ offices that responded to USA TODAY Sports all indicated that health and safety would guide their decisions. None could say when restrictions could be lifted, and easing them has not been uniform.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday announced a phased plan for reopening that sets tougher benchmarks than those imposed statewide.
“While it breaks my heart that I can’t watch my White Sox play (and okay, the Cubs too), the health and safety of our residents must come first,” she said in a statement.
“This means placing a hold on activities which attract large crowds until we are confident in our ability to prevent the spread of Covid-19. While I believe the MLB is working on creative ways to address these public health concerns, for now, this means that Chicago isn’t playing.”
Florida began reopening on May 4, with St. Petersburg seeing some restrictions lifted. But hard-hit Miami-Dade County — home of the Marlins — is among three counties excluded from Gov. Ron DeSantis’s executive order.
In Missouri, St. Louis has been the hardest hit by the virus and was not included in statewide easing of restrictions. Local officials are working on a roadmap to lift them. Mayor Lyda Krewson “has said she’s hopeful that we would be able to see the Cardinals play by mid-summer,” said spokesman Jacob Long.
Many states have announced phased plans of reopening, focusing on lower-risk businesses that can allow for social distancing before moving to higher-risk businesses. The success of those plans — which rely on the ability to test for coronavirus, trace the spread of it and have hospitals be able to handle a surge in cases — will largely determine how quickly those can resume.
Georgetown’s Gostin said those factors are key in sports’ return.
“The country is not in a very good position for where I would want it to be for opening up sporting events,” he said. “The country is really not supporting sports events, even without fans, the way it should. And I can’t see fans being there any time in the immediate future.”
City and state officials are keeping a keen eye on partial reopenings in Georgia and Florida.
DeSantis loosened restrictions to enable restaurants and retail stores open at 25% capacity, with unlimited outdoor seating. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp went further, reopening gyms, restaurants and theaters, among other businesses.
California, home to five MLB franchises, had the earliest and strictest stay-at-home orders but entered the second phase of reopening the state on Friday.
Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan, the return of sports without fans wouldn’t happen until the third phase. The return of fans wouldn’t come until the fourth phase, which the California Department of Health says must include therapeutics — the development of a vaccine or medication.
Given a two-week incubation period for the virus, it could take months before health officials have determined the spread is under control and they have sufficient resources to move forward to the next phase.
Mike Lyster, chief communications officer for the City of Anaheim, said Newsom’s guidelines to reopen the state leave flexibility in when sports could return.
“If Major League Baseball comes up with a very workable plan that addresses all the concerns that we and everyone in California has, there’s always the possibility that it could be looked at at any time,” Lyster said.
In Ohio, DeWine announced plans to reopen retail stores, restaurants and salons this week, with guidance on distancing and use of facemasks. The state is discussing how to address youth sports this summer, and he sees MLB as part of a broader discussion on a return of sports.
In Boston, where a stay-at-home order is in effect through at least May 18, Mayor Marty Walsh on Friday announced “parades and festivals would not take place this summer,” through at least Labor Day, and that smaller events will be handled “on a case-by-case basis.”
For MLB, that variability isn’t just between states. The Blue Jays might face additional obstacles in returning.
Ontario currently prohibits gatherings larger than five people — more restrictive than almost all other U.S. cities with MLB teams — and Toronto has canceled all events requiring city permits through June.
With the border between Canada and the United States closed, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier this week that NHL players who have been out of the country would be subject to quarantine upon arrival.
Asked about how that applied to Major League Baseball, a press secretary for Trudeau pointed to the prime minister’s comment.
During the briefing a week ago, Trudeau said, “Any person coming in from another country will have to follow any rules and quarantine rules, extremely strictly, but we’re not there in our discussion with the NHL at this point. We acknowledge that it’s a possibility.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory has had “a preliminary conversation” with Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro, said Lawvin Hadisi, press secretary for the mayor.
“Currently, Toronto and all cities in Ontario are under provincial restrictions on mass gatherings which has impacted all mass sporting events, and we wouldn’t speculate when those rules, based on public health advice, would be lifted,” Hadisi said.
Taken together, government restrictions create a tight timeline for Major League Baseball to get anything resembling a season in — with or without fans.
With billions of dollars at stake and politically motivated desires for a high-profile return to societal normalcy, the urgency to stage an MLB season is strong.
A so-called “bubble” in Arizona and two- or three-state hubs have been reported and dissected, but the current plan may have the most staying power. MLB is aiming for teams to gather in early June for training, followed in July by games played without fans in home stadiums, with teams likely grouped geographically rather than by American and National leagues to reduce travel risks.
A sound plan on paper, it runs aground of reality after factoring the many divergent city and state policies on group gatherings, as well as the variance in active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in every market.
With the containment of the virus varied throughout the country, DeWine said he’d have to consider how visiting teams are interacting with the population under any proposal.
Regardless of how the next six weeks might unfold, all 28 MLB cities almost certainly won’t feel confident enough to allow a gathering of 100-plus people required to stage a major league game.
So, what then?
MLB could conceivably seek an exception to restrictions on large gatherings; it also seems likely multiple franchises would be forced to play in another market or at spring training sites if its home city is not an option.
MLB did not specifically respond to requests for comment on seeking exceptions or the out-of-market options, but it’s not hard to conceive how the latter might work. If New York remains a COVID-19 hot spot, the Yankees and Mets could be relocated elsewhere, with the former a natural fit in the Tampa Bay area, given its spring headquarters there.
Sports franchises — considered “superspreaders” in a pandemic — face ethical dilemmas in encroaching on another region. St. Petersburg’s Kriseman, though, said he could envision a scenario where at least one club could relocate to his area and share Tropicana Field with the hometown Rays. Pinellas County’s rate of infection is a relatively low 87 per 100,000, with 59 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 resource center.
“The key is really designing a plan that makes sure everyone associated with the teams are able to remain safe and, in doing so, keeps our community at large safe,” the mayor says. “But it’s all dependent on our indicators remaining strong and stable.”
Across the bay in Tampa, streets were closed this week to allow restaurants additional outdoor seating as Floridians took advantage of their governor’s loosened restrictions. It is a partial leap of faith that the time is right for dining in the streets.
MLB and its host cities will have to weigh the costs of a similar leap, and ensure it is not taken too soon. Kriseman says any premature opening — and subsequent shutdown — would imperil his city’s economic viability.
“I think the same thing holds true in the sports world,” he says. “Taking a cautious, slow approach is the right way to do it so that if we reopen again, it’s done in a safe manner that protects the players, protects the team, protects the community.”
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