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Will Coronavirus Fears Drive Fans Away from MLB Games?

Coronavirus COVID-19 under the microscope. 3d illustration

The spread of COVID-19 at the beginning of 2020 has caused major social disruption in heavily affected countries, like China and Italy, thanks to quarantine orders and travel bans. Public health authorities have ordered social distancing measures to limit public gatherings and advised citizens to remain at home to avoid becoming ill. The death toll currently stands in the thousands, with 100,000 cases confirmed.

In Canada, the Women’s World Championship hockey tournament to be held by the International Ice Hockey Federation in Nova Scotia beginning on March 31 was cancelled due to the outbreak. The Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix on March 22 will not allow spectators as Bahrain fights the spread of the virus.

Three out of four of the Big 4 North American sports leagues are currently playing games. The NBA and NHL are approaching the end of the regular season and beginning of the playoffs, while MLB is in the middle of Spring Training. The NBA has instructed teams to create virus contingency plans, which include identifying “essential staff” required to host games without spectators or media in attendance. NHL dressing rooms have been closed to media members on the recommendation of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

MLB has not taken such precautions as of yet. The league recently issued a memo to teams advising players to refrain from direct contact with fans through handshakes or accepting balls and pens for autographs. Media personnel who have traveled to “high-risk areas”, as defined by CDC, have been asked to not visit league facilities, but clubhouses remain open to the media.

The CDC has also advised senior citizens and persons with severe chronic illnesses, the groups most at risk for serious complications from COVID-19, to “stay at home as much as possible” and “avoid crowds.” While no such recommendations have been issued for the public at large at present, coronavirus fears could drive down attendance at sporting events, including MLB games.

I have attended a game during the opening week of the MLB season for over ten years but have decided not to do so this year out of precaution. While my overall risk of becoming seriously ill is relatively low, I don’t want to become a vector for contagion that threatens more vulnerable members of the population.

I believe MLB fans in North America are unlikely to change their plans unless a rising death toll and stress on the healthcare system makes the threat impossible to ignore, giving rise to social distancing measures by public health authorities and severe disruption of public life.

US fans also lack the information needed to appropriately assess the exposure risk that attending a game may pose. At this time, the Trump administration has chosen to downplay the virus threat. President Trump has been criticized for an “incoherent” virus press conference, and a New York City Health official believes “slow federal action” has made it difficult to control the epidemic. Lab testing capacity has been limited, which means the information available about the extent of the epidemic in the USA is unreliable.

MLB is also not known for a proactive response to crises and has waited for negative media attention to force its hand, as was the case when the Astros cheating scandal came to light. In addition, team owners will no doubt be hesitant to lose revenue from ticket sales. I don’t expect the league to take more drastic precautions against coronavirus, like hosting games without spectators, until its response lags behind the other members of the Big 4, garnering negative publicity.

If, by some miracle, the spread of the virus slows over the next few weeks, such measures may not become necessary and business will go on as usual. However, if the virus does in fact infect 40% to 70% of the world’s population this year as predicted by a Harvard epidemiologist, social disruption will be inevitable.