Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ leading infectious disease expert, said professional sports returning this year while the coronavirus pandemic recedes is possible — under very specific circumstances.
“There’s a way of doing that,” Fauci said on “Good Luck America,” an in-house interview series from Snapchat, a social media platform. “Nobody comes to the stadium. Put them in big hotels wherever you want to play. Keep them very well-surveilled and have them tested, like every week, and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family and just let them play the season out.”
That serves as a soft endorsement of various contingency plans being formed by the major professional sports leagues, which badly want to resume or start their seasons.
Major League Baseball, which halted spring training March 12, is considering an all-Arizona plan to salvage the 2020 season. The NHL reportedly is eyeing North Dakota for a similar single-state solution, and the NBA is looking at Las Vegas.
In the baseball version, all 30 teams — players, coaches, staff and others — would be sequestered in the greater Phoenix area, their travel limited from hotel to bus to ballpark. It’s not clear yet what that baseball-in-a-bubble solution would mean for hotel, security and other third-party staff and if they also would have to be holed away and frequently tested. Mass availability of COVID-19 tests is another chief issue with the loose plan.
If MLB can figure out all of the logistics, there is a catch: Games would be played in front of no fans, which seems likely upon sports’ initial return no matter what.
“People say, ‘Well, you can’t play without spectators.’ Well, I think you’ll probably get enough buy-in from people dying to see a baseball game — particularly me,” said Fauci, who grew up in Brooklyn as a Yankees fan. “I’m living in Washington, we have the world champion Washington Nationals. I want to see them play again.”
The bottom line, though, is that nobody is sure when sports safely can return. Asked about the NFL and college football seasons Wednesday by CBS Evening News, Fauci said he didn’t know.
“Right now I can’t predict what it’s going to be like as we enter into fall for the football season, or even the summer,” he said. “Is there any salvageable part of the baseball season? I don’t know that. We’re going to have to see what happens as we start pulling back as we try to get back to normal.”
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said Tuesday that his state is willing to host all 30 teams “at the right time.”
“At the time that it would be appropriate for public health, if Arizona were in a position to reopen, we have the facilities that are here,” Ducey said. “We have the hotel space that is here. We all want to make certain that the metrics and the data are proper before we’re able to go forward, but I think two words that would allow the country and the state of Arizona to know that things were headed back to normal would be: Play ball!”
Similarly, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently deemed pro sports employees essential — with the caveat that no fans are present — which allows them to work even with stay-at-home orders in place. MLB also is considering a one-year realignment to use its spring training setup for the regular season, with 15 teams in Arizona and 15 teams in Florida.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred referred to those contingencies as “ideas,” saying they don’t reach the level of “plans.” He added in a Tuesday appearance on Fox Business Network that baseball won’t return until the public health situation has improved “to the point that we’re comfortable that we can play games in a manner that is safe for our players, our employees, our fans — and in a way that will not impact the public health situation adversely.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman struck a similar tone Wednesday on FBN, saying, “People need to feel safe and we don’t want to put anybody’s health at risk, and that applies to our players, all the personnel who attend a game, and ultimately fans.”
Still, the NHL is prepared to play into the summer for the sake of finishing its season, Bettman said.
“We believe that we can be fairly flexible in terms of the calendar,” he said. “When we get the opportunity from a health standpoint to bring our players together, to let our teams reconstitute themselves, and get operations up and running, we’ll be in a position to do that whenever it makes sense.”
Sports bosses including Manfred, Bettman, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NBA commissioner Adam Silver are on President Donald Trump’s 200-person advisory group that will help form plans on when and how to reopen the economy. Team owners Robert Kraft (Patriots), Jerry Jones (Cowboys) and Mark Cuban (Mavericks) also are in that club.
“We want to have our sports leagues open,” Trump said Wednesday. “It’s important. We miss sports. We miss everything. We want to get back.”