A view of the empty Juventus stadium, as a measure against coronavirus contagion, prior to the Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Inter, in Turin, Italy, Sunday, March 8, 2020. Serie A played on Sunday despite calls from Italy’s sports minister and players’ association president to suspend the games in Italy’s top soccer division. (Marco Alpozzi/LaPresse via AP)

Virus impact on US sports grows; more restrictions in Europe

March 10, 2020 - 8:29 pm

The novel coronavirus outbreak, which has already reshaped the professional sports landscape in Europe, prompted major changes to restrict fan access in the U.S. on Tuesday, with major decisions looming about baseball's opening day and college basketball's NCAA Tournament.

College games will be played without fans in Ohio and California, and given restrictions on large gatherings there and elsewhere, more disruptions to the sports calendar appear inevitable. The NCAA said it would “make decisions in the coming days” about its men's and women's basketball tournaments after two conferences banned fans from their championships and another canceled its tournament altogether.

The baseball season begins in just over two weeks and includes games in Seattle. Of the 29 known deaths in the U.S., 24 have been in the Seattle area, with 19 tied to a single nursing home.

The Mariners are set to host the Texas Rangers on March 26. If Major League Baseball can't play in front of fans at a team's home ballpark, the sport's first preference likely would be to switch games to the visiting team's stadium if possible, a person familiar with the deliberations told The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because no decisions have been made.

Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos said Tuesday he is concerned about traveling to Seattle.

“I know the season starts in Seattle, and we know how Seattle is right now," Chirinos said. "That’s 2½ weeks from now, so I think we’re going to hear some news when we’re getting close to opening day.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the state is preparing for potentially tens of thousands of cases, based on estimates of the spread of the disease.

MLB anticipates government officials will decide whether it is safe to play in front of fans in each city. If changes to the schedule are necessary, MLB would make determinations at the point when a ballpark has been ruled out.

None of North America's major sports leagues has postponed games or barred fans in a bid to keep them safe, but there was a flurry of activity as college conferences and schools began making those moves. The Ivy League became the first Division I conference to cancel its basketball tournaments.

Discussions about next steps have been ongoing for weeks as postponements and fan restrictions have become common elsewhere. Early Wednesday, London-based football club Arsenal announced that its players would be self-isolating because of possible exposure to the virus, forcing the postponement of its Premier League game at Manchester City. It was the first Premier League game called off because of the virus and the first possible exposure involving players in a major sports league.

Scores of top-tier soccer games in Spain, France and Portugal, as well as some in Germany and a European Championship qualifying match in Slovakia, will be played in empty stadiums in coming days.

The Spanish league said matches in its first and second divisions will be played without fans for at least two weeks. The league said it was "prioritizing the health of fans, players, club employees, journalists, etc., due to the COVID-19 health crisis.”

The French league said soccer matches in its top two divisions will be played without fans until April 15 and Portugal announced similar measures. Italy earlier this week said all sports events, including Serie A soccer games and preparatory events for the Tokyo Olympics, were suspended until April 3. The Italian ski team decided not to send competitors to Slovenia for the last World Cup races of the season.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks. Those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Sports and government officials in nearly every corner of the globe have scrambled to address concerns fans could be at risk and to potentially stop the spread of the virus. The fear has spread from Asia — particularly about the Summer Olympics in Tokyo — to Europe and now to North America:

— Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recommended that fans be kept away from all indoor sporting events. The state is home to the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers and the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets, among others; the Blue Jackets said they did not plan to keep fans away from games this week. The state is also hosting a number of high school and collegiate tournaments this month and the first games of the NCAA men's tournament — the First Four — are scheduled for next week in Dayton. First-round games are also set to be played in Cleveland on March 20 and 22.

The NCAA released a statement three hours after the DeWine's announcement saying it “continues to assess how COVID-19 impacts the conduct or our tournaments and events.”

“We are consulting with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel, who are leading experts in epidemiology and public health, and will make decisions in the coming days," the NCAA said.

The Mid-American Conference announced its men's and women's tournaments to be played in Cleveland this week would be closed to the general public.

— The Big West announced a similar move with its men's and women's tournaments, which will be played this week at Honda Center in Anaheim, California.

Also in Southern California, USC and UCLA said all of its home athletic events will be held without fans at least until April 10, or until further notice. That would include first- and second-round NCAA women's tournament games likely to be hosted by UCLA.

— The NHL was also assessing the impact of a decision by Santa Clara County health officials in California to ban gatherings of more than 1,000 people in response to the spread of the virus. The San Jose Sharks have games scheduled for March 19, 21 and 29.

— The NBA told teams last week to prepare for the possibility of playing games in empty arenas, which Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James initially said he wanted no part of and would not play, but said Tuesday he would do whatever the NBA tells teams to do.

— In Germany, the Bundesliga said six of nine games this week will be played without fans, including one of Germany’s biggest rivalries, Borussia Dortmund against Schalke. The German ice hockey league canceled the rest of the season a day before the playoffs were due to begin.

— Champions League soccer matches are also being affected, including next week’s game between Barcelona and Napoli in Spain and Bayern Munich against Chelsea in Germany. Both games will be played without fans, as will Dortmund's match at Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp said closing stadiums to fans — a measure not yet taken by English soccer authorities — wouldn't necessarily be the best solution.

"The problem with football games," Klopp said, “is if you are not in the stadiums, then you go watch it closely together in rooms and I’m not sure which is better in this case, to be honest.”

— One of the year's biggest tennis tournaments, at Indian Wells in California, was canceled this week. The next Grand Slam tournament is the French Open, due to start in Paris on May 24. The French tennis federation said it did not anticipate canceling the Open.

— In MotoGP, the Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin, Texas, was postponed until November. Bobby Epstein, chairman of the Circuit of the Americas track, said the decision was made by MotoGP because of global concerns over travel, most notably in Italy.

— The Noord-Brabant province in the Netherlands called off all professional soccer matches for the rest of this week. The province includes Eindhoven, where the U.S. is scheduled to play the Dutch national team in an exhibition on March 26. The U.S. Soccer Federation said it is monitoring the situation there and in Cardiff, where the Americans are to play Wales four days later.

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AP Sports Writers Ronald Blum, Ralph D. Russo, Tales Azzoni, Greg Beacham, Jim Vertuno, Mitch Stacy and Pat Eaton-Robb were among those contributing to this report.

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