With the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, sports stadiums packed with fans is no where in sight, in particular here in the United States. So with the nation attempting to restart businesses, open doors to patrons and get things moving again, when can people safely return to sports venues without risk of contracting COVID-19? The short and simplest answer is when we have a widely-distributed vaccine. That vaccine will likely not be available for another year and perhaps longer. This line of thought leads to the question of can we have sports return before a vaccine is developed. Among the major sports leagues in the U.S., several have whispered about possible returns, the possible location(s) used and the logistics to accomplish their goals. But when we bring back sports, it must be done in a responsible manner with health and safety prioritized over all else. Athletes and coaches should never be asked to put anything over the health of themselves and their families. In order to most effectively ensure as few possibilities of COVID-19 transmission, sports in empty stadiums will likely be one avenue to gain further traction. Let’s take, for example, Sanford Stadium in Athens, which packs over 90,000 people into its confines. If even one person had COVID-19 and was asymptomatic, the virus could spread among the spectators. Couple that with people returning home after the game, going to work on Monday, etc. and it’s a recipe for disaster. If all patrons were required to wear masks, that would certainly prevent a possible spread. However, that would hinge on all fans complying with the rule at all times which is easier said than 100% enforceable. Given our example, I love the pageantry of college football, and college sports in general, like so many of you. From the tailgating to the game itself to the whole atmosphere. No fans, though, cuts off a major method of possible transmission. The same would be true for professional sports. Baseball, football, basketball and hockey fans everywhere might have to settle for viewing their team from a screen. On Tuesday, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association began discussions on whether the sport could resume in July, but could fans be allowed through the turnstiles? Certain locales have city and/or state regulations in place could prevent teams from playing in their home stadiums. And if fans are barred from stadiums, what about the facility and gate revenue stream? And the employees who work at the stadium? The NBA and the NHL were close to the end of their regular seasons and might be able to restart their years beginning with the first rounds of the playoffs. But yet again, athletes might have to accept no fans being in the stands. No energy to feed off of from the crowd. The Korea Baseball Organization started on May 5 in South Korea with no fans in the stands. Crowd noise? KBO took a cue from the Falcons (sorry) and pumped in stadium sound. Not deafening, but something to simulate a crowd. Would that be something to consider in this particular situation? Very much so. There’s no simple solution because circumstances could change at any time. If someone were to get infected, it’s plausible an entire group of players, team or teams would have to go into a two-week quarantine, depending on who it was. From there, the whole operation might need to be suspended, pending further tests and then who knows. If it got out of hand, there might be a need to put a stop to the whole thing. The economic fallout would take its toll, but health and safety should be of absolute priority if the United States is to see collegiate or professional sports starting back up this coming summer.
So how do we do this effectively? We do this through testing everyone involved and limiting contact, making sure there are as few chances of transmission as possible. During times like these, we’ll need to be willing to make hard choices and sacrifices. At some point, we’ll be able to fill stadiums again just as we have for years. But until a vaccine is available, if we want our sports to return, we might just have to spectate from a safe distance.