Just hours after the Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Florida’s first two cases of coronavirus, nearly 20,000 sports fans crammed into AmericanAirlines Arena to take in perhaps the Miami Heat’s biggest win of the season.
People sat shoulder to shoulder in the arena stands to watch Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo rout the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. There were hugs and high-fives, passed beers and hot dogs, and trips to communal restrooms — holding the same handrails as they walked up and down stairs.
In other words, they engaged in the sort of behavior that health officials worry that could turn what is now a small outbreak into a full-blown epidemic.
To be clear, there is no evidence that anyone who attended Monday night’s game was a coronavirus carrier. But considering the illness’ spotty testing and varied symptoms, there’s no way to be sure.
And concerns that COVID-19, as the coronavirus is known clinically, could spread quickly at events with big crowds crammed in close — like Heat games or the Ultra Music Festival — has the NBA and every major sports league making changes.
Those changes, for now, have been small. But should the illness’ outbreak get far worse — experts worry that up to 70 percent of the world’s population could be infected in the next year — the possibility of empty arenas or even game cancellations become very real.
It’s already happening. Italy has postponed club soccer matches. Preseason baseball games in Japan have been closed to spectators. The Formula One race in China set for April 19 has been scrapped — for now.
Four of South Florida’s five pro sports teams — plus our local colleges — are currently playing either regular season or exhibition games. For now, those contests have gone on as scheduled.
We reached out to each organization — plus major colleges in our coverage area — to learn more about what precautions they are taking in light of coronavirus.
The Miami Heat is working closely with the NBA on managing the coronavirus scare, and a team spokesperson deferred to a statement from the league when asked if anything is being done as a precaution.
“The health and safety of our employees, teams, players and fans is paramount,” the NBA said in a statement. “We are coordinating with our teams and consulting with the CDC and infectious disease specialists on the coronavirus, and continue to monitor the situation closely.”
According to a memo to NBA teams obtained by ESPN, among the league’s recommendations is for players to use first-bumps over high-fives with fans and avoid taking items such as pens, balls and jerseys to autograph. As of now, the coronavirus hasn’t led to any changes at AmericanAirlines Arena. But fans are being encouraged to use common-sense practices to avoid germs like washing hands regularly.
As of Monday, the Marlins did not anticipate their spring training schedule, which runs through March 22, or their opening-day game — against the Philadelphia Phillies at Marlins Park on March 26 — to be impacted.
A Marlins spokesperson said Monday the club is closely monitoring the outbreak and has been in communication with both the Major League Baseball office and with local officials. The team is advising players and staff members to follow best practices and recommendations put out by the CDC.
From a global perspective, the World Baseball Softball Conference announced Monday that the final baseball qualification event for the Tokyo Olympics that was scheduled to take place in Taiwan from April 1-5 has been postponed to June 17-21 because of “player, personnel and spectator health and safety measures against the spread of the coronavirus.”
The United States’ national team, which hasn’t yet qualified for the Olympics, could play in that tournament if they don’t win the Americas qualifying event that takes place in Arizona from March 22-26.
A team spokesperson released the following on behalf of the Panthers’ facilities staff:
”As an area and a company, the BB&T Center, Panthers IceDen and Florida Panthers always take health and wellness of staff and guests very seriously. Our building is held to very high cleanliness standards year round and during this time additional sanitization stations are being installed for fans and employees. Hygiene, hand-washing are always encouraged with an emphasis of even being more encouraged now.”
There have been no major changes beyond adding more hand sanitizer dispensers around the BB&T Center and “education.” The organization has told anyone who works at the facilities to be more cautious about staying home if they’re not feeling well.
The Panthers’ next home game is Thursday against the Bruins.
The NFL is one month into its offseason, but there are plenty of big events that could be affected by coronavirus — most notably, the NFL Draft, held this year in Las Vegas. More than 600,000 people attended the 2019 draft in Nashville.
For now, there are no plans to move or cancel the draft or this month’s annual meeting, which will be held in Palm Beach.
“We are closely monitoring developments and have been in contact with The World Health Organization, CDC and the NFL-NFLPA medical experts at the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network [DICON] Program for Infection Prevention,” a league spokesman said in a statement. “We will continue those discussions throughout our offseason.”
As for the Dolphins, club CEO Tom Garfinkel has insisted all staff have received the CDC’s guidelines for community spread mitigation and preventing the spread of respiratory diseases, according to a team spokesman.
“The health and welfare of everyone in the organization is our top priority,” the Dolphins spokesman added. “As a preventive measure, we have increased the amount of cleanings and hand sanitizers throughout the facility and training camp. We will continue to monitor travel safety conditions worldwide.”
The Dolphins are scheduled to play in London this fall.
The expansion MLS team opens its home schedule March 14 against the L.A. Galaxy. That game will be held as planned.
“We are being very, very focused and observant,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said recently. “We formed a task force. We’re in touch with the CDC. We’re not different from any other league or business that’s catering to the public, whether it’s here or around the world. We’re monitoring it closely. The leagues are in contact with each other.”
More on the league’s task force: It’s comprised of executives responsible for the principal league functions and includes MLS’ Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Margot Putukian. The group keeps on top of the most recent developments and is in regular contact with member clubs regarding best practices.
All Miami Hurricanes games, for now, are on as scheduled, athletic director Blake James told the Miami Herald Tuesday. This is one of the busiest times of the year in college sports, with both winter and spring sports in season.
“As part of the preparations, we remain in communication with our central campus administration and the ACC Conference as well as our peer institutions,” James said. “We will continue to work with campus experts and follow recommended guidelines from local, state and national government officials.”
Furthermore, the Atlantic Coast Conference announced Tuesday that it “continues to prepare for the upcoming ACC and NCAA tournaments scheduled to be held at the Greensboro Coliseum. As part of the preparations, we remain in communication with our institutions, local and state health authorities and the NCAA.”
The conference added that it will continue following the CDC’s guidelines.
The Miami Herald twice reached out to an administrator at FIU for comment for this story, but those efforts were unsuccessful.
The University of Florida and Barry University provided informational campus-wide emails sent to their students, but said nothing more on how coronavirus will impact athletics.
Florida State, for now, is planning to hold next month’s football spring game as scheduled, AD David Coburn told the Tallahassee-Democrat.
The following Miami Herald reporters contributed to this report: Susan Miller Degnan, Michelle Kaufman, David Wilson, Jordan McPherson, Anthony Chiang, Jason Dill and Walter Villa.
This story was originally published March 3, 2020 1:42 PM.