Greg Cote

Miami sports now engulfed, gutted by coronavirus threat — but the precaution is justified | Opinion

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This was the week the coronavirus global pandemic reached our shores and engulfed American sports.

And with cancellations, suspended seasons and events and a ban on spectators, the response proved this:

Sports ain’t playin’.

Sports is not playing around by taking chances, and, in most cases, sports is not playing, period.

We have felt the effect in South Florida in a way we could never imagined might ever happen.

The NBA’s immediate, indefinite suspension of its season has erased all Heat games until further notice. The NHL did the same, putting Panthers games on hold for at least 30 days. Major League Soccer followed suit with its season, suddenly erasing Saturday’s scheduled historic first Inter Miami home match.

Now, Thursday, MLB suspended the remainder of spring training, effective immediately, and delayed the scheduled March 26 start of the regular season at least two weeks.

In addition the two-week Miami Open tennis tournament was canceled for this year, and NASCAR announced the upcoming March 22 race in Homestead would be run with no spectators in attendance.

With the Marlins’ Opening Day now delayed, it still is not announced whether fans will be allowed in. The March 28 Florida Derby is still on, at least for now, but, in a time of panic and precaution, nothing seems certain.

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Sports is at the mercy of the spreading coronavirus outbreak, with leagues initially unsure what to do about the growing threat, and fans in a state of abeyance. But increasingly now, the response by leagues and government and health officials has lefty little doubt sports is prepared to risk any charge of overreaction in the name of abundant caution.

And it is clearly the right side to be on: public health over games. After all, large public gatherings are deemed the greatest threat to spread the virus, which can be deadly, and sports are all about large public gatherings.

That is why sporting events are being canceled, postponed, or played to empty houses — no fans allowed. Just this week, in addition to bold action by the NBA, NHL and MLS, the NCAA on Thursday announced its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments -- March Madness -- would not be played, after earlier saying games would be played in empty arenas. Before that, the NBA, MLS, NHL and MLB jointly announced that until further notice media members would be denied access to team locker rooms as a precaution against the spread of the virus.

Teams had instructed baseball players to not sign autographs. The Ivy League basketball tournament was canceled. All sports in Italy are on hold until April 3 at the earliest. Wednesday’s Champions League soccer match in Paris was played with no fans in attendance. The start of Japan’s baseball season was delayed. Ohio’s governor recommends no fans be allowed at indoor events.

The NBA and NCAA Tournament news was especially jarring. Now others including MLB are taking steps. Will next month’s NFL Draft in Las Vegas become a closed event with no fans allowed?

This week the virus’ impact on sports caught up to South Florida -- big time -- with fans of the Heat, Panthers, Inter Miami, tennis, auto racing and now the Marlins all instantly and dramatically affected.

It comes at a time of year the sports calendar had been especially packed with major events anticipating big crowds, the ones still planning to go on as usual not immune to that changing as teams, leagues, government and health officials grapple with how to best deal with a global threat that already has essentially closed the entire country of Italy and now is officially called a pandemic.

Think of all we had on our sports plate in the coming days and weeks.

Among major local events only the annual Florida Derby is tentatively still on as scheduled.

But should it be? Should anything be business as usual right now?

It is not being alarmist to ask — not with everything else happening internationally, elsewhere in the U.S. and now right here.

Two major upcoming South Florida annual events, the Ultra Music Festival and the Calle Ocho celebration, previously had been canceled for this year, with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez referring to “an abundance of caution” in noting that “public gatherings can pose a risk” of the COVID-19 virus spreading.

A Miami Open statement had said tennis officials were “monitoring” the situation and following the Centers for Disease Control guidelines “to ensure a safe environment for fans, players and staff.” That wasn’t enough for Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Giminez, who exercised emergency powers to cancel the popular event at Hard Rock Stadium.

Before the sports cancellations came in a flurry I had wondered in a column why local government’s “abundance of caution” in canceling the Ultra and Calle Ocho events had not been applied to all local sporting events also drawing drawing tens of thousands of fans. That wasn’t a criticism or second-guessing, however, as much as it simply reflected that the coronavirus threat is something new without a real template for how exactly to deal with it.

Which is why we have seen inconsistency in the response to it — even within our community, where a music festival was deemed an apparent threat to public health but a horse race that will draw 40,000 remains set to run.

Sports — the ultimate public gathering of large crowds — may be the aspect of daily life most affected by all this in a fast-evolving story of global scope.

Headline on CNN.com this week: “Take this seriously. Coronavirus is about to change your life for awhile.” It stated epidemiologists say it may take roughly eight weeks to arrest the outbreak.

That means major sporting events scheduled between now and perhaps into May may be subject to change or affected in some way. It means all of the local events upcoming and still going on as planned inherently pose some risk to fans who choose to attend, even if that risk is minor.

It is significant that face of the NBA LeBron James initially scoffed at the idea of playing games with no fans, in empty arenas. But he later said, “You gotta listen to the people keeping track of what’s going on. If they feel like it’s best for the safety of the players, the franchise [and] the league to mandate that, then we all listen to it.”

He didn’t mention the safety of the fans, which of course is paramount.

The fans are why sports exist at all. The very idea of playing games in empty arenas and stadiums (and racetracks) seems absurd. Leagues can do that over the short term, sure. If anything it’s a reminder that TV revenue floats leagues far more than ticket or concession sales do. For me, though, canceling or at least postponing games and other sporting events until the coronavirus threat has passed seems a far better solution if the threat is deemed so dire that fans are not allowed.

The entire scare puts sports in its place, but two or three months of major disruption is not a sacrifice too great.

We love our teams and our games so very much.

But we should love our own health and future even more.

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