Coronavirus: Health experts rip pro sports’ slow response to warnings

Tribune Content Agency

Upon further review, many of the country’s professional sports leagues dropped the ball in their response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, health experts told HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” show that aired Tuesday night.

While government officials in the Bay Area, as well as some around the nation, recommended mass pro sports postponements in early March to avoid the spread of the virus, the games went on for days.

If the effects of COVID-19 have thrown us in the middle of a Greek tragedy, health experts know what role in mythology they’re playing, Cal professor emeritus Dr. John Swartzberg told HBO.

“My colleagues and I often feel like Cassandra, who sees the future, keeps warning people about it, and no one pays attention to you,” said Swartzberg, who has studied infectious diseases for 40 years.

While Cassandra’s best efforts couldn’t prevent the fall of Troy, Swartzberg and other officials around the Bay Area fear what the ignoring of their early warnings may have caused.

As early as March 5, authorities in the Bay Area strongly recommended large public gatherings be called off, but the Warriors, Sharks and Earthquakes all hosted games here afterward. None of the teams had received definitive directions from their respective leagues to postpone the games.

By the time the NBA suspended its season on March 11, the Warriors had played two games at Chase Center, the Sharks played three times at SAP Center and the Quakes played once at their stadium.

Meanwhile, the health experts collectively cringed.

“Live spectator sports are the most risky thing to do in the face of a pandemic,” Swartzberg said. “There was a complete consensus among (health specialists) the consequence of continuing those games was we’d have more cases, and we all knew that.

“We’re facing a pandemic and to continue to do these things that we know will exacerbate that problem is beyond my comprehension.”

But, the local teams were hardly alone as the games continued throughout the country. There were 36 NBA games, 32 NHL games and 16 MLS games played during the five-day span when calls for postponements were being made and when the games actually stopped after March 11.

Although none of the leagues violated any government mandates by holding the games, Dr. Jeff Smith, a physician and the chief executive of Santa Clara County, was exasperated after he saw sports arenas and stadiums continue to pack their venues following the warnings.

“The greatest offender was the sports world,” Smith told HBO. “They weren’t going to stop the games until we actually forced them by legally compelling them.”

As Sharks fans packed SAP Center to witness some NHL action on March 5, 7 and 9, Smith saw things much differently.

“I see a petri dish growing viruses,” Smith said. “It’s totally a nightmare scenario. To say we’re incredulous is probably an understatement. We were just shocked, surprised disappointed, angry, frustrated.”

While their respective leagues — which hold ultimate decision-making power — didn’t instruct the Warriors and Sharks to postpone games after the early public gathering warning was issued, both teams were at the forefront of some precautions.

The Warriors were the first NBA team to announce it would hold a game in its arena without fans — March 12 against the Nets, one day after the league suspended play due to Utah center Rudy Gobert testing positive for coronavirus. In addition, before NHL play was halted, the Sharks announced they would play their final three March home games with no fans in attendance.

The Warriors kept their doors unlocked for fans who showed up to Chase Center for games on March 7th against the 76ers and March 10th against the Clippers. But on those doors were warnings for fans who experienced symptoms of the virus or had recently traveled to other countries to either not attend the game or to enter at their own risk.

“I think that when you post letters saying ‘It’s dangerous to come here, but you’ll do it at your own risk,’ it’s time to stop. It’s that simple,” Dr. Arthur Kaplan, a health official at New York University said.

It’s impossible to really know how many people could have been infected while attending sporting events in the Bay Area and beyond after the public exhortations. But, thanks to some help from infectious disease modeling experts at the University of Toronto, HBO presented us with an educated guess.

Taking just the 34 major sporting events held in the U.S. on March 11, the last day a full slate of games was played, the team came up with some frightening numbers. Based on infection rates and transmission, the study showed games held that day had the potential to result in nearly 73,000 people being infected and 875 winding up dead.

“Everybody understood that you shouldn’t have mass gatherings, so how did these really intelligent people who essentially have control over professional sports, how is it that they didn’t act on that?” Swartzberg said. “It’s like these refused to see what is right in front of them. Not only did they refuse to see, but they refused to act.”


©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Visit The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.