The NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer are all weighing plans to restrict access to locker rooms as a precaution to protect players from exposure to the coronavirus, as concern over the situation continued escalating Saturday.
Further, the NBA has told its teams that it has until Tuesday to develop a “plan to limit the number of team and arena staff ... who interact with players” as part of their response strategies. NBA teams were also told to have an arrangement with an infectious disease specialist and to find a facility that could conduct testing for COVID-19.
“In light of the growing community spread of COVID-19 in the United States, and the emergence of community spread in Canada, we continue to closely monitor this situation and are having regular conversations with infectious disease and public health experts, including the CDC,” the NBA told teams in the memo sent Saturday night, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
No pro games in the U.S. have been called off yet. State officials in Florida said there were two presumptive cases of the virus in Broward County, where the Florida Panthers were facing the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.
The NBA told teams on Friday to prepare for the possibility of playing games in empty arenas, as some sports leagues in Europe have already done, an idea that Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James said he wanted no part of. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, at the Montreal-Florida game Saturday, would not answer if hockey has gone as far as to prepare for that contingency.
“I don't want to create any speculation or hysteria,” Bettman said. “There are obviously a variety of consequences that we may have to focus on and we'll do that in the appropriate time, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here, OK? We're staying on top of it. We're in constant communication with our clubs and the players association and we're going to deal with this in as thorough, professional, on-top-of-it manner as possible. Let's everybody take a deep breath.”
The NBA, in its Saturday night memo, also said teams quickly need a process to distribute hand sanitizer to all players and team staff and to ensure that supply does not run out.
The NBA also urged teams to cut team travel parties “to essential individuals only,” have team physicians join an upcoming road trip to study ways of limiting germ-exposure on the road and work with vendors — like bus companies, hotels and meal providers -- to understand their cleaning practices and ensure they have minimal contact with players.
“There’s a lot of due diligence going on,” Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks said.
Closing locker rooms to essential personnel only would not eliminate media interviews with players before and after games but would simply move them to a different location, possibly a news conference setting. The changes would, in theory, would allow teams to know if anyone in those areas has been tested for illness.
“In consultation with infectious disease and public health experts, we're discussing with other sports leagues options to protect the health of everyone in our buildings, including those typically in our locker rooms," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. “As always, we're committed to providing appropriate media access."
Flu hit a high-profile NBA player Saturday — but not the coronavirus. The Golden State Warriors said Stephen Curry tested positive for influenza and they started him on a treatment program.
“We have identified his probable source contact who is not part of basketball operations," the Warriors said. “He has no specific risk factors for COVID-19. He has the seasonal flu."
Bettman added that he wouldn't be surprised if the closed locker room becomes an NHL-wide mandate for at least the short term “because it may be the prudent thing to do." He said it would be an “adjustment" and that no decisions would be permanent.
“We're focused on the fact that the tightness, the crowdedness and the intimacy of postgame availability may need to be adjusted while we're focusing on the coronavirus," Bettman said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Canadian health officials have been part of the talks with the leagues, offering guidance on certain matters. Leagues have also sought additional help in some cases; the NBA, for example, has sought input from top researchers at Columbia University in New York.
“We are undertaking many precautions currently," MLB said in a statement Saturday. “For example, we are asking anyone — including media — who has visited a high-risk area, as defined by the CDC, within the last 14 days not to visit our facilities."
MLB added that it has not made changes to media access procedures yet, though it confirmed it was discussing “additional measures" with other leagues. MLS is expected to have some limits on access this weekend, but no NHL or NBA teams are working under a league mandate to change pregame or postgame procedures. However, some NHL clubs did not have postgame locker room access Saturday.
Ushers at some NBA and NHL games have been wearing gloves at recent games to protect themselves while they interact with fans. Tennis officials have said that upcoming events at Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston will be played with ball kids wearing gloves on the court and that they will not handle towels or drinks for players during matches.
The U.S. death toll from the virus climbed to 19 on Saturday, with all but three of the victims in Washington state. The number of infections swelled to more than 400, scattered across about half of the U.S. states. Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska reported their first cases.