- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The NBA late Wednesday suspended its season after a player tested positive for coronavirus and the NCAA, citing its own concerns about spreading the infectious disease, announced that March Madness will take place in arenas minus fans.

“The NBA is suspending game play following the conclusion of tonight’s schedule of games until further notice,” the NBA said. “The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert’s announcement came after a string of local and statewide moves around the country, including in Washington state and Ohio, to restrict large gatherings.

Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners announced plans to move home games.

The NCAA’s March Madness, as the men’s tournament is known, is one of the most popular sporting events in the U.S. each year. The men begin play Tuesday while the women’s tournament starts March 20. The ruling also applies to the National Invitational Tournament.

Only essential staff and “limited family attendance” will be allowed at games, Mr. Emmert said.

“This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes,” he said in his official statement.

The NCAA is also looking into moving The Final Four, the tournament’s last weekend of games, out of Atlanta’s cavernous Mercedes-Benz Stadium and into a smaller venue in the city, according to Emmert.

The coronavirus was classified as a pandemic Wednesday by the World Health Organization, with more than 120,000 cases and 4,500 deaths worldwide.

Local officials around the country are responding to the crisis with their own bans on large gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

The District followed Ohio’s lead Wednesday when the D.C. Department of Health announced a “recommendation” to postpone or cancel gatherings of 1,000 or more in the nation’s capital through March 31. (Washington state’s edict was for all gatherings of 250 or more.)

Mayor Muriel Bowser urged “any social, cultural, or entertainment events where large crowds are anticipated be reconsidered by the organizer” in a message on Twitter.

But Monumental Sports and Entertainment responded by saying Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards home games would go on as scheduled and remain open to fans unless the NHL and NBA respectively decided otherwise.

The Wizards’ and Capitals’ parent company, owned by billionaire Ted Leonsis, said it has formed a coronavirus task force and employees are “undertaking additional cleanings in high traffic areas across all of our properties.”

“We are in constant contact with both leagues and should they update their guidance, we will update the public accordingly,” Monumental’s statement said.

That’s not the case elsewhere.

The Mariners plan to move at least their first six home games of the new MLB season out of Seattle, the first area of the country hit by the outbreak. Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders postponed a home game set for March 21, and the XFL’s Seattle Dragons will play at home Sunday without fans present.

An outright ban of nonessential mass gatherings in the District would have had far-reaching effects. Between Wednesday and March 31, the Capitals have seven home games scheduled, the next one as soon as Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Capitals will still experience playing a game in a venue without fans: On March 19 they visit the Columbus Blue Jackets, which announced they will comply with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s order and close their games to the public.

Capitals players who met with reporters Wednesday, before the domino effect of local and national announcements, said they hoped concern over the virus wouldn’t reach the point of holding games in empty arenas.

“I think it is just precaution from certain leagues (overseas) and I think over here in the states all the leagues are on top of it and obviously we are aware of it and we will see what happens,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “Hopefully we are not coming down that road and we will keep playing normally.”

But center Lars Eller approached it as “a very real possibility.” The Dane said he knows people back in Europe who have come in contact with people later discovered to be carrying COVID-19.

“I think it’s very, very, very hard to stop it,” Eller said. “I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think there’s any stopping it. But I think that’s being done is being done to slow it down, buy us time to prepare.”

Some players, including John Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom and Ilya Kovalchuk, signed autographs for fans and interacted with them after practice despite a directive that reporters stay about six feet away from them during interviews. It’s not realistic to try to live life “in a bubble,” Carlson said.

“I honestly don’t feel like fans should suffer from this,” Backstrom added. “I don’t know where all the fans were from here — maybe they were driving a long way. We are trying to act as normal as possible. I know it’s a big thing in the world and everyone is talking about it, but we got the instructions of just being as normal as you can, washing hands a little bit more often. That is all we can do.”

Major League Soccer’s D.C. United has no more home games this month, but the District’s other pro teams face tough decisions.

The DC Defenders of the XFL still plan to hold their home game this Sunday at Audi Field with fans in attendance, per a spokesperson.

The Nationals have no regular-season games scheduled for Nationals Park until their home opener April 2, but there is an exhibition game set March 24 for fans called the “homecoming game.” The team’s annual “homecoming gala” scheduled for March 23 was canceled before the D.C. Health’s announcement.

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