The global outbreak of COVID-19, yesterday declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, is a public health emergency that is impacting professional sports organizations across the word. Italian officials suspended all sports, including the prestigious Serie A soccer league. Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball first played spring games without spectators, but delayed the start of its season on Monday. South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) delayed the start of its season indefinitely, a move made after the league canceled its preseason. Here in the United States, the NBA officially suspended its season last night. The NHL and NCAA may soon follow suit.
These decisions follow the standard advice of public health experts and officials, who understand the role that mass public gatherings play in the spread of infectious disease. Policies that encourage quarantine and social distancing – i.e. limiting large public gatherings – are methods that work in times of crisis. Research shows, for example, that cities that proactively implemented these policies limited the spread of the deadly 1918 influenza much more effectively than those which did not. (Consider that every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was full just 72 hours after a parade attended by 200,000 citizens.) Taiwan, which also suspended its baseball league, is a modern example that shows these policies work.
It is good to see these leagues, in other words, make difficult decisions. It can, and likely will, make a huge difference. All of this is to say: Major League Baseball, it’s your move. The research is clear. Peers are already taking action. Rob Manfred should not delay in pushing back the start of the 2020 season. In fact, he has a moral responsibility to do so.
This will always be a difficult decision – but one that will only get more difficult with delay. Now, the league has already taken some steps. But it is very clear that pushing back the start of the season is a last resort. MLB closed locker rooms to all non-essential personnel, including press. Teams have halted travel. Scouts are returning home from the road. The Wall Street Journal (subs req’d) reported yesterday that leadership is considering a strategy to host games in areas not yet affected by COVID-19.
Again, though, this is not enough. Public health officials agree that the plan to play in yet unaffected areas is foolish at best and dangerous at worst. Dr. Dena Grayson, an expert in pandemics, was very clear in an interview to The Los Angeles Times. The current plan, she argued, is “just begging for more people to get infected, and more people to die. It’s a very bad idea.”
It also seems to be a very logistically challenging idea: San Francisco, Oakland, Washington State, and Washington, D.C. have each limited mass gatherings in recent days. Others, including New York City, are likely soon to follow.
That is not all. Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician of the U.S. Congress, yesterday warned Capitol Hill that he expects 70 to 150 million Americans to contract COVID-19 at some point. (He is not alone. Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard epidemiologist, estimates that 20-60% of adults worldwide will contract the virus.) There will not be unaffected areas very soon, if there even are any now – it is hard to say, given the lack of necessary testing.
In other words, Major League Baseball cannot be reactive in this case. It is only a matter of time before a MLB player or staff member, like Utah’s Rudy Gobert, will contract the virus. At that point, it will be too late. Public health crises demand proactive, not reactive, solutions. The solution, in this case, is already out there.
While this all may sound very alarmist, true leadership means recognizing changing situations and implementing mature plans to keep everyone safe. After all, it is vulnerable populations – those who lack access to quality health care, elderly Americans, and those with underlying health conditions – who are most at risk. Their lives are more important than setting up storylines for a Yankees-Dodgers World Series.
One way to protect those vulnerable Americans is to stop mass public gatherings before it is too late. Baseball will be there once COVID-19 is eventually under control. How long it will take to control, though, depends on the decisions of Major League Baseball and other organizations like it.