By James Wagner and Ken Belson
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading public health expert on President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, said this week that it might be very difficult for major sports in the United States to return to action this year.
Various leagues have considered a number of options for restarting play that came to a halt in mid-March as the extent of the coronavirus outbreak became increasingly apparent.
A key variable, Fauci said in an interview Tuesday, will be whether the country can gain broad access to testing that quickly yields results. He said that manufacturers had made strides in developing such tests but not enough for major sports competitions to resume.
“Safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything,” he said. “If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season.’ ”
Fauci’s remarks came as Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and other leagues were scrambling to find ways to safely bring their players together to train and to play games, with or without fans in the seats.
The president has urged sports commissioners to return to play as soon as is feasible, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has trumpeted the feasibility of playing major league baseball in empty ballparks in the state this summer. Some governors, such as Gavin Newsom of California, have been more cautious.
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, said that although the rate of confirmed cases of the virus had decreased in most of the country, there would probably be a surge in cases again.
“If we let our desire to prematurely get back to normal, we can only get ourselves right back in the same hole we were in a few weeks ago,” Fauci said.
He said that any resumption of play must happen gradually and with great care and added that the authorities had to be prepared to respond if the number of cases began to grow again.
Fauci, an avid runner who grew up playing basketball and baseball, is a fan of the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees. He says he will feel comfortable returning to a stadium when the level of infection is far lower than it is now.
“I would love to be able to have all sports back,” Fauci said. “But as a health official and a physician and a scientist, I have to say, right now, when you look at the country, we’re not ready for that yet.”
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
When and how can sports return?
What we need to do is get it, as a country and as individual locations, under control. That sometimes takes longer than you would like, and if we let our desire to prematurely get back to normal, we can only get ourselves right back in the same hole we were in a few weeks ago.
We’ve got to make sure that when we try to get back to normal, including being able to play baseball in the summer and football in the fall and basketball in the winter, that when we do come back to some form of normality, we do it gradually and carefully. And when cases do start to rebound — which they will, no doubt — that we have the capability of identifying, isolating and contact tracing.
Sports are a business, and they have a financial imperative to get back as soon as possible. Some governors and mayors have discussed the possibility of sports’ returning without fans. But there are still hundreds of staff members who have to run the stadium, the clubhouse, etc. What needs to be done to make sure they’re also safe?
The things we need to do to the best of our ability are try and keep the 6-foot distance and wear face coverings. And do the kind of pure hygiene things you do to prevent the spread of respiratory infections: washing hands frequently; wearing gloves, particularly food service, and they do that anyway; changing gloves frequently. And if you are in a stadium, make sure that if there are people there, they maintain that physical distance because the virus doesn’t travel that much farther than that. If you can do that, it isn’t completely free of risk, but you diminish the risk substantially. The density of the infection in the community will dictate the degree to which you can loosen up. I’ve said that many times, and I’m quoted as saying that the virus decides how quickly you’re going to get back to normal. You can try and influence the virus by your mitigation programs, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to get the virus under some sort of control before you start resuming normal activity.
All sports aren’t created equal. Golf might be more suited to maintaining distance, but it would be harder in basketball or hockey. What can be done?
You’ve got to be really creative. That’s going to be more difficult and more problematic. But you know, there have been some suggestions that if you want to have a situation where players are going to have to come into contact, like basketball, there are certain things you can do.
It may not work. I’m not saying this is the way to go, but you want to at least consider having players, if they’re going to play, play in front of a TV camera without people in the audience. And then test all the players and make sure they’re negative and keep them in a place where they don’t have contact with anybody on the outside who you don’t know whether they’re positive or negative.
That’s going to be logistically difficult, but there’s at least the possibility of doing that. In other words, we said that for baseball, get the players in Major League Baseball, get a couple of cities and a couple of hotels, get them tested and keep them segregated. I know it’s going to be difficult for them not to be out in society, but that may be the price you pay if you want to play ball.
How many tests do we need to be doing every day, week or month before the country can reopen? And how soon will we get there?
I don’t think you should put a number on it. I think it depends on the level of outbreak and how many people you’re going to have to contact trace. Then when you have things under control, then you can start doing surveillance studies and getting out there looking for antibodies.
Is it even fair to think about sports leagues and teams getting broad access to testing if the general public or other industries aren’t getting the same?
I hope when we get to that point, when we’re going to try and get the sports figures tested, then we will have enough tests so that anybody who needs a test can get a test.
How far away are we to that?
I can’t give you a date, but I know that tests are rapidly scaling up in numbers over the next several weeks and months.
How much have you talked to sports leagues about their ideas for resuming play?
I have spoken to the sports world through interviews with people like yourselves, if they can read what I say. But I’m always open to try and help in any way I can with Major League Baseball, the NFL. I’ve spoken to some sports executives, but I don’t want to say who they are.
Have you given your blessing to any of their proposals?
I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do. That would have to be their decision.
Sports are an unusual business because athletes are in close quarters for many months. What kind of runway do leagues need to start up again?
That’s the reason I stress the idea of testing everybody and having available for them tests from which you can get a result immediately. And then you’ll know whether or not someone is infected and have to get them out for a while, 14 days or whatever it is until they pass the incubation period.
I don’t want to make this conversation sound like it’s going to be an easy thing. We may not be able to pull this off. We’re going to have to see: Is it doable? Do we have the capability of doing it safely? Because safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything. If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, “We may have to go without this sport for this season.”
Some people are clamoring for sports to resume, including Trump. Do you think that is the correct impulse?
There’s a difference between an impulse and what you’re going to do. You don’t have to act on every impulse. I would love to be able to have all sports back. But as a health official and a physician and a scientist, I have to say, right now, when you look at the country, we’re not ready for that yet. We might be ready, depending upon what the sport is. But right now, we’re not.
Sports, in the end, are entertainment. How far down the line should they be in the country’s reopening? Do more essential businesses need to come first?
I don’t think it’s either or. I think, clearly, essentially services are a high priority. No doubt about it. You don’t want the economy to completely crumble. But sports are important also for the well-being and the mental health of the country. So I don’t think you can say, “You go before I.” I think you can do some things simultaneously and you can do prioritizing some ahead of the other.
Obviously professional sports are more equipped financially to come back. But there’s also high school sports and youth sports. How can they monitor all of the things you’re talking about?
It’s still going to be the physical separation, where you might have teams playing essentially with no, or very physically separated, spectators. You could have a lottery. Instead of allowing 5,000 people into a high school or into a college gym if it holds 20,000 or 30,000, you do a considerably lower number if they’re physically separated. You wouldn’t do that now. You have to do that when the infection rate gets so low that when somebody does come up with infection, you can stop it from turning into an outbreak.