If sports has a near future, it’s probably not “biodomes”

I wasn’t going to do another “When will sports be back?” post again this soon, really I wasn’t — look, here’s an image of the Brooklyn Dodgers‘ proposed 1950s domed stadium that somebody posted on Twitter, that’s way more fun to think and/or complain about — but then Patrick Hruby, late of Vice Sports, wrote a newsletter yesterday interviewing Emory University epidemiologist Zach Binney about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on sports, and I wanted to point out one important thing.

Binney runs through a lot of the established science around sporting events and infectious disease — the soccer match that was a “biological bomb” for Italy, the fact that big events are exponentially bigger disease vectors than small ones, indoor ones than outdoor ones, and ones with people in close proximity (including beer lines) than ones where they’re farther apart — as well as the pitfalls of building an isolated “biodome” to hold games with players but no fans: You’d need thousands of players and coaches and support staff, and anyone who had to leave the security perimeter for any reason (sprained something and needs an MRI? wife having a baby?) would need to be re-quarantined for two weeks. But then Hruby asks him about the “more relaxed version of the biodome” that Taiwan is pursuing: empty or near-empty gyms and stadiums, but no quarantining of players beyond regular temperature checks and wearing masks (and no masks for players during games).

From everything you’ve said, it doesn’t sound like it would be safe or responsible to do this in the US right now, given our current situation with the virus. What would the situation in this country have to be in order to make a Taiwanese approach possible?

The thing that people should understand about Taiwan is they had experience with a situation like COVID-19 back in 2003 with SARS. So this is one of the most prepared places on the planet. They were aggressive, they moved early, and they largely kept their epidemic under control.

When you say “under control,” what do you mean?

They kept the number of cases low. They did not get far into exponential growth—one person spreads it to three people, and then those three spread it to three others, so it becomes nine, then 27, and so on. They stopped the virus early in that process. Which means they could then identify and track and isolate new cases.

[Editor’s note: as of April 12, Taiwan had reported 388 coronavirus cases and six deaths in a population of around 24 million].

With the number of new cases down to a trickle, their public health authorities are actually allowing gatherings of up to 500 people. So they are reaping the rewards of acting early and acting aggressively. The longer you wait—the more cases there are and the more transmission there is—the longer it takes to kind of get over that peak and get back down onto the other side.

This is key question for not just restarting sports, but reopening schools and other parts of society: When can each country get its level of new infections down to trace levels? Once you get there, you can escape the “mitigation” phase of an epidemic — where your only goal is to keep the fire from spreading too fast — and get back to the “containment” phase, where you’re actually tracking every glowing ember and dumping water on it before it can start a new flareup. In this case, the water bucket would be testing and contact tracing: Basically, test everyone every few days, then immediately quarantine anyone who tests positive and anyone they’ve been in contact with for 14 days or until they’re no longer contagious.

Needless to say, this would require some major expansion of rosters to account for any players who’d have to be cycling in and out of quarantine, plus some flexible scheduling for if an entire team had to be quarantined after spending a game with one infectious teammate. (It doesn’t look like Taiwanese or South Korean leagues, which also are set to reopen soon, have said yet what their plan is for if a player or staffer tests positive.) But it least would allow for only locking down part of society at any given time, instead of everyone all the time, which would surely be an improvement.

To do that, though, first infection levels have to return to where they were a couple of months ago, and pretty much nowhere outside of China, Taiwan, and South Korea is anywhere close to that yet. (Denmark, which started reopening schools today, is still seeing a couple hundred new cases per day, not that far off its peak, and may honestly be jumping the gun here.) So really, the answer to “When can sports return?” is likely to be the answer to “When can the rest of the world bring infection rates way, way down and then get widespread testing and contact tracing in place?”, which is going to depend as much on government policy as on the nature of the disease. If you want to watch sports aside from Taiwanese and Korean baseball anytime soon, in other words, stay the hell inside, and tell your elected officials that they need to get a testing-and-contact-tracing regime ready ASAP.

17 comments on “If sports has a near future, it’s probably not “biodomes”

  1. I am not expecting a baseball season in 2020 ( Arizona included). Why? Even if the go ahead is allowed in the US and Canada ( Toronto Blue Jays), what about foreign countries ( especially the Dominican Republic and Venezuela which produce a lot of players)? Those countries do not have the sophisticated testing and treatment options we have here. There is no way I see the Federal Government allowing baseball players to come here and possibly start to infect people in this country.

    1. The DR currently has 317 cases per million people, and Venezuela has 6. The US has 1,836. If anything, those countries should be banning players coming from the US.

      1. Wait, Neil, have you skipped “Homeland”? Did you not get the non-white people bad – white people good memos?

        I mean, the US gov’t, Hollywood and network news have been trying to drive this untruth into us for decades now… it’s like you aren’t even trying to believe it…

      2. If you think that the DR, and especially Venezuela, are testing at the levels they need to and that those figures aren’t artificially low, I’ve got oceanfront property in Omaha to sell you.

  2. There is no way I see the Federal Government (i.e. the President) initiating and then actually being competent enough to logistically manage testing and contact testing anytime soon to be able to begin emerging from the current mitigation efforts.

    They (i.e. He) just want to put up a big “Open” sign and slap the hands together and say “Missions Accomplished”.

    We know how that turned out.

  3. But but but but but…. the chief medical propagandist says it is so so it must be so…


    I actually think Fauci is doing ok under the circumstances… but he has clearly used up his last public trust card in backtracking on his criticism of this government’s shambolic handling (and now, of course, blamestorming) on this issue.

      1. You trust the guy who has told a documented 15,000 lies (plus) on television since inauguration day?


        1. John Bladen,

          Have you asked why lottery tickets are still being sold and liquor stores are still open in this crisis? Just asking for a friend

          1. LOL. Yes, actually, I have. And add some Casino related businesses too (some are closed, some not). Oh, and WWE in Florida of course.

            I am pleased to see the human race taking pandemics seriously. But I have questions about why we haven’t in the past…

            US Influenza deaths (by season):

            2010 37,000
            2011 12,000
            2012 43,000
            2013 38,000
            2014 51,000
            2015 23,000
            2016 38,000
            2017 61,000

            Also, why don’t we get daily death total updates from news networks on influenza deaths? Or vehicle related fatalities?

            (Disclaimer: in no way am I suggesting or stating that CV 19 is just “flu”. Only that our response as a society to large scale epidemics/pandemics is highly selective… just like our response to the deaths resulting from nuclear power plant accidents is far different from those caused by non-nuclear power plants. We are a strange species.)

          2. This is nonsensical. There are huge, federally mandated or backed programs and regulations to reduce vehicle and seasonal influenza deaths. It is objectively false to insinuate that they aren’t taken seriously.

  4. I am going to balance out my updates about Germany planning to restart Fußball with the opposite tack in a neighbor. Belgium quickly canceled their soccer season and now have cancelled all sports until September. That’s right they have already announced everything is cancelled this year and NEXT year will be delayed by a month at a minimum. Cycling may be the most popular summer sport in Belgium and all cycling events have been cancelled or delayed past August. This is opposed to the Tour de France which has been “saved” by move to an August 29th start.

      1. Germany has cancelled “major” events through August as well. So far, sports without fans have not been determined as “major” events. It does mean all summer festivals have been cancelled.

  5. Why do people insist on comparing the entire US to small countries?

    The US has some problem areas, but most states have fewer than 10000 confirmed cases according to the CDC. New York City has almost 20% of confirmed cases and 1/3 of known deaths. Not New York State. Just the five boroughs. The surrounding counties are also disproportionately represented. Westchester, right next to NYC, has 10 times as many reported cases as Erie county (as far as you can get from NYC while still being in the state).

    I am not trying to say that sportsball leagues can start up tomorrow and being begging for subsidies. It is just not possible to compare the US to most other countries due to the size and variance involved. Some parts of the US are Italy and Iran while others are closer to Taiwan. Even states that were seen as scary hotspots early on, like Washington, are much in much better shape than New York City.

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