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.