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The NCAA is preparing for the coronavirus, and it’s complicated

The NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments bring 132 teams and traveling parties to dozens of host cities. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
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In his new role, Carlos del Rio will be part of a team advising the NCAA on how it should — or, in the worst case, shouldn’t — proceed in holding one of America’s most popular sporting events amid the spread of the coronavirus. The disease has placed sports leagues and teams in uncharted, uncertain territory, trying to make decisions in the face of an illness that has confounded health experts.

“We’re kind of building the ship as we’re sailing it,” del Rio said.

Yeshiva, in an NCAA tournament venue kept empty by coronavirus, faces WPI, and sundown

On Tuesday, the NCAA announced it formed the six-member coronavirus advisory panel that includes del Rio, a global health department chair at Emory University, along with experts as disparate as Vivek H. Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general, and Mike Rodriguez, a former New York cop who serves as the head of security for the U.S. Tennis Association and the U.S. Open.

The coronavirus has caused leagues and teams to scramble. Small Division I basketball programs Chicago State and Missouri Kansas City pulled out of games at Seattle University, near the epicenter of the worst coronavirus spread in the United States; they are believed to be the country’s first sporting events canceled as a result of coronavirus.

Late Thursday night, Johns Hopkins announced it would not allow fans into NCAA Division III first-and second-round men’s basketball games it is hosting this weekend. One of the teams at the Hopkins site is Yeshiva University, which is at the center of an outbreak in New York.

Also on Thursday, Stanford announced it would limit public attendance at on-campus sporting events to approximately one-third of each venue’s capacity through April 15. The university’s women’s basketball team, which is ranked seventh nationally, is expected to be named a host for first- and second-round NCAA tournament games later this month as one of the top 16 seeds. In a news release, Stanford said it would continue to provide further updates on those games as it becomes available. The release also specified that attendance limits at Maples Pavillion would be 2,345 for basketball. The arena is also hosting the Pac-12 wrestling championships this weekend, but the university said it would allow seating for all fans who had already purchased tickets.

The NHL barred league employees from traveling outside North America. MLB created a “working group” to address concerns and, like the NBA, advised players against signing autographs.

The NCAA might face the thorniest issues of any major sports organization. The men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will force the NCAA to navigate dozens of host cities welcoming players, coaches and traveling parties from schools arriving from every corner of the country.

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Major sports leagues uniformly have stated they are monitoring and evaluating the coronavirus. But what exactly does that entail? In a phone interview Thursday, del Rio provided insight into not only how the NCAA will work through hosting a sporting event amid the coronavirus’s spread but how other major sports leagues could make their decisions.

“You can go all the way to, ‘Should sports events be canceled?’ ” del Rio said. “You can go all the way to one extreme. … At some point in time, there will be decisions. I’m not saying we’re there here, at all, in the United States. But I think [the NCAA is] being very proactive in saying, ‘Hey, you know, at what point in time would you think that would be an appropriate decision? Do we wait for public health to do it, or do we do it ourselves?’ Those are valuable discussions that need to happen.”

The NCAA’s coronavirus panel has yet to hold its first meeting, and its members pledged to be available for scheduled teleconferences and on an on-call basis, del Rio said. Once they start talking, rapidly changing circumstances will make it difficult for the NCAA to make specific plans or create specific thresholds. In summarizing the knottiness of the NCAA’s task, del Rio cited a quote he attributed to Jeffrey P. Koplan, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “We’re going to know tomorrow things we wish we knew today.”

“You’re going to have to make decisions today based on not the best information but information that you have today,” del Rio added. “Somebody in the NCAA is going to have to make those decisions. What the NCAA is asking for is — wisely so — advice from the outside on what to do.”

The task the NCAA faces is “like a Rubik’s Cube,” del Rio said, because of how many locations are involved. The NCAA will take cues from the CDC, but it will also need to monitor local advice. One benefit the NCAA’s panel will provide, del Rio said, is the ability to quickly find and interpret recommendations from state and municipal health departments.

The panel probably will guide the NCAA with proposals both small and large. Some ideas will be noncontroversial: del Rio mentioned making more hand sanitizer and tissues available, putting up signs telling people to wash their hands, maybe passing out face masks.

But the severity of the coronavirus and the complexity of the tournaments could create much larger questions.

“Do you recommend that people coming to X, Y or Z state shouldn’t come?” del Rio said. “Do you implement screening at the entry of a stadium doing, for example, temperature checks? I’m not saying that’s what we’re recommending. I’m just pointing out things that I have thought about as I’m thinking about this responsibility, this committee I’ve been asked to join.”

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Some sites will present heightened concern. Spokane, Wash., is scheduled to host first- and second-round games of the men’s tournament. It is more than a four-hour drive from the Seattle area, where an outbreak that started in a nursing home has killed 11 people and infected more than 70. Organizers have said the disease currently poses no threat, but del Rio said the NCAA will need to consider a range of information.

“I would need to look at the data there,” del Rio said. “Is it just going be local people, or are we going to have people driving [four] hours from Seattle to come there? You need to look at who’s going to come, where are they going to come from. Who do you prevent from coming? Do you need to put any restrictions? Those are tough situations. But in an environment like this one, those are real situations and those are real concerns people need to consider.”

The panel, del Rio said, will focus on risk assessment. In Atlanta — where del Rio is based and the site of the men’s Final Four — two cases have been diagnosed: a man who recently traveled to Italy and his son, both of who have been quarantined at home. Fans there, del Rio said, would have a greater chance of getting into a car wreck on the way to the arena than catching coronavirus once inside.

“So you need to look at what the circumstances are,” del Rio said. “To me, sustained human-to-human transmission is the linchpin.”

This past week, Chicago State and UMKC decided against trips to Seattle.

“Based on the current developments involving the coronavirus in Seattle, it is imperative for us to be proactive in regards to the safety of our student-athletes and men’s basketball program,” UMKC Athletics Director Brandon Martin said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Chicago State said its men’s basketball team would not travel for regularly scheduled games at Seattle University and Utah Valley University, citing the “health and well-being of the campus community.” The school’s women’s team will not host two games against Seattle or Utah Valley.

In a statement, Seattle University said it respected the decisions of Chicago State and UMKC and understands their concerns. It said single-game ticket holders would get full refunds from the canceled games. “There has been no recommendation to suspend campus operations, including athletic contests, or restrict travel in the United States at this time,” the school said.

In the end, the NCAA will have to weigh risks. While del Rio said he and his fellow panel members would provide recommendations based solely on public health, the NCAA will have to make final decisions.

“For me, it’s a public-health decision,” del Rio said. “What I will tell the NCAA is based on public health. For them, it’s going to be also a business decision. It has to be.”

The unpredictability of the coronavirus makes forecasting the NCAA’s decisions impossible. In Italy, all soccer league games for the next 60 days will be played in empty stadiums. Del Rio would not expect the NCAA tournament to be played under those conditions. But he would not have expected Italy to look that way, either.

“If the tournament was today — except for places like Spokane or Washington, where you may have some questions — I would say: ‘Go on. There’s no concern,’ ” del Rio said. “But will that change? It may. I would have never predicted we’d be where we are with Italy. And yet we are. Nobody a month ago would have in their wildest dreams said, ‘Italy is going to be a disaster.’

“What people need to understand is that this is changing so rapidly that today, if I was making a decision, I would say, ‘Proceed.’ Next week, I may say something very different.”

Matt Bonesteel contributed to this report.