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Korean baseball league halts plan to return fans to stands amid coronavirus spike

These KBO cheerleaders won’t have any fans to lead just yet. (Yonhap/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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South Korea’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic was seen as a success story. The country employed intensive testing, contact tracing and isolation to contain the virus and allow it to resume semi-normal operations much sooner than elsewhere. As a result, the Korea Baseball Organization was able to start its season May 5, with games played in empty stadiums.

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Eventually, the league planned to allow limited numbers of fans to return to the stadiums, perhaps starting this weekend. But as reported Thursday by Jeeho Yoo of Yonhap News Agency, the KBO put those plans on hold amid a spike in coronavirus cases in the country.

South Korea reported 79 new coronavirus cases Thursday, the most in nearly eight weeks and the third straight day the number has risen. According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), many of the cases came from a cluster outbreak at a warehouse run by one of the country’s top online shopping firms in Bucheon, 16 miles west of the capital Seoul.

Health officials in the capital region, which unlike other areas in the world never totally locked down amid the pandemic, have re-implemented enhanced social distancing rules through June 14, closing public places such as museums and places of worship and advising bars and restaurants in the area to shut down. Jeong Eun-Kyeong, director of the KCDC, said those restrictions might need to be expanded nationwide to contain the latest spike.

“The number of people or locations we have to trace are increasing geometrically,” she said Wednesday. “We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures, but there’s a limit to such efforts. There’s a need to maximize social distancing in areas where the virus is circulating to force people to avoid public facilities and other crowded spaces.”

The KBO initially planned to start selling about 30 percent of its available tickets so that fans could maintain proper social distance at the ballparks, Yoo reports. With no fans in the stands, the league’s 10 teams have resorted to whimsical measures to fill seats, with some employing cardboard cutouts and one employing stuffed animals.

The KBO was one of the world’s first team-sport leagues to begin or resume play amid the pandemic and has seen a rise in international interest. With American sports almost entirely shut down, ESPN has been televising Korean baseball games live in the early-morning hours.