In an aggressive effort to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday morning announced a restriction on gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties — a move that directly impacts Seattle-area sports teams and leagues.
Inslee, speaking at a news conference, said the ban is in effect through March and is likely to be extended.
“This is not just your ordinary flu,” Inslee said of the coronavirus crisis, which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. “This is a virus that the experts tell us are at least 10 times more potentially fatal than the flu, and this demands a response consistent with the nature of the threat.
“Starting today, I am ordering, pursuant to my emergency powers that certain events in King, Snohomish and Pierce County with more than 250 people are prohibited by order of the governor,” Inslee said. “These events that are prohibited are gathering for social, recreational, spiritual and other matters — including but not limited to community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based or sporting events. Parades, concerts, festivals, conventions, fundraisers and similar activities of that dimension are prohibited as we go forward.”
The restrictions will have broad-reaching affects on teams and fans alike in the Seattle area. Teams rushed to respond with contingency plans following Inslee’s announcement Wednesday, with some canceling or postponing scheduled events, while others announced they’ll continue to play without fans.
Inslee’s announcement comes as the Mariners prepare to open their season against the Texas Rangers, which was scheduled for March 26 at T-Mobile Park. The Mariners and Major League Baseball have discussed contingency plans for their opening homestand. Among the options discussed are playing the games in Arizona, Texas and Minnesota and playing in an empty stadium, MLB sources said.
The Mariners released a statement Wednesday:
“Following Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s announcement this morning that he is banning large group events through March, the Seattle Mariners are working with the Major League Baseball Office of the Commissioner on alternative plans for our games that were scheduled for the end of March at T-Mobile Park in Seattle.
The homestand was scheduled to include a four-game series against the Rangers and three against the Minnesota Twins. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association would have to agree on where to move the games, and the Mariners would have input.
“I had a discussion with (Mariners owner) John Stanton the other day. Missing a home opener is a big, big deal to the state of Washington,” Inslee said Wednesday. “But I think he and others understand the importance of health and I think we’re going to have acceptance of this.”
Meanwhile, the Sounders FC announced Wednesday they will postpone a scheduled match on March 21 at CenturyLink Field vs. Dallas FC.
A statement from the team read: “Throughout this process, Sounders FC has stated that nothing is more important than public safety and the wellbeing of our fans. With that in mind, we respect the difficult decision that has been made today, and our club will continue following the guidelines set forth by our public health authorities and government agencies. We will maintain our consistent dialogue with elected leadership, public health officials and Major League Soccer, and as more information becomes available, the club will continue to provide public updates. This includes details about rescheduling the FC Dallas match for a later date.”
Other teams are planning to continue with scheduled events, but play without fans. The Seattle Dragons XFL team is scheduled to play Sunday against the Los Angeles Wildcats at CenturyLink Field, but said in light of Inslee’s restrictions, the team will play without fans.
“Based on the proclamation issued Wednesday by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, the Seattle Dragons will host the LA Wildcats this Sunday, as scheduled,” XFL President Jeffrey Pollack said in a statement. “The game will take place at 4 p.m. PT at CenturyLink Field without fans in the venue. The game will be broadcast live, also as scheduled, on ESPN2.”
The Dragons’ most recent home game, on Feb. 22, drew more than 22,000 people. A part-time stadium worker at that game recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
University of Washington athletics announced Wednesday afternoon that fans will not be allowed to attend the Huskies’ home games, but all games will continue as scheduled. In addition to the student-athletes, only coaches, essential working personnel, including media members, families and recruits will be allowed to attend the games.
The Husky softball team will play at home Thursday night against the U.S. national team and the gymnastics team has its final home meet of the season on Saturday vs. Seattle Pacific University.
Shortly after the UW basketball team ended its season in Las Vegas with a loss in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament in front of fans, the conference announced it would proceed with the remainder of the tournament beginning Thursday without fans.
A statement from the conference read: “While we understand the disruption this will cause to our many fans, we have made this decision in an effort to do our part in helping to limit the spread of the virus and in the interest of the health and safety of our student-athletes, campus communities, working and volunteer event personnel and all those who attend Pac-12 events.”
The Tacoma Defiance also announced the team will play Wednesday’s USL championship match behind closed doors at Cheney Stadium. And the Western Hockey League, including the Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds will continue to play their next scheduled games without fans.
“The WHL fully understands and respects the position taken by Washington State Governor Jay Inslee today and will comply with the public gathering requirements for the upcoming WHL home games of the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips,” WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said in a statement. “We take the safety of our players, officials, staff, fans, and everyone associated with the WHL very seriously, and will take every step necessary to assist in containing this virus.”
The Storm, meanwhile has created a task force alongside local health officials to monitor the pandemic in the Seattle area, and are prepared to take necessary precautions ahead of its season opener on May 15, the team said in a statement.
A supercross event scheduled for March 28 at CenturyLink Field has also been cancelled in accordance with the governor’s restrictions.
As for high-school sports, the decision to cancel or postpone events lies with each school district, according to the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. The WIAA confirmed Wednesday that it doesn’t oversee regular-season sports events.
Practice for the spring season began last week, and the first interscholastic competitions are scheduled for the end of the week. Many school district around the region are suspending athletics or at least interscholastic events. Seattle Public Schools, which announced Wednesday it will close for two weeks, will not have athletics until it reopens.
State events, which would fall under WIAA purview, don’t begin until mid May.
While the restriction on large gatherings are confined to only three Washington counties, concern over the virus’ spread will soon be felt across the state and country. NCAA president Mark Emmert on Wednesday announced that upcoming championship events including the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments will be held without fans.
“While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States,” Emmert said in a statement. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes. We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families. Today, we will move forward and conduct championships consistent with the current information and will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed.”
Spokane is slated to host NCAA men’s basketball tournament games for the first and second rounds on March 19 and March 21.
The College Basketball Invitational tournament was also canceled earlier Wednesday morning.
On Monday, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS enacted a joint policy to close locker rooms and clubhouses to nonessential personnel, including the media.
NBA officials are expected to meet this week to discuss options, including the possibility of playing in empty arenas. The Golden State Warriors became the first NBA team to be impacted, announcing Wednesday the team will play remaining home games without fans in attendance, obeying the San Francisco Health Office’s order prohibiting groups of 1,000 people at events.
This story will be updated.