On Sunday, 40,126 fans gathered at CenturyLink Field to watch the Sounders open their MLS season with a come-from-behind, 2-1 victory over the Chicago Fire. They did so a day after Gov. Jay Inslee had declared a state of emergency across Washington — and with additional hand-sanitizer stations installed in key areas of the stadium, and sanitary wipes available at all concession stands.
In the days since, the confirmed cases of COVID-19 — the illness caused by the novel coronavirus — have risen to 70, including 11 deaths, statewide (as of Thursday afternoon). More specifically, 51 of those cases, and 10 deaths, have come in King County. Inslee said Wednesday that he would cancel large events if medical evidence shows that could prevent or slow the spread of COVID-19.
Still, the Sounders’ match against Columbus at CenturyLink Field on Saturday night — which would certainly qualify as a large event — is currently slated to be played as scheduled.
“As our organization has previously stated, nothing is more important than public safety and the well-being of our fans at all Sounders FC events,” the Sounders said in a statement Thursday. “We are in continuous dialogue with regional health authorities and Major League Soccer, in addition to our network of medical experts.”
The release added that the Sounders, First & Goal Inc. and CenturyLink Field are preparing for Saturday’s match by implementing “expanded sanitation procedures — encompassing enhanced cleaning treatments to disinfect all areas of the stadium before and after every event — in addition to increased hand sanitizer stations throughout the venue and continued staff education and training.”
A separate release Thursday afternoon from King County executive Dow Constantine stated that “previously scheduled sporting events will proceed as expected for the time being,” but added that “Seattle & King County now recommends, as part of their guidelines issued on Wednesday, that people at higher risk for severe illness should stay home and away from larger groups of people as much as possible. Those at higher risk include people over the age of 60, anyone with underlying health conditions, people with weakened immune systems or those who are pregnant.”
But though Saturday’s Sounders match appears set to be played, several other Seattle-area sporting events already have been affected by COVID-19. Two Western Athletic Conference programs, Chicago State and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, decided not to travel for men’s basketball games at Seattle University this week. The Chicago State women’s basketball team canceled a home game against Seattle U as well. The school said in a statement that it was operating with the “health and well-being of the campus community in mind,” according to The Associated Press.
A part-time stadium employee at CenturyLink Field who worked as a concessions vendor for the Seattle Dragons’ XFL game Feb. 22 also recently tested positive for novel coronavirus, but public health officials determined the risk is low that the employee infected any of the more than 22,000 people in attendance that day.
Still, it’s conceivable that event postponements or cancellations could come next. As conference tournaments begin across men’s college basketball, and March Madness looms, the NCAA established a “COVID-19 advisory panel of leading medical, public health and epidemiology experts from their respective fields of study” on Tuesday.
“The NCAA is committed to conducting its championships and events in a safe and responsible manner,” Donald Remy, NCAA chief operating officer, said in a statement. “Today we are planning to conduct our championships as planned. However, we are evaluating the COVID-19 situation daily and will make decisions accordingly.”
Just two weeks from Thursday, the Spokane Arena is scheduled — at least, for now — to serve as a regional site for the 2020 NCAA tournament. Stephanie Curran — CEO of the Spokane Public Facilities District, which operates the Spokane Arena — told The Times in a statement that “at this time, there are no plans to cancel any events but the health and safety of our guests is most important so we will continue to monitor the situation and follow the lead of the Health Department.”
That, for the most part, has been the standard response from local sports leagues and franchises. Washington’s state basketball tournaments are continuing to be played this week at the Tacoma Dome, in Yakima and in Spokane. A pair of regional swim events are scheduled in the next two weeks at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way, and Pacific Northwest Swimming said in a statement that it “will utilize the recommendations and guidance of government agencies and public health departments in responding to situations” regarding those meets.
It’s possible that a continued spread of COVID-19 in the Seattle area could affect the start of the Major League Baseball season. The Mariners open their regular-season slate against the Texas Rangers at T-Mobile Park on March 26.
“The health and well-being of our fans and employees is our top priority,” Mariners vice president of communications Tim Hevly told The Times in a statement. “We are closely monitoring the situation and are in contact with local public health authorities. Right now, public health officials are not advising the postponement or cancellation of public events.
“We fully expect to play baseball at T-Mobile Park beginning March 26. Currently, we are following guidance from public health authorities and our medical staff to provide training and resources to safeguard the health and well-being of our staff and provide a safe and sanitary facility for the start of the season in four weeks.”
And games/matches aren’t the only sporting events being affected. On Thursday, NHL Seattle — which will begin play in the 2021-22 season — postponed the release of season-ticket prices and its seat-selection process for this week and possibly next week, citing fans’ COVID-19 concerns. The team had planned to release prices this week and begin setting appointments for thousands of fans on a ticket priority list to tour its preview center ahead of buying tickets.
But, on the other side, how might coronavirus concerns potentially affect fan attendance? In a Seattle Times Twitter poll that garnered more than 1,400 responses Wednesday, 71.5% said the threat of COVID-19 would not currently stop them from attending a sporting event in the Seattle area.
Soon enough, however, that decision might no longer be up to the fans in the stands.