NBA, Hawks grapple with how to deal with coronavirus

As the country grapples with coronavirus and how to best combat the spread of the disease, athletic teams and organizations are asking themselves that same question.

The Hawks are no different and have had several team discussions about how players and staff can limit exposure and stay safe, including curtailing physical interactions in public and with fans at games. Team doctors and trainers from around the NBA, including Hawks vice president of Athletic Performance and Sports Medicine Chelsea Lane, had a meeting about this issue Monday night, and team owners, including Hawks owner Tony Ressler, will have a meeting about it Wednesday, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said.

“One of my favorite quotes is prevention is better than cure. … And I think the league’s whole stance is about prevention,” Pierce said Tuesday. “How do we provide the necessary steps for everyone so that we feel safe, we’re doing what we need to do to provide safety to our players, to our fans, to our organizations.”

» More AJC coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

One of the biggest questions the NBA faces is whether games should still be played with fans in attendance (with large gatherings of people crowding together indoors, it could increase the chances of sickness spreading from one person to another). According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, there are "escalating concerns" that the NBA could be headed toward playing games with no fans in the stands and only essential personnel in attendance, but the league has not made any announcements or movement toward that yet.

At this point, it's hypothetical and unclear if it will come to that. But it prompts the question of how teams and players would react if they indeed have to play games in front of empty arenas. Lakers star LeBron James told multiple outlets Friday, including the Los Angeles Times, that he wouldn't partake if that was the case. He walked that back Tuesday, saying he would indeed play.

On Saturday, after the Hawks’ loss in Memphis, Trae Young echoed James’ hesitance, but he clarified Tuesday that he would play regardless of whether fans are in the stands. Young added that it would make for a weird experience, though, and would have the feel of a scrimmage.

“The people that are making these decisions are just looking out for our best interest and things like that,” Young said. “We would definitely have to listen and understand that other people are just looking out for us, but it would definitely be weird.”

In the meantime, the Hawks have asked players to be mindful of ways they can limit exposure, such as regularly washing their hands and using hand sanitizer often, especially when in public. Also, being mindful when interacting with fans, such as not signing autographs with pens handed to them or giving high-fives. On Sunday, the NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS released a joint statement announcing the temporary curbing of locker room access to just players and "essential employees of teams and team facilities."

Among the team, players and staff are encouraged to elbow-bump or fist-bump instead of shaking hands or high-fiving. Most of the guidelines focus on maintaining good hygiene, rookie De'Andre Hunter said, and trying to keep clean. The Hawks have also expanded their cleaning process after home games and other events taking place at State Farm Arena.

“Basically, limit your interaction with people as much as possible, all outside people, outside of staff and the team and stuff like that,” Hunter said of strategies the Hawks had discussed as a team. “Wash your hands, of course. Just have good hygiene and that’s about it. Even with the team, we don’t shake hands, it’s all elbows and fist-bumps and stuff like that. Just being aware of your surroundings, knowing if you’re somewhere in public, like a supermarket, a movie theater, anything like that, just have hand sanitizer with you, knowing there’s a lot of germs in that area. Just being proactive with things you probably didn’t think about doing in the past, just try to implement that now.”

It’s not fun to be the guy turning kids down for autographs, Kevin Huerter said. But especially in closed quarters, it’s a necessary step.

“I was saying last night, we’re all probably at huge risk just with how many people we’re touching and seeing every day, especially at games,” Huerter said. “We’ve got to figure out how to keep ourselves safe.”

The idea, per Pierce, is to try and educate players to be proactive, especially if they’re not feeling well.

“Communicating anything, and this doesn’t go (just) to the coronavirus or general sickness, but if you wake up the next day and your knee is sore, proactively communicate that,” Pierce said. “So obviously this is a different concern that everyone’s a part of. But if someone at home is feeling it and you’ve been exposed, make sure you communicate that as well. All of those things are out there, how we go about doing media going forward, what we do in terms of who we let into the building, the facility, moving forward, all of those things are things we’re informing our players and communicating to our players about.”

As coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country, some large events are being cancelled, with the Ivy League announcing Monday morning that it would cancel its basketball conference tournaments. Regular-season men's champion Yale and women's champion Princeton will earn the automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament, which would usually go to the conference tournament winners. The decision was made in accordance with the "guidance of public health and medical professionals to discourage and limit large gatherings on campuses in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation," according to a statement by the league.

Later Monday afternoon, via Twitter, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine asked “for no events with spectators other than the athletes, parents, and others essential to the game,” for indoor events, adding that outdoor events can continue as normal. That could obviously affect the Cleveland Cavaliers, in addition to several other teams and events.

However, the Warriors played a home game Saturday despite the city of San Francisco warning against "non-essential large gatherings."

Also, with March Madness looming, NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement that "neither the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel, made up of leading public health and infectious disease experts in America, nor the CDC or local health officials have advised against holding sporting events." If circumstances change, the NCAA will make decisions accordingly, the statement added.

The situation is developing, so it’s not clear exactly how the NBA will approach things moving forward. The NBA regular season ends in mid-April, with the playoffs beginning after that.

If it comes to the point of playing without fans, Pierce said the Hawks will comply — and of course, the issue is bigger than basketball.

“It’s still about mass, and if it’s a mass thing, I think it’s a greater concern,” Pierce said. “I think we all have to think about what’s right and what’s wrong. Not so much just entertainment, I don’t think. We’re all normal, trying to be as normal as we can… If that becomes a concern, I don’t think it’s just the NBA that’s going to be affected. I have no issues with the direction of, if everyone’s concerned and (that’s) the general counsel in terms of what’s going to happen, I’m all for it. As of right now, that doesn’t seem to be the issue. It doesn’t seem we’re there yet, or there, I should say. But if, or when, that happens, we will comply.”

For Hunter, it would be a surprise if it got that far, but the game would have to continue, even under odd circumstances.

“I’d be really shocked if that did happen,” Hunter said. “But at the end of the day you’re going to have to play, whether there’s fans or not. But it’ll definitely be weird. It’ll basically be like a scrimmage or something like that.”

Editor’s note: Concerns about the coronavirus have resulted in the cancellation of many events and large gatherings. The AJC will monitor these announcements and keep you informed about any postponements, rescheduling and cancellations, but it’s best to check with venues or event organizers before making plans to attend.