PHOENIX — Unwilling to get caught flat-footed by the spread of the coronavirus that has forced other sports to suspend or cancel events, Major League Baseball – along with the NBA, NHL and MLS – will close locker rooms and clubhouses to the news media and any non-essential personnel. In addition, the leagues will consider further options to protect themselves from the potential pandemic while preparing for and playing out their respective seasons.
The major change in media policy will go into effect on Tuesday, according to a joint statement issued Monday by the four leagues:
“After consultation with infectious disease and public health experts, and given the issues that can be associated with close contact in pre- and post-game settings, all team locker rooms and clubhouses will be open only to players and essential employees of teams and team facilities until further notice. Media access will be maintained in designated locations outside of the locker room and clubhouse setting," the statement said.
For now, neither the NBA nor MLB plan to postpone games nor play them without fans.
Following a conference call with all 30 owners on Monday and after receiving further information from the Centers for Disease Control, MLB determined that all media access will take place outside the clubhouse and will ask players to adopt the CDC’s recommendation of maintaining a six-foot distance from reporters.
Catcher Salvador Perez exits the Kansas City Royals clubhouse at their spring training facility in Surprise, Arizona. MLB is planning to deny media members clubhouse access to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (Photo: Charlie Riedel, AP)
The NBA will enact a similar protocol, and only essential team personnel, such as trainers, doctors, coaches, front-office executives and public relations staffers will have access to the locker room.
Like MLB, NBA teams will conduct press conferences in rooms where there is at least a barrier of six feet between the coach or player being interviewed and the media.
Because of Coronavirus precautions this is the new way of interviewing Stars players after practice. Joe Pavelski is about 8 feet from the media members in a room on other side of building from locker room. pic.twitter.com/iI33T3VNvh
The adjustments come as COVID-19 virus cases and fatalities continue increasing worldwide, and sports leagues are responding in kind. Exhibition baseball games in South Korea and Japan are being played without fans, and Italy’s Serie A – the country’s premier soccer league – announced its season has been suspended in the wake of a countrywide directive to quarantine. The Indian Wells tennis tournament in Palm Desert, Calif., was also canceled.
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The NBA, in an internal coronavirus memo sent on Saturday, instructed teams to have an arrangement with an infectious disease specialist, identify a facility that can conduct testing for COVID-19, create a plan to limit the number of team and arena staff who have close contact with players and have a process to distribute hand sanitizer to players and team staff.
The league has been in regular contact with teams via memos, including a memo sent Friday telling teams they should be developing a plan and identifying actions required “if it were to become necessary to play a game with only essential staff present (i.e., without admitting fans, media, and/or other typical attendees).”
The NBA has promised to restore full locker room access once the coronavirus abates, the Pro Basketball Writers Association said in a statement.
MLB said in a statement that while it "recognizes the fluidity of this rapidly evolving situation, our current intention is to play Spring Training and regular season games as scheduled. In a joint step with other professional sports leagues, we are requiring that Clubs relocate media availabilities to another area in their facilities. Access for and coverage by the BBWAA and all media are vital to our game and we hope to resume normal operations as quickly as possible."
Even as teams hold hourlong meetings, form task forces and regularly update players on MLB’s reaction to the virus, responses from both teams and individuals have significantly varied.
Multiple teams training in Florida have barred players from signing autographs and instead have distributed pre-signed items to fans. Other players still sign for fans while others, such as Oakland pitcher Mike Fiers, have bounced past fans and explained they can’t sign due to the looming health crisis.
It’s been a similar story in clubhouses, where many players have not hesitated to shake hands with reporters or other visitors from external organizations. Meanwhile, Opening Day looms in 17 days with little idea where the response may be heading.
“You’re hearing more and more about it now, with the big sports starting to put some (restrictions) on it,” Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes told USA TODAY Sports on Monday, before the ban on clubhouse outsiders was determined. “As more things come out more about the development of what we’re going to do to try to protect against it, obviously it’s one of those things that’s growing and we’re still gaining our knowledge about it.
“Every day, they’re updating us on the process of it and what we should do to protect against it. It’s ongoing, a day-to-day thing to keep us safe in here and keep us healthy for the season.”
Brewers manager Craig Counsell said the club has created an informal task force that works with the league on communication and disseminates information to the club.
“I think my role in this is to communicate with team officials spending time on it; it’s not my role to evaluate what’s going on with the coronavirus,” Counsell said. “And when we have information to share with our team, we do so.”
For now, that only includes the barring of outsiders from the clubhouse. More rash measures – playing without fans, or not at all – are not on their minds.
At least not yet.
“Obviously, it’s a hot topic in the world today right now,” says Brewers second baseman Keston Hiura. “Everyone in this clubhouse isn’t really too concerned about it. We’re just focused on getting ready for the season, preparing ourselves to play in a couple weeks and whatever ends up happening, happens.
“Right now, we’re not preparing ourselves to play in front of no fans.”
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