Fan ban at games could be new normal, but would it really satisfy physical distancing rules?

Dominic Menor, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 02 2020 08:16 AM

Something happened on September 17, 2018, that many Filipino sports fans had never witnessed.

In Gilas Pilipinas’ first home-game with then coach Yeng Guiao during the qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, the team stepped on to the Araneta Coliseum floor greeted by nothing but the squeaking sound of their sneakers and utter silence.

Guiao, his players, and local fans hadn’t experienced anything like it at that huge a stage — a game without spectators.

“It's kinda surreal,” Guiao, who has since left the coaching job, said at the time.

“Dati, di ko marinig ’yung mga instructions ko, mismo ako, sa ingay. Pero ngayon, pati 'yung sa kabila naririnig namin.”

“Closed-door arena” may again be a buzz phrase in the coming weeks, as leagues throughout the country devise an ideal environment at a time in which mass gatherings are outlawed.

With the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent restrictions on public assemblies, it’s easy to imagine a sporting venue with empty seats and the only people in attendance are from the teams seeing action.

But unlike the consequences that led to Gilas playing at the Big Dome devoid of the proverbial sixth man, now public safety is at the core of a possible fan ban.

UAAP executive director Rebo Saguisag said he sees the merits of reactivating sports competition minus the crowd but he’s not entirely sold on the idea for two reasons: the nature of team sports that inherently goes against the principles of physical distancing, and the unpredictability of the novel coronavirus disease.

“Until the vaccine is out, definitely out ang mass gathering, meaning so malamang closed door ’yan. It sounds sound in theory, pero sa implementation, parang mahirap din,” Saguisag said.

Saguisag and the UAAP once called for spectator-free games this past season.

On March 9, the league barred the public from watching Game 2 of the boys and girls basketball finals at FilOil Flying V Centre in San Juan, because of COVID-19 worries.

But this was in the early stages of the outbreak, or some 10 days before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and what Filipino doctors knew about the virus was still at its nascent stage.

The double-header in San Juan played out similarly to the Gilas-Qatar game in September 2018, a typical game made distinct only by the empty stands.

But now that Filipinos are more informed of how potent COVID-19 is and the infections have become widespread, resorting to closed-door conditions such as the Gilas game and the UAAP high-school finals poses more questions now.

“For example, basketball, it’s basically a contact sport. Paano mga benches ng mga players, hindi ba dapat sila magtabi-tabi? Sa bagay malaki naman ang (arena), so dapat ba hiwa-hiwalay sila sa stands?” Saguisag said.

How would physical distancing work in a basketball game, which is essentially a full-contact sport? Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/file

A closed-door setup doesn’t mean it’s just the players and the coaches who are inside the coliseum.

According to PBA commissioner Willie Marcial, a typical game day requires some 500 personnel at the venue, ranging from the teams and their staff, arena workers, security, TV broadcast crew and media.

At some point, one group of people will come in contact with the other inside a confined space, where the air that people breathe does not circulate out of the building.

Monitoring that many people entering the arena is expected to be rigorous, but because there are asymptomatic infections, a slippage could realistically happen.

“Ang prublema sa sports, kunwari papayagan pero wala pang vaccine, OK lang mga players, kami. Ang prublema, pagbalik mo sa bahay. Hindi mo alam kung meron ka (ng COVID 19),” Marcial said.

Will players wear masks, goggles?

On the court, players would be banned from slapping high-fives, huddling at center court, embracing, and any sort of contact. But those have been their habits since they were kids starting out in their sport; whether or not they can overcome those instincts fast enough is also another sticking point.

In short, several factors — besides fan presence — must be considered before the so-called new normal conduct of games is institutionalized.

But foremost in organizers’ minds should be the welfare of the people who form the main product.

“What sports groups should study first is the safety and the health of the athletes, the coaches and the technical officials,” said Ramon “Tats” Suzara, chief organizer of the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.

“After you make the guidelines for them, then come the spectators.”

Because of the extreme feature of the health crisis, it wouldn’t be surprising to see sports officials consider equally extreme measures to tackle it.

Suzara, who has taken up several positions in local and international volleyball bodies, said he believes it’s not farfetched to see a future in which players are made to wear what he describes as a sports mask that’ll be light enough so that players can perform comfortably. Protective goggles could be part of the playing gear at some point, too.

“The athletes, the coaches, they should be the first group to be checked that they’re healthy, that they’re not prone to the virus,” Suzara said.

Nazareth School of National University and Far Eastern University Diliman played without spectators in Game 2 of the UAAP boys basketball finals at FilOil Flying V Arena in San Juan on March 9. UAAP handout/file

In a volleyball game, a reinforced kit could be viable, at least in theory; in basketball, the concept would be impractical because bumps, hits, holds, and all sorts of body contact are at the very fabric of the game.

“Maski na may goggles, mask, magkakadikit kayo. Pawis niyo, braso niyo. So hindi alam talaga kung papaano,” Marcial said.

“Maski na closed door tayo at pinagbawal pa rin ang social distancing, paano ’yun? Basketball dikit ’yun.”

Which leads to the second reason why prohibiting fans does not guarantee the safety of the participants — the characteristics of COVID-19 and the absence of a vaccine make it so that people must always presume they’re vulnerable to the contagion.

Reopening sports events even behind closed doors will not happen as long as the threat to public health persists and there is no absolute assurance that an infection will not occur while fans are cheering intensely for their favorite team.

“(COVID-19) checks all the boxes: High effectivity, high pathogenicity, high virulence. Lahat ng masama, check niya, so mabilis mag-spread tapos deadly pa siya kaya nakakatakot talaga,” Saguisag said.

“So it’s hard to gamble with people’s lives.”

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