As the new coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads across the world and puts a range of sporting events on hold, one question stateside has been when the disease might affect an event here.
For U.S. Soccer, that’s a question with some urgency as the federation prepares to host teams from around the world for the annual SheBelieves Cup, which kicks off Thursday. The event will continue as planned, but U.S. Soccer is taking extra measures and precautions to ensure the safety of fans and players.
The reasoning for that is twofold. First, the teams participating in the tournament against the U.S. women’s national team all come from countries with confirmed cases of the coronavirus: Japan, England and Spain. Second, one of the venues for the tournament, Red Bull Arena outside New York City, is in an area with confirmed cases of the infection.
But by consulting with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, or CDC, U.S. Soccer officials say they are prepared to host a successful tournament.
“At this time, the SheBelieves Cup games are going on as scheduled and there are no immediate plans to cancel or postpone games or have them held in empty stadiums,” U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe told Yahoo Sports. “Our main priority is the well-being of players, coaches, staff and our fans. We are monitoring the situation and if there are any necessary changes, we’ll let fans know as soon as possible.”
U.S. Soccer working with visiting delegations
All the teams participating in the SheBelieves Cup come from countries affected by the coronavirus, the USWNT included.
Japan has around 300 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the fifth-most in the world, not including the outbreak that occurred aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Japan is not on the list of countries where the CDC is restricting travel for Americans. The CDC instead recommends American travelers take “enhanced precautions” if they go there, and citizens of Japan are not restricted from entering the U.S. either.
All members of the Japan Football Association’s delegation for the SheBelieves Cup received health assessments and were cleared to travel before departing from Narita, Japan, according to U.S. Soccer. The delegation arrived stateside on Monday.
The countries of England and Spain both have confirmed cases of the coronavirus as well, with fewer than 50 reports each, but the CDC has not issued any travel warnings for either country.
U.S. Soccer officials sought assurances from all three federations that players and staff have been medically cleared before coming to the U.S. and that any symptoms associated with the coronavirus must be reported to medical staff immediately.
“Japan is a county that has been a bit more affected, but we've seen a small uptick in cases here in the United States and in Europe as well, so the communication has to be across all four teams in the tournament,” U.S. Soccer’s chief medical officer, George Chiampas, told Yahoo Sports. “We are having direct conversations with all the teams to make sure there’s an increased level of awareness across the board.”
The federation has had “multiple calls with the CDC” to ensure that U.S. Soccer is taking the appropriate measures and ensuring safety for the players, staff and fans, Chiampas added.
Right now, the only travel restrictions urged by the CDC are to China, the epicenter of the outbreak with around 80,000 infections, according to the latest World Health Organization update, along with South Korea (4,200), Italy (1,700) and Iran (1,000). Entry for internationals from China and Iran into the U.S. is currently banned, and those from South Korea and Italy will face additional screening.
Changes to the SheBelieves Cup fan experience
For fans wanting a high five with their favorite USWNT player, they may have to settle for a fist bump instead.
While the CDC is urging all Americans to wash and sanitize their hands frequently (and properly), sports leagues are asking their star athletes to curb physical contact with fans. In a memo issued Sunday, the NBA offered 10 recommendations for players, including forgoing autographs.
U.S. Soccer has issued similar recommendations to its own USWNT players and members of the Japanese, English and Spanish teams. The use of fist bumps over high fives was specifically highlighted as a solution.
In addition, the federation is working on plans to communicate best practices with fans to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Measures being considered include in-stadium PA announcements, video board messages, signage and social media notices.
The CDC has recommended that Americans wash their hands for 20 seconds frequently or use hand sanitizer when there’s no access to water and soap. Anyone who may be sick is urged to stay home, and everyone should take other commonsense steps to avoid spreading germs, like covering their coughs and sneezes with an elbow.
Although the SheBelieves Cup games are expected to continue as planned, all options are on the table if changes are deemed necessary, U.S. Soccer says. In addition to consulting with the CDC, U.S. Soccer has been in touch with local agencies and health authorities in each city.
The games are scheduled to be held in Orlando on Thursday, New Jersey on Sunday, and just outside Dallas on March 11.
A precedent for the new coronavirus, COVID-19
For U.S. Soccer, which is constantly sending teams around the world for competitions, dealing with public health emergencies isn’t exactly new. Whether it’s an infectious disease, a natural disaster or anything else, there has to be a constant awareness to keep players, staff and fans safe.
In 2016, the federation had to do its due diligence on the Zika virus before determining players would compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
When the SARS epidemic broke out in 2003 in China, the Women’s World Cup was moved to the United States less than five months before the tournament was set to start.
The H1N1 outbreak infected Landon Donovan in 2009, forcing his teammates, coaches and support staff on the U.S. men’s national team to be quarantined and take a 10-day flu treatment regime as a preventative measure in case of exposure.
That same outbreak, which started in Mexico and was known as the swine flu, forced the cancellation of a pair of USWNT friendlies in Utah and Texas when Japan backed out over concerns North America wasn’t safe.
For this new COVID-19 outbreak, U.S. Soccer has had to be proactive.
The U.S. under-15 boys team was slated to go to Italy for a competition and that trip has been canceled. The U.S. futsal team had plans to fly to Croatia with a connection through Italy, and that has been rerouted as well.
The next big lingering concern is the 2020 Olympics in Japan.
For everyone right now, it’s a “wait and see” situation. No one can predict what will happen with the coronavirus, which doesn’t seem that much more lethal than the typical flu. But because it’s brand new, there are no vaccines or medicines that can treat it yet.
U.S. Soccer says the health of its players and staff will be its top priority, but it needs to see what public health authorities have to say as the event gets closer. Ultimately, the International Olympic Committee could decide to cancel or move the event, although there are currently no plans for that.
For now, U.S. Soccer just has to focus on the SheBelieves Cup, which is going on as planned.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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