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What we know so far about how Coronavirus is impacting MLB and the Yankees

The global outbreak has other sports leagues around the world scrambling.

New York Yankees V Boston Red Sox. Opening Day 2013. Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, New York, USA Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

If you’re reading this – that is, if you’ve had any contact at all with a media outlet in the last few weeks – you’re probably aware of the Coronavirus that has been steadily spreading around the world since its detection in China in December.

You would also, no doubt, be aware that the subjects of communicable diseases and public health responses are not this site’s bailiwick. They are certainly not mine. But as its potential impact on our little, superfluous corner of the universe begins to come into greater focus, it might be helpful to take stock of how the disease officially known as COVID-19 is affecting Major League Baseball and the Yankees.

MLB has established a task force to prepare for the virus’ potential impact on the season, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported last week. In a memo sent to officials around the game, the league is recommending a number of precautions apparently designed to safeguard the health of players and team staff. Among the suggestions are that players should refrain from taking balls and pens from fans for the purpose of autographs. They should also avoid handshakes. Teams are also encouraged to reach out to local health officials and experts for guidance and to ensure players have received a flu vaccination.

On Monday evening, MLB further announced it was closing clubhouses to all non-essential personnel until further notice. Media access will be granted in separate locations. The league put out a statement in conjunction with other major U.S. sports leagues, citing “consultation with infectious disease and public health experts.”

Prior to that announcement, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was planning a conference call with team owners to discuss the league’s response.

On Saturday, the league requested that media members, and indeed everyone, who have recently traveled to three high-risk areas – South Korea, Italy and Iran – stay away from team facilities, according to Yahoo Sports’ Hannah Keyser. As of now, there are reportedly no plans to alter the spring training or regular season schedule, which begins March 26 for all teams.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman addressed the steps the team is taking in an interview with WFAN last week:

It’s certainly something everybody’s following, and trying to come up with best practices and be educated and not [be] over-reactive, but certainly not [be] under-reactive at the same time,” Cashman told the station. “So it’s something that’s new, that is on the list of many things that wasn’t something we were dealing with prior. … We just want to apply best practices, what they are and they’re not easy. ... Like if somebody extends their hand and you’re kind of told, like, ‘Listen, it’s just best not to shake your hand.’

As far as player response, Zack Britton was the first Yankee to weigh in publicly, explaining how “tricky” things could get given the nature of the game:

Think about the baseball, how many guys touch the baseball when it gets put in play. The umpire, the pitcher the catcher, back to the pitcher and you throw it around and every infielder touches it.

His comments came after it was announced that one of the first confirmed cases in Florida was found in Hillsborough County, home of the Yankees’ spring training complex.

So there’s clearly some degree of anxiety among players and teams. What about fans, for whom a trip to the ballpark ­­– with its close quarters and long lines ­– may present an unwelcome risk? It’s still early but so far, there’s been no discernible impact on spring training attendance. The stated attendance figures have been in the 9,000 to 10,000 range, which is in line with recent averages.

The bigger test will be at Yankee Stadium when the real games start. There have been 142 confirmed cases (again, as of Monday evening) in New York state, which declared a state of emergency Saturday. Obviously, everyone will decide their own level of comfort with crowded spaces, but early season attendance will be a trend that bears watching.

Other sports leagues around the world have been scrambling to adjust to outbreak. In Italy, which is seeing a rapid escalation of cases and deaths, the entire sporting infrastructure of the country was shut down Monday until April 3 at the earliest. That includes Serie A, the country’s top soccer division, which played five matches behind closed doors Sunday.In England, the hugely popular Premier League is reportedly preparing for the possibility that its matches will have to be played in empty stadiums, or possibly with restrictions barring fans over age 70 from attending, since older people are most at risk.

Measures of that scale would be unprecedented for MLB, though baseball did witness a game played entirely in front of empty seats: the Baltimore Orioles vs. the Chicago White Sox in April 2015. At the time, there was tremendous civil unrest in Baltimore following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray.

The MLB season begins in just over two weeks. The situation could develop rapidly between now and then. At the moment, this is the state of MLB, its players, and its fans. There’s still great uncertainty regarding the extent to which the season is impacted by Coronavirus is, but we’ve already seen some effects. We’ll see soon how the Yankees and the league react once the season truly gets underway.