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Health experts weigh in on when professional sports can return, and how

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We won’t be seeing fans in ballparks for quite some time.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

With no news of baseball games, our attention naturally turns to when and how those can resume in the United States and Canada.

Today, I have information from a couple of medical experts regarding sports and under what circumstances it can return.

You’re certainly familiar with the man whose photo appears at the top of this article. Dr. Anthony Fauci is one of the country’s most renowned experts on infectious diseases. He was interviewed by Snapchat recently regarding how professional sports can resume:

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert and one of the faces of the United States’ fight against the coronavirus, says the only way professional sports will happen this summer is by holding events without fans in attendance and by keeping players in hotels.

”There’s a way of doing that,” Fauci told Snapchat’s Peter Hamby as part of a weeklong interview series. “Nobody comes to the stadium. Put [the players] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled. ... Have them tested every single week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”

Fauci, who specifically addressed a question about an abbreviated baseball season and the start of football, said he thought there would be enough interest from fans to watch games, even if they could not attend.

I agree with Dr. Fauci’s take. Now, exactly how this will be arranged and when remains to be seen. But with the proper precautions taken, as noted by the doctor, we can probably have some baseball this year.

But when can fans actually return to stadiums? Even if some businesses re-open within the next few weeks and we cautiously return to some parts of everyday life, it is extremely unlikely that large gatherings such as you’d see at baseball games (40,000) or football games (60,000 or more) will happen any time this year. And another doctor thinks that might not happen until late 2021:

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, who advised the Obama administration on health policy and the Affordable Care Act, said he did not think large gatherings would be possible until after a vaccine is widely distributed in 12-18 months.

Emanuel, the older brother of former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel who now chairs the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said the American economy would have to be opened up in stages, beginning with workplaces that can maintain more social distancing practices.

But he was less optimistic about playing football in big stadiums, for instance, as the NFL and colleges would like to do this fall if possible.

“Larger gatherings — conferences, concerts, sporting events — when people say they’re going to reschedule this conference or graduation event for October 2020, I have no idea how they think that’s a plausible possibility,” Emanuel told the Times. “I think those things will be the last to return. Realistically, we’re talking fall 2021 at the earliest.”

I prefer to be a bit more optimistic than Dr. Emanuel and hope that MLB games can resume a normal schedule next April. But as he notes, a vaccine is likely needed before large-scale gatherings can return. Vaccines are now in development; it’s a matter of how long it will take for those vaccines to be tested and proven safe. Safety of any COVID-19 vaccine is paramount — check out this story about a 1955 polio vaccine that failed, actually paralyzing some children instead of preventing the disease.

We’d all love to see some live baseball. I do think it is possible, as Dr. Fauci noted, to have sports in empty stadiums later this summer. It’s going to be quite a bit longer before anyone can return to his or her favorite seat in a ballpark or stadium.