Virus may have US sports leagues cutting locker-room access

MIAMI (AP) — The NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer are all weighing plans to restrict access to locker rooms as a precaution to protect players from exposure to the coronavirus, as concern over the situation continued escalating Saturday.

No collective decisions have been made, according to several people involved in the talks who spoke Saturday to The Associated Press. In some cases, clubs are making their own decisions, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed that the leagues are weighing a number of options.

“We're focused on the fact that the tightness, the crowdedness and the intimacy of postgame availability may need to be adjusted while we're focusing on the coronavirus," Bettman said in Sunrise, Florida, while appearing at the Montreal-Florida game for Roberto Luongo's jersey retirement.

Bettman added that he wouldn't be surprised if the closed locker room becomes a league-wide mandate for at least the short term “because it may be the prudent thing to do." He said it would be an “adjustment" and that no decisions would be permanent.

“A locker room is different from being in the stands," Bettman said.

The changes would not eliminate media interviews with players before and after games but would simply move them to a different location, possibly a news conference setting. The changes would be designed to limit locker-room access solely to players and essential team personnel, which in theory would allow teams to know if anyone in those areas has been tested for illness.

“In consultation with infectious disease and public health experts, we're discussing with other sports leagues options to protect the health of everyone in our buildings, including those typically in our locker rooms," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. “As always, we're committed to providing appropriate media access."

Flu hit a high-profile NBA player Saturday — but not the coronavirus, or COVID-19. The Golden State Warriors said Stephen Curry tested positive for influenza and they started him on a treatment program.

“We have identified his probable source contact who is not part of basketball operations," the Warriors said. “He has no specific risk factors for COVID-19. He has the seasonal flu."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Canadian health officials have been part of the talks with the leagues, offering guidance on certain matters. Leagues have also sought additional help in some cases; the NBA, for example, has sought input from top researchers at Columbia University in New York City.

“We are undertaking many precautions currently," MLB said in a statement Saturday. “For example, we are asking anyone — including media — who has visited a high-risk area, as defined by the CDC, within the last 14 days not to visit our facilities."

MLB added that it has not made changes to media access procedures yet, though it confirmed it was discussing “additional measures" with other leagues.

MLS is expected to have some limits on access this weekend, but no NHL or NBA teams are working under a league mandate to change pregame or postgame procedures. However, the New York Islanders did not have postgame locker room access Saturday in response to the outbreak.

The NFL has also been involved in the multi-league talks on some level, though is not part of the current restricting-access plans because it is in the offseason.

On Friday, the NBA told its teams that it wants them to be prepared to play games without fans if necessary because of the coronavirus outbreak. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James quickly reacted by saying he won’t play basketball in an empty arena.

The league circulated a memo to its teams telling them to prepare in case it becomes necessary to play games without fans or media, as sports leagues in Europe have already done. The memo detailed potential actions that teams might need to take “if it were to become necessary to play a game with only essential staff present.”

Ushers at some NBA and NHL games have been wearing gloves at recent games to protect themselves while they interact with fans. Tennis officials have said that upcoming events at Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston will be played with ball kids wearing gloves on the court and that they will not handle towels or drinks for players during matches.

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