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People wait in line to buy tickets for the South by Southwest music festival last week before the popular annual event was canceled. Getty Images
  • During the past week, public events from music festivals to sports contests to conferences have been canceled due to the coronavirus disease outbreak.
  • Experts say it’s essential to ban large gatherings because of how widespread the disease is and how easily it is to transmit.
  • They note the illness can spread even in small gatherings, sometimes by people who don’t even know they have the disease.

The global COVID-19 outbreak has prompted quarantines, cancellations, and dire warnings around the globe.

In Italy, where more than 1,000 people have died from the virus, the entire country has been in a virtual lockdown since last week.

This week, the dominoes started to fall in North America.

Large public gatherings — particularly music festivals, tours, and sporting events — have been wiped from the calendar with little indication of when things might return to normal.

It’s a move that’s been applauded by health officials as they scramble to contain the virus.

“In the midst of community spread of COVID-19 within the U.S., organizers of large events, meetings, and festivals need to realize the potential risks to all attendees,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told Healthline.

“It’s in the best interest of all parties involved to cancel such events,” he emphasized.

Meanwhile, organizers of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Japan in late July — one that draws athletes and spectators from around the world — appear to be adopting a “wait and see” approach.

Early March saw a wave of cancellations related to the outbreak.

On March 6, organizers of the South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW), held in Austin, Texas, announced they were pulling the plug on this year’s festival. The annual Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) is also canceled.

Numerous other music festivals in the United States and abroad were canceled or postponed.

Coachella, which typically takes place in April, will take place later in the year, according to organizers.

Meanwhile, musicians ranging from Pearl Jam to Mariah Carey have also canceled shows.

Canceled concerts were just a prelude to the biggest news of the week: North American sports coming to a virtual standstill.

After Rudy Gobert of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19, the league announced that the season would be suspended following the conclusion of Wednesday night’s games.

Since the news broke, a second Jazz player, Donovan Mitchell, also tested positive for the disease.

“The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic,” the league announced in a statement.

Within 24 hours, virtually every prominent sporting event in North America was suspended. The National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and Major League Soccer (MLS) all issued statements that they would be suspending play.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) and American Hockey League (AHL), which both have teams in the United States as well as Canada, followed suit.

The Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) is also canceling some tournaments.

Perhaps the highest profile cancellation is the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) national men’s and women’s basketball championships, better known as March Madness. This has been canceled altogether, a day after announcing that games would take place in empty buildings.

The Summer Olympics, due to start in July, are a notable outlier. Organizers said on Thursday that the games will proceed as scheduled — a move that experts see as questionable.

“The decision of whether to cancel or postpone the upcoming Olympic Games is certainly on the minds of organizers and all stakeholders. First and foremost, the safety and well-being of athletes, staff, and spectators is paramount,” said Glatter.

“In light of the current global spread of COVID-19 and the cancellation of other recent large events, the prudent decision would be to cancel or postpone the Olympic Games,” he added.

The CDC recommends that all people wear cloth face masks in public places where it’s difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance from others. This will help slow the spread of the virus from people without symptoms or people who do not know they have contracted the virus. Cloth face masks should be worn while continuing to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home can be found here.
Note: It’s critical to reserve surgical masks and N95 respirators for healthcare workers.

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Given their age, conditioning, and access to top-notch medical care, most professional athletes are likely to recover from the virus if they contract it.

The issue at hand is the number of people these events bring together.

A sold out hockey or basketball arena can hold as many as 20,000 fans, while baseball and football stadiums can be double or even triple this size.

Glatter said the new coronavirus and crowds of people are a bad combination.

“Just a single person who is infected with the virus, and coughing in the vicinity of others, could potentially spread the virus to two or three other people. It’s just not worth the risk,” he said.

Some municipalities have proactively banned larger gatherings, but even a relatively small crowd can pose a risk.

“Some organizations have used 100-person gatherings as the minimal number that may place others at risk for dissemination of the virus,” said Glatter. “While this may be a valid calculation for reducing risk, there is certainly potential for spread among smaller crowd sizes.”

Ultimately, there’s no reliable way to mitigate risk when large crowds of people gather.

“Screening people who attend meetings or conferences might be one risk-reduction strategy — asking about recent travel itineraries, fever, or cough — as well as taking temperatures on-site the day of the meeting, prior to entry into the venue,” said Glatter. “However, there is no absolute guarantee that this is an ironclad approach.”

The new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, can spread quickly.

It can be transmitted from people who don’t even know they have the virus. And, as of right now, there’s no vaccine available.

These facts, combined with big events being canceled, certainly give things an apocalyptic feel.

Glatter says the worst-case scenario could be quite bad.

“One recent model by a prominent researcher, Dr. James Lawler, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has predicted significant spread of up to 96 million persons globally, with up to 500,000 deaths in the worst-case scenario,” he said.

It’s scary stuff, but the risks can be mitigated by following some best practices.

For starters, it’s good to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of COVID-19: fever, coughing, and shortness of breath.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have a comprehensive website with information on the virus.

Anyone who may be sick with COVID-19 should get themselves tested and quarantine themselves to limit the threat of transmission.

Anyone who isn’t sick — and wants to keep things that way — is best advised to follow age-old hygiene routines, said Glatter.

“The virus that produces COVID-19 needs to attach itself to respiratory droplets in order to be successfully transmitted. By itself, the virus is not very effective at survival or transmission outside the body. When attached to droplets, it can spread up to 6 feet after being expelled via coughing or sneezing,” he said.

“Meticulous hand hygiene, along with avoidance of touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, is instrumental when dealing with this mode of spread,” Glatter added.