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Health care expert thinks sporting events with fans won’t return until fall 2021

Widespread testing is not yet available to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. In the meantime, the return of sports will remain delayed.

General view of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in much of the world shutting down in most sectors, and sporting events are among them. Most every major sports league in the world has suspended or postponed their seasons, and there is no consensus on when they will return.

We’ve heard extensive reporting on what some leagues are considering. Fan-less sporting events are prominently discussed, and subsequent comments from public health experts suggest that’s going to be the best option in the early going.

Zeke Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives and director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, recently took part in a DCovid-19 roundtable discussion hosted by the New York Times. In discussing the potential trade-offs for reopening the economy in the “near future,” Emanuel specifically pointed to a later return for fans at sporting events (.

“Yes, restarting the economy has to be done in stages, and it does have to start with more physical distancing at a work site that allows people who are at lower risk to come back. Certain kinds of construction, or manufacturing or offices, in which you can maintain six-foot distances are more reasonable to start sooner. 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. I think those things will be the last to return. Realistically we’re talking fall 2021 at the earliest.

In spite of what some will say about the importance of sports as a diversion, they remain relatively small potatoes in light of the chaos being wreaked on the economy. If sporting events aren’t safe for fans, it is a difficult discussion to be had as to how safe they are for the competitors themselves.

Noted infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week that the United States “does not yet have the critical testing and tracing procedures need to begin reopening the nation’s economy,” according to the Associated Press.

It’s still only April, so a lot can change on the testing front between now and mid-summer when the NBA and NHL will start running into a crunch for re-starting and MLB will need to finalize a decision on returning this season. Broad testing for the country as a whole is going to be necessary to justify mass-testing of players in professional sports. Any timeline for a return of sports will follow broader implementation of testing. Until we see more of that, it’s foolhardy to guess when sports will return even in a fan-less environment.