BALTIMORE — A Division III men's basketball NCAA Tournament game Friday afternoon at Johns Hopkins University is believed to be the first U.S. sports event held without fans because of the new coronavirus.
Yeshiva University tipped off against Worcester Polytechnic Institute just after 2 p.m. in an empty gym occupied only by players, referees, employees and media members. The national anthem and starting lineups went on as normal with players giving each other fist pounds instead of handshakes.
When the first-round game got underway, players on each team chanted “De-fense!” and cheered to make up for the lack of fans in the 1,100-seat Goldfarb Gymnasium. Yeshiva coach Elliot Steinmetz, who shook WPI coach Chris Bartley's hand, expected it to be awkward.
“This is definitely the first time we've had that situation where there's no fans in the gym," Steinmetz said.
As students walked by the athletics facility, there were police officers outside and signs on doors reading, “No spectators.” Music blared over the speakers inside and some pre-planned fan announcements, including one promoting social media sharing — “Tell the world you’re here” — went on with no fans to hear them.
Johns Hopkins University said it was “prudent to hold this tournament without spectators” after Maryland's recently confirmed COVID-19 cases and CDC guidelines for large gatherings. Maryland announced there were three cases of the virus.
A student at Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish university in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, tested positive for the virus.
The game was delayed by more than an hour after a Yeshiva rabbi tested positive and the school needed to provide documentation to ensure it was safe to play. WPI waited at its hotel while that was completed.
Host Johns Hopkins was set to face Penn State Harrisburg on Friday night, with the winners of the two first-round games to play Saturday. The gym was heavily disinfected Thursday night.
“We did that specific to make sure that there were no questions that we were doing our due diligence, that everything was clean and ready to go,” Johns Hopkins director of athletic communications Ernie Larossa said. “We’re just doing our due diligence to make sure that everybody has a safe environment to compete in.”
Johns Hopkins offered refunds to fans who bought tickets. Larossa said more than 400 tickets had been sold for the two sessions Friday.
Sports events in Italy and Japan have been held without fans in recent weeks, and Meydan Racecourse in Dubai announced it would hold its Super Saturday horse racing this weekend at an empty track. Santa Clara County in California on Thursday recommended the cancellation of large gatherings, including San Jose Sharks hockey games, but the NHL went ahead with the team's game against Minnesota on Thursday night.
Yeshiva's team had its hotel reservation in suburban Baltimore canceled over coronavirus fears, forcing the team to book rooms at a different place. A PR firm representing the hotel said in a statement sent to The Associated Press “the management of the property followed the precautionary measures set by Yeshiva University, that has recently canceled classes, as well as scheduled events, through Tuesday, March 10th" and did not discriminate against the team.
The Maccabees, named after the rebel Jewish warriors, are used to legions of faithful fans who sing in Hebrew, chant out their names from the stands and often them follow them on the road. Players on the bench instead chanted “Let's go, Macs!” while their parents watched back at the hotel.
“We have a huge fan base here in Baltimore that were planning on coming out. We had people from Yeshiva coming out,” said Ofek Reef, who was recently voted rookie of the year in the Skyline Conference for a program-best team that has won 27 games in a row. “It is what is, and we'll have to push through another phase of adversity.”
The virus has sickened more than 100,000 people worldwide with over 3,400 deaths. The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 climbed to 14, with all but one victim in Washington state, while the number of infections increased to over 200 across 18 states.