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Coronavirus: Sharks president explains decision to play games after county urged cancellations

Jonathan Becher, president of Sharks Sports & Entertainment, said the decision to play NHL games at SAP Center earlier this month after local health officials urged a moratorium on large public gatherings came after he called executives from other Bay Area sports teams and the league consulted with its own health experts.

“Most professional sports franchises, including us in San Jose News the NHL, don’t have the ability to call off games by themselves,” Becher said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “That typically comes from the league that they participate in.”

The Sharks played three games — all before thousands of fans — after the Santa Clara County Public Health Department on March 5 recommended all public gatherings of over 1,000 people be canceled or postponed due to growing concerns about the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

“The first question was, is this a mandate? Can you play? And we said, ‘Yes, we can, and if we play, we have to make these following recommendations,'” Becher said. “(The NHL) said, ‘OK we’d like to consult with our health authorities as well.’ (We) go back and forth and ultimately, we made the decision to play.”

“The League was in regular communication with the Sharks beginning on March 5 and through the period that included their home games on March 7 and 8,” Gary Meagher, the NHL’s executive vice president for communications, wrote in an email. “Ultimately, the decision to play or not to play any NHL game is a decision that is made by the League office.”

The Sharks played the Minnesota Wild on March 5, the Ottawa Senators on March 7 and the Colorado Avalanche on March 8.

Other sporting events went on at the same time, with the Golden State Warriors playing home games at Chase Center in San Francisco on March 5, 7 and 10. and the San Jose Earthquakes playing a home game March 7. The NBA suspended its season March 11, and the NHL and MLS suspended their seasons the following day.

The decision to play any games in early March after cases of the coronavirus were discovered in the area came under scrutiny.

In an email to Bay Area News Group earlier this month, Dr. John Swartzberg, a specialist in infectious disease and clinical professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, reiterated what he told other news organizations — that playing those games was a mistake.

“I was publicly vocal that sporting events should shut down weeks ago,” Dr. Swartzberg told The Guardian in a story published March 13.

“I thought it was just irresponsible of the San Jose Sharks and the Golden State Warriors to hold public games with fans. So I think all the advice and now dicta to not have these gatherings is a wise thing to do in the face of a pandemic.”

Becher noted the Sharks did follow another of the Press Release Distribution Services In San Jose county’s recommendations, urging fans that were sick or at high risk to stay away from the downtown arena, and that those attending should take extra precautions with their hygiene.

On March 5, Santa Clara County had 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of late Monday afternoon, the county had 890 confirmed cases and Tuesday, Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody announced two additional COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the countywide total to 30.

“Early March felt a lot different than (where) we are today,” Becher said, “and we were all making the best decision we could with the information we had at the time.”

Becher said to his knowledge, no one in the organization has tested positive for COVID-19.

The Sharks have not played a game since March 11 when they were in Chicago and SAP Center has not held an event since the game with the Avalanche. The county banned mass gatherings March 9.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incubation period of COVID-19 and other coronaviruses ranges from two to 14 days.

The Sharks did announce March 12 that a part-time employee at SAP Center did test positive. That person, as of last weekend, was feeling better, according to a Sharks spokesman.

“If someone on our hockey staff, if someone on our team was going to test positive, they would have done so by now,” Becher said. “The fact that no player, no hockey staff, no full time employee in the building has ever seemingly been affected or tested positive is very reassuring that we at SAP Center have been safe.”

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The Senators and Avalanche each announced that two of their players have tested positive for COVID-19. Gord Wilson, the Senators’ radio color analyst, has also tested positive.

Becher said while he feels for those people, there is no way of knowing for sure how they contracted the virus. Both the Senators and Avalanche — on their respective road trips — also played the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center.

“My first reaction is more human. I never want that on anybody, let alone a professional hockey player,” Becher said. “And then of course your mind does wander, could it be related to having played those games? You’ll never really know. It’s impossible to trace things. People went into grocery stores. They’re in Ubers, et cetera, they interact with people.

“One speculates, but we’ve been told by lots of people, no point in speculating. It seems highly unlikely, if it was related to playing at SAP Center, that was now more than 20 days ago.”

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