San Jose Sharks fans attend home game despite public health officials calling for cancellation

SAN JOSE, Calif. — At least one fan defied his own pulmonary disease to attend the game. Another one insisted on continuing to high-five those in nearby seats, hand-washing be damned. Yet another couldn’t stay away after the home team’s recent surge, despite his wife’s misgivings.

Hours after Santa Clara County public health officials recommended that large gatherings like sporting events be cancelled in light of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, the San Jose Sharks opted to keep the doors open for Thursday night’s game against the Minnesota Wild, and thousands of followers showed up.

The 14,517 tickets distributed for the Wild’s eventual 3-2 victory were more than 2,000 below the Sharks’ season average of 16,550 at the SAP Center, which has a capacity of 17,562.

It was still a notable turnout considering the increasing concerns about COVID-19, an illness that has afflicted nearly 100,000 people worldwide — killing almost 3,400 — and is making its presence felt with increasing intensity in the San Francisco Bay Area. Earlier in the day, local officials announced the number of cases in the county was up to 20 after six new ones were reported.

That didn’t scare off longtime pals Gerald Pleasant and Tom Canale, who live 35 miles away in Santa Cruz County and attend about 10 games a year. Both retirees are in their 70s, and the illness has proven most deadly among the elderly, but they had not talked much about it even though Pleasant needs medication for his breathing condition.

"I have chronic lung disease so I’m concerned about it, but I’m not going to let it control me," he said.

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Minnesota Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin (25) controls the puck during Thursday night's win against the Sharks at SAP Center at San Jose. (Photo: Neville E. Guard, USA TODAY Sports)

In announcing the game would be played as scheduled, the Sharks said they would evaluate circumstances ahead of their Saturday and Sunday home games, and they encouraged fans to follow the standard suggestions regarding hand-washing and avoiding touching their eyes, nose and mouth.

Several fans said they already do that, including Michele Caban and her daughter Meghan Merwin, both of whom work in the healthcare industry.

Caban, a marriage and family therapist for patients with compromised immune systems, pointed out that every year many more people get sickened and killed by the flu than by the coronavirus so far.

"I believe they’re trying to do their best to keep people safe, but I actually think it’s blown out of proportion," she said of public health officials. "We’re talking about one death in California, about a person who was exposed on a cruise."

That person, a 71-year-old man from a city near Sacramento, was on a February trip along with 62 passengers who continued on to another cruise on the same ship, which is now waiting to hear whether it can return to San Francisco as scheduled. About 35 people on the ship have reported flu-like symptoms, and close to 100 are getting tested.

That news caught the attention of Rosalena Garrett of San Jose, who was reluctant to accompany her husband, Bryan, to Thursday’s game. She eventually relented so he wouldn’t have to go by himself.

"It gives you pause, but it doesn’t stop us from doing anything," he said, more focused on the Sharks’ recent winning streak than the virus. "They’ve won three in a row. I’ve got to show up."

Some of the fans said the media has been overplaying news of the outbreak and its potential threat, noting that otherwise healthy people who get infected typically endure mild symptoms.

Marilyn Ludwig of San Jose said she would not stop high-fiving fellow fans or wash her hands afterward.

"It’s media b.s., completely and totally," she said.

As a government official herself, Loella Haskew might have a better understanding of what goes into decisions that affect public health.

Haskew is the mayor of the East Bay city of Walnut Creek, about 15 miles northeast of Oakland. Asked about her decision to attend the game with her husband, Ralph, and two friends despite the warning from Santa Clara officials, Haskew brought up the trip to Europe the couple took back in 2001 the month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

They’re applying that same fearless mindset now.

"We’re not stopping life," Ralph said, "not at all."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Jorge Ortiz on Twitter @jorgelortiz.

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