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Big Ten Tournament fans react to coronavirus effect on attendance



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IU fans cheer as the men's basketball team takes the court March 11 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. IU played Nebraska in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Anna Tiplick

INDIANAPOLIS — There were boos when the announcement was made. 

Murmurs had already begun to circulate around Bankers Life Fieldhouse when fans saw the the tweet. The message said fans would not be allowed to attend Big Ten Tournament games beginning Thursday. But they were in their seats Wednesday as they watched Northwestern play Minnesota, and later IU against Nebraska. 

They were there for one night and one night only. 

And when the announcement was made over the public address system, the small talk circulating among fans became a chorus of boos raining down while a youth basketball team cleared the court following its halftime scrimmage.

A table sat at the entrance of the tunnel behind the basket with two bottles of hand sanitizer on it. There were signs in the bathroom and signs in the concourse directing fans to wash their hands. For one night, the conversation among fans in their seats wasn’t a great play or poor defense. It was about a pandemic. 

There are now 11 confirmed coronavirus cases in Indiana. It has been just over a day since IU made the decision to move classes online and the effect of it all has rapidly hit the sports world.

The international panic that has surrounded the coronavirus had made its way to Indiana. 

“It’s unreal — even the alternative of watching with fellow friends in a bar is off the table, or at least it should be,” Brian Brase, the director of the Indiana Universiy I Association said.

Brase said he knew the decision to remove fans from the Big Ten Tournament would be coming once the NCAA announced fans would not be allowed to attend March Madness. But that didn’t change his feeling toward the decision. 

“I’m bereft,” Brase said.

Rebecca Simon, an usher in Section 2, placed a bottle of hand sanitizer atop a roll of paper towels sitting on the floor.

Simon is used to fan interactions and cleaning up spills. But she isn’t allowed to fist bump fans anymore or give them high-fives. She offers them hand sanitizer when they sneeze.

Simon hasn’t gotten much information from her bosses yet. She doesn’t think she’ll have to work for the rest of the week. 

“I’m not worried,” she said. 

Once fans heard they would no longer be able to attend after tonight, Simon spoke with Tiffany Arrington, a Michigan State fan who drove three-and-a-halfhours to attend the tournament. She won't get to watch the Spartans play when their first game comes Friday. 

“Annoyed, aggravated,” Arrington said when asked how she reacted to the announcement. “Frustrated.” 

Arrington brought her kids with her and took off work. She asked about getting a refund before the announcement was made, and was quickly on the phone with her ticket company after returning to her seat. When the No. 2 seed Spartans take the floor for the first time, Arrington won’t be there. No fans will. 

Fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse didn't seem overly concerned about the threat of the coronavirus. Jim Scroggin, an IU fan and the director of Public Transportation for Lafayette County Schools, is more worried about carrying the virus to a more at-risk demographic than anything else. He thinks the panic has been overhyped and had no worries about sitting in the crowded lower bowl of the arena. 

Bob Fiola, from Spokane, Washington, an Illinois alumus, sat in the second level, virtually in a section to himself. This is his sixth trip to the Big Ten Tournament. He came all the way from Washington — one of the most influenced states in the U.S. with 31 deaths and 375 cases — and he isn't concerned either. 

Janitors in the arena all wore blue latex gloves — so are most security guards — and using Lysol with regularity. Janitors were told to spray every chair in the concourse when a fan stands leave and clean every table as well. 

The janitors and ushers don't know if they’ll be working the rest of the week. No one knows what happens next. 

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