South Korea began its new baseball season today – in front of a fake crowd.
After a weeks-long delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, five games got underway on Tuesday with fans locked out to stop the spread of the virus.
In Incheon, SK Wyverns imitated home fans by covering seats with photos of fans wearing masks as they hosted the Hanwha Eagles.
Umpires wore protective masks and cheerleaders danced beneath rows of empty seats as the country tries to return to normality.
The Korea Baseball Organization is one of the world’s first major professional sports competitions to return to action amid the pandemic.
It has deployed a string of measures to maintain safety in the arenas, and has ordered that all players and coaches are screened for signs of fever before they enter the stadium.
Players are banned from high-fiving team-mates or signing autographs, chewing tobacco is prohibited to prevent spitting and masks and latex gloves will be required at training facilities.
Umpires and first- and third-base coaches must also wear protective masks while playing the games.
Fans will be barred from games until the KBO is convinced the risks of infections have been minimised.
If any team member tests positive for coronavirus during the season then the league will be shut for at least three weeks.
The KBO said its 10 clubs will be allowed to up their roster to 33 players across 54 games this season, up from the usual 26.
On Tuesday, the hushed atmosphere meant that the sound of bat striking ball echoed around the stadium.
In a game Seoul, LG Twins opened against defending champions Doosan Bears at Jamsil Stadium, where seats were decked with huge banners of Twins slogans.
In Daegu, the city worst hit by the virus, home team Samsung Lions used their huge scoreboard to play video messages from players, celebrities and fans thanking doctors and medical staff fighting the outbreak.
The Lions’ game against the Changwon-based NC Dinos was scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN.
The crisis overwhelmed the city’s hospital capacities in late February and March before slowing in recent weeks.
A full season of baseball seemed doubtful in early March when South Korea was reporting around 500 new virus infections a day, forcing the KBO to postpone its March 28 season openers.
But South Korea reported just three new cases on Tuesday, its lowest daily jump since infections surged in late February.
There have so far been more than 10,800 cases of the virus and more than 250 deaths.
Experts credit the downward trend to tightened border controls and testing and isolating virus carriers.
They have also traced their contacts using medical, banking and immigration records and location information provided by police and telecommunications companies.
Officials have started relaxing social distancing guidelines and are preparing to reopen schools, starting with high-school seniors on May 13.
Barring any virus-related suspension, the KBO plans to maintain a 144-game regular season schedule.