Baseball-Virus easing, Taiwan to allow fans back to stadiums this week

TAIPEI, May 6 (Reuters) - Taiwan will start allowing baseball fans back into stadiums this week as the government begins relaxing some controls implemented to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the health minister said on Wednesday.

Taiwan has been relatively successful at controlling the virus, with 439 cases to date and 6 deaths, with only 100 active infections, thanks to early prevention and detection efforts. The island has never gone into total lockdown though the government has promoted social distancing and face masks.

Both the baseball and soccer seasons got underway in Taiwan last month, but without spectators, providing rare live action for fans at home at a time when the pandemic has shut down most professional sport around the globe.

Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told reporters that 1,000 spectators would be allowed in to baseball matches on Friday in Taipei and the central city of Taichung.

“Starting from the 8th, fans will be allowed in for professional baseball games,” Chen said.

Taiwan’s baseball league said in a separate statement that it will sell tickets on a “real name” basis with designated seats, meaning authorities can more easily trace people if there are any infections linked back to attending the matches.

Fans will be required to undergo temperature checks and wear face masks, and seats will be kept 1 metre (3.2 ft) apart, it said.

“Wear your mask properly and show our unity and discipline. Let the world see the pride of Taiwan,” the league wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday, adding they will be the world’s first professional baseball league to allow audiences back in.

Baseball is wildly popular in Taiwan, thanks to a strong cultural influence from Japan and the United States.

To meet global appetite for any sports events at a time when many other countries have been locked down, baseball games in Taiwan have been providing English-language commentary and have attracted rare attention from foreign fans and media.

However, it has not all been smooth sailing, and controversy has developed in Taiwan about the name of the baseball league, called the Chinese Professional Baseball League, after several overseas sports commentators confused the island with China.

Some Taiwanese politicians have pushed for the league to re-name itself, something it has rejected.

Taiwan has a fraught relationship with its giant neighbour, which claims the island as its own.

Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China, a throwback to when defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists, and some companies and bodies in Taiwan still have China in their names. (Reporting by Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard; editing by Richard Pullin)