South Korea has resumed professional sports with the start of its baseball league in a hushed atmosphere without spectators, one of the first signs of the country returning to normal life amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) kicked off play in empty stadiums under strict safety measures on Tuesday, with five matches on the schedule, after the season’s opening day was pushed back by more than a month due to the pandemic.
South Korea’s football leagues will begin under similar conditions on Friday.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from the game between SK Wyverns and Hanwha Eagles in Incheon, said it was a “long-awaited start of South Korea’s much-delayed baseball season”, but an “eerie experience” without spectators.
“The stands are completely empty. In some parts of the stands, there are simply painted cut-outs of fans, all of them obediently and correctly wearing masks,” he added.
“Very strict precautions are in place to make sure all the players are safe. Everyone has to get their temperatures checked when they come in, a certain amount of social distancing is practiced, they are not allowed to hug, high five or shake hands.
“Most notably for baseball players, they are not allowed to lick their fingers, which is quite tricky for pitchers, and also no one is allowed to spit.”
Restrictions in South Korea are gradually being eased amid a downward trend in new coronavirus cases which skyrocketed in February.
On Tuesday, South Korea reported its lowest daily increase in cases since February 18 with three fresh infections and two deaths.
Officials have started relaxing social distancing guidelines and are preparing to reopen schools, starting with high-school seniors on May 13.
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, which overwhelmed the city’s hospital capacities in late February and March before slowing in recent weeks.
“During this unprecedented and difficult time, I hope the KBO League can bring consolation to the communities and provide guidelines to the world of sports,” league commissioner Chung Un-chan said in a statement.
The coronavirus crisis has wreaked havoc on the international sporting calendar, forcing the cancellation and postponement of events, including the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which will now take place in 2021.