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Game Zero: Spread of coronavirus linked to a Champions League game in Italy on Feb. 19

By Tales Azzoni and Andrew Dampf
Associated Press | Mar 25, 2020

It was the biggest soccer game in Atalanta’s history and a third of Bergamo’s population made the short trip to Milan’s famed San Siro Stadium.

Nearly 2,500 fans of visiting Spanish club Valencia also traveled to that Champions League match.

More than a month later, experts are pointing to the Feb. 19 game as one of the biggest reasons why Bergamo has become one of the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic — a “biological bomb” was the way one respiratory specialist put it — and why 35% of Valencia’s team became infected.

The match, which local media have dubbed “Game Zero,” was held two days before the first case of locally transmitted COVID-19 was confirmed in Italy.

“We were mid-February so we didn’t have the circumstances of what was happening,” Bergamo Mayor Giorgio Gori said this week during a live Facebook chat with the Foreign Press Association in Rome. “If it’s true what they’re saying that the virus was already circulating in Europe in January, then it’s very probable that 40,000 Bergamaschi in the stands of San Siro, all together, exchanged the virus between them. As is possible that so many Bergamaschi that night got together in houses, bars to watch the match and did the same.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t have known. No one knew the virus was already here,” the mayor added. “It was inevitable.”

Less than a week after the game, the first cases were reported in the province of Bergamo.

At about the same time in Valencia, a journalist who traveled to the match became the second person infected in the region, and it didn’t take long before people who were in contact with him also had the virus, as did Valencia fans who were at the game.

While Atalanta announced its first positive case Tuesday for goalkeeper Marco Sportiello, Valencia said more than a third of its squad got infected, “despite the strict measures adopted by the club” after the match in Milan.

As of Tuesday, nearly 7,000 people in the province of Bergamo had tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 1,000 people had died from the virus — making Bergamo the most deadly province in all of Italy for the pandemic. The Valencia region had more than 2,600 people infected.

Luca Lorini, the head of the intensive care unit at the Pope John XXIII hospital in Bergamo, currently has 88 patients under his care with the coronavirus; not including many more in other parts of the hospital.

“I’m sure that 40,000 people hugging and kissing each other while standing a centimeter apart — four times, because Atalanta scored four goals (the final result was 4-1) — was definitely a huge accelerator for contagion,” Lorini told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

“Right now we’re at war. When peace time comes, I can assure you we will go and see how many of the 40,000 people who went to the game became infected,” Lorini added. “Right now we have other priorities.”

Silvio Brusaferro, the head of Italy’s Superior Institute of Health, said over the weekend at the nightly nationally televised briefing by the civil protection agency that the game was “one of the hypotheses” being evaluated as a source of the crisis in Bergamo.

“It’s certainly an analysis that can be made,” Brusaferro said.

By last week, Bergamo’s cemetery became so overwhelmed by the number of dead that military trucks began transporting bodies to a neighboring region for cremation.

Italy remained the European country with the most cases, nearly 70,000, and with almost 7,000 deaths — the most worldwide and more than twice as many as China.

Spain is the next country in Europe with the most cases, nearly 48,000, and it has surpassed China in the number of deaths with more than 3,400.

More than 435,000 people worldwide have been infected and the number of dead closed in on 20,000, according to the running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. Overall, more than 100,000 have recovered.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

The official attendance for the Feb. 19 game was 45,792 — a “home” record for Atalanta, a small club making its debut in Europe’s top club competition.

Atalanta captain Alejandro “Papu” Gómez told Argentine daily Olé it was “terrible” to have played that game.

“It’s a city of 120,000 people and that day (40,000) went to the San Siro,” the Argentine said. “It was a historic match for Atalanta, something unique. To give you an idea, my wife took three hours to get to Milan, when that trip normally takes 40 minutes.”

The game was played in Milan because Atalanta’s stadium in Bergamo didn’t meet the requirements set by European soccer governing body UEFA.

Before the match, Valencia fans freely roamed around Milan and gathered at some of the city’s plazas, including the Piazza del Duomo, drinking and chanting team songs.

Looking back, the conditions for virus contagion were high, with thousands of people gathering without much concern — at a time when the outbreak in Europe wasn’t yet known — and then traveling back home. Nearly 30 busloads of fans made the 60-kilometer (37-mile) trip from Bergamo to Milan.

The evening before the match, there was no social distancing as officials from both clubs mingled and exchanged gifts and handshakes at a gala dinner offered by Atalanta.

“I have heard a lot (of theories), I’ll say mine: Feb. 19, 40,000 Bergamaschi went to San Siro for Atalanta-Valencia,” Fabiano di Marco, the chief pneumologist at the hospital in Bergamo, told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “In buses, cars, trains. A biological bomb, unfortunately.”

Valencia defender Ezequiel Garay was the first Spanish league player to test positive for COVID-19. The team played a Spanish league game against Alavés about two weeks after the game in Milan, and later Alavés reported that 15 people in the club were infected, though it did not say the cases were directly related to the match against Valencia.

Italian soccer players’ association president Damiano Tommasi believes sports authorities should look long and hard at the Atalanta match before restarting leagues.

“Look at what’s happening in China, where players are testing positive for the coronavirus now — despite all the safety rules and precautions being taken,” Tommasi told the AP, referring to a recent positive test for former Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini with Chinese club Shandong Lunen.

Fellaini’s positive test was alarming because, while the outbreak began spreading in China, the virus has reportedly been receding there.

“It’s not going to be enough to just test the athletes,” Tommasi added. “The entire setting needs to be safe. Because if one team is stuck, it blocks the entire system.”

After winning the first leg, Atalanta advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals following another victory in the second leg on March 10, which was played in an empty Mestalla Stadium in Valencia after Spanish authorities prohibited games involving teams from northern Italy to be played with fans. A few thousand Valencia supporters gathered at the Mestalla to welcome the team, though, and to watch the match together in nearby bars and restaurants.

Over the past month, Atalanta has mourned the deaths of five former staff members. While announcements on the club website made no mention of the virus, local media have reported that at least four of them died with COVID-19.

Still, only one positive test from Atalanta has been announced.

“Some squads have chosen not to test their players unless they show symptoms,” Tommasi said. “Other squads tested everyone. These are individual choices.

“The head of the civil protection agency has talked about the likelihood that for every proven positive case there are probably 10 actual positives. … The high number of positives at Valencia makes you wonder.”

With the Champions League suspended because of the pandemic, Atalanta has no idea when it might play in the quarterfinals — which again would be the club’s biggest game in its history. In the meantime, both the Bergamo team and Valencia are left wondering about the unforeseen effects of their match in February.

What really happened with the Barstool Storm Chasers at the UConn game

What really happened with the Barstool Storm Chasers at the UConn game

Thursday night at Gampel Pavilion, the Huskies upset No. 21 Houston on their senior night in one of the team’s biggest wins of the season. However, a lot of media attention went toward the three men from Barstool Sports who were there “chasing a storm.”

The three men, Adam Ferrone, Caleb Pressley and their producer Andrew Enriquez, who goes by “Chef Donnie,” were arrested and removed from the game early in the second half. All three were charged with criminal trespassing. Pressley and Enriquez were also getting charged with interfering with an officer.

Ferrone and Pressley, known by their fans as “Storm Chasers,” travel to basketball games across the country looking for a home underdog to upset a ranked opponent. As is customary in a lot of these upsets, they try to storm the court with the student section, hence why they call themselves Storm Chasers.

I spoke to Ferrone, who goes by “Rone,” shortly after they were released from the UConn Police Station Thursday night.

“We are on a country wide-journey called Storm Chasers. What we do is we go from campus to campus and we go to schools where there is likely to be a court storming, so like an unranked home team against a ranked opponent,” Ferrone said.

UConn wasn’t the first stop on their search, and in fact, it was their third in the northeast in three nights.

“Two nights ago we went to Rutgers and they stormed the court. They had the red carpet rolled out for us, they had us ready to go in the student section, it was amazing,” Ferrone said. “Then last night we went to Rhode Island and they took great care of us. They brought us on the court and in the front row of the student section. They didn’t storm the court, but it was still an awesome time.”

Rutgers upset No. 9 Maryland Tuesday night 78-67, prompting a court storming. URI, on the other hand, got blown out by No. 3 Dayton 84-57, so those fans left the game from their seats instead of from the hardwood.

“With those last two games being so big, tonight [Thursday] we had tons of people hitting us up from UConn telling us to come to the game,” Ferrone said.

According to Ferrone, they bought tickets to the game and had seats outside of the student section. University spokesperson Stephanie Reitz sent a press release Friday that confirmed they had tickets to the game, just not in the student section.

“Outside of the press release, we wouldn’t really comment because with the arrest situation, it would be a pending court case,” UConn Police Deputy Chief Andrew Fournier said. “So we’re going to stick to anything that’s contained in that press release.”

When I called UConn Athletics to ask questions, Assistant Director of Athletic Administration Dominic Godi also referred me to the press release.

“We bought our tickets, sat in our original seats, then came down to the seats they had reserved for us in the front row.” Ferrone said. “There were signs on each of our seats that said, ‘reserved for Barstool Sports.’”

Ferrone sent me a picture of the signs that were placed at their “reserved” seats at the front of the student section. It was a plain, white paper sign that said, “Reserved for Barstool” in all caps in a basic, black font. It is unclear who placed the signs there, but Ferrone said security told him, “Anybody could have made those signs.”

“This section is specifically reserved for currently enrolled UConn students, and not open to non-students,” according to UConn’s press release.

Ferrone claimed that he and his partner Caleb had been in contact with UConn students and members of the ticket office through direct messages on Twitter and Instagram to arrange seating for them in the student section.

“There was probably upwards of 100 DMs if you count my account and Caleb’s account,” Ferrone said. “So I’m not even sure who set out the signs that said ‘reserved for Barstool Sports,’ but it was there on the seats. We were in contact with multiple people.”

Ferrone refused to include the names of any of the people he or his partner were in contact with.

“We were trying to explain it to the cops that this had been set aside, but that’s where the misunderstanding fell into play. They said anybody could have made the signs that had reserved the seats for us,” Ferrone said. “I guess there was a misunderstanding within the department, because people from the ticketing department had invited us.”

When they were told that they were not allowed to be in the student section, the Storm Chasers refused to return to their seats. That was when they were placed under arrest.

“The men refused to leave the student section despite multiple requests from those officials and, eventually, despite direct instruction from UConn Police,” according to the press release. “They were placed under arrest and escorted to Gampel’s lower level below the stands, where two of the men then laid on the ground and made other attempts to resist officers.”

“On the way out there was some jostling and people fell down accidentally,” Ferrone said. “Our producer Donnie wound up going to the ground. He was just kind of holding on to his camera the entire time and did a beautiful job filming us. He wound up getting dragged out by his ankles.”

Donnie put the footage of the trio getting taken out of Gampel on the Storm Chasers social media pages. Donnie and Pressley were charged with interfering with an officer while Ferrone was not, and it appeared to be because they were the two who had gone to the ground.

Pressley joked, “Rone snitched in jail and got lesser charges than we did.”

Pressley said this won’t deter their dedication to further storm attempts.

“We’re married to the game, and we’re faithful,” Pressley said.

According to the press release, “Their motive for remaining in the seats and their identities as social media personalities were not a factor in the actions of the Gampel personnel, police, or on-site security officers. The matter would have been addressed similarly in the case of any non-student patron who took a seat in the student section and repeatedly refused requests to leave.”

The storm chasers also appeared to have at least one fake credential, which Donnie tweeted from his account the next day. The credential says that they were with the Daily Campus, which I can say with confidence they weren’t. The credential also doesn’t look similar to any credential UConn has given the press this year, and has the word “videography” spelled incorrectly.

“Again, none of us were being really combative, we don’t have a problem with the arresting officers. It just seemed like a total miscommunication,” Ferrone said. “Some people were telling us we were allowed to be there, some people were telling us that we weren’t allowed to be there.”

Ferrone also explained that the on-court emcee went over and sat down with them in the student section to let them know that the camera was going to cut to them soon and that they should amp the crowd up. Shortly after that was when security came, then soon after that the police.

The emcee, Conor Geary, refused to comment about the event and referred me to UConn Athletics, who referred me to the press release.

“All we wanted to do was just try to be good fans and rile up the student section,” Ferrone said. “We were driving around campus all day, people were just losing their shit for us.”

I also spoke with a couple of fans from the game were in or around the student section.

“They all came in and sat in the normal section across from the student section and then after, made their way over to our section and everyone went wild,” UConn student Jami Rivera said.

One fan said the student section chanted “let them go” when security and police wanted them out of the section. Footage of that is also on social media.

“The student body was amazing to us. There was an eruption when we got there. We weren’t there to cause trouble, we were there to cheer on the basketball team. That’s what we had been doing for the entire game up until that point,” Ferrone said. “We had come to an understanding, and we thought it would be the same as the other schools where we could just kind of go to the seats that were reserved for us.”

Though UConn beat Houston, there was not a court storming that night. It could be because upsetting a No. 21 team doesn’t necessarily warrant a court storming, especially when the winning team is a program with history as rich as UConn’s.

According to Ferrone, he was sent pictures from UConn students that security had locked arms in front of the student section to prevent a court storming. Due to the spread of coronavirus, teams didn’t shake hands after the game, so this could have been a precaution of that nature. It could also be because senior Christian Vital addressed the crowd for senior night.

Regardless, the only court that will be stormed is Rockville Superior Court, where the Storm Chasers will have their hearing.

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