F1’s Bahrain Grand Prix to run without fans due to virus

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              A man disinfects the shrine of the Shiite Saint Imam Abdulazim to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Shahr-e-Ray, south of Tehran, Iran, Saturday, March, 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Formula One’s Bahrain Grand Prix will run this month without spectators as the island kingdom fights an outbreak of the new coronavirus, organizers announced Sunday. Mideast stock markets fell sharply amid a plummeting demand for crude oil.

The extraordinary decision by Bahrain to hold an only televised race March 22 is just the latest disruption felt by the Mideast over the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes and the second for F1. Already, April’s scheduled Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai has been postponed.

The wider Mideast now has over 6,980 confirmed cases of the virus. The vast majority are in hard-hit Iran, where the reported death toll jumped by 25% Sunday to 194 out of 6,566 confirmed cases.

Egypt announced its first fatality Sunday when a 60-year-old German tourist died in a hospital in Hurgada, a Red Sea resort town. The Health Ministry said the man tested positive for the virus Saturday and had been traveling in the country for a week.

A spokesman for Egypt’s health ministry said in televised comments late Sunday that the county has detected six more cases of the new coronavirus, bringing the total infected to 54 with the one fatality.

Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad, a longtime racing enthusiast whose nation’s sovereign wealth fund owns a majority stake in McLaren, announced the decision via a statement carried by the state-run Bahrain News Agency. The statement described the decision as one to “preserve the safety of citizens, residents and racing fans.”

“As an F1 host nation, balancing the welfare of supporters and race goers is a tremendous responsibility,” the Bahrain International Circuit said in a statement. “Given the continued spread of COVID-19 globally, convening a major sporting event, which is open to the public and allows thousands of international travellers and local fans to interact in close proximity would not be the right thing to do at the present time.”

Bahrain, an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, has so far reported 85 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus. The kingdom has drastically cut air travel and urged residents who recently traveled from Iran to present themselves for testing, warning that those who don’t could face prosecution.

The decision to run the race with participants only was an extraordinary decision for Bahrain and F1, whose watchers say they cannot remember another time when the series held a Grand Prix to an empty grandstand. F1 did not respond to a request for comment.

Bahrain previously canceled its 2011 F1 race over Arab Spring protests there, but held the race in 2012 with fans in attendance. The race drew 97,000 spectators over its full weekend in 2019, the biggest annual event on an island amid its yearslong crackdown on all dissent.

“We know how disappointed many will be by this news, especially for those planning to travel to the event, which has become a cornerstone event of the international F1 calendar, but safety has to remain our utmost priority,” the Bahrain International Circuit said.

The first Bahrain Grand Prix was held in 2004. It is one of two F1 races held in the Mideast, the other being the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. Australia is still set to hold its F1 Grand Prix on March 13 with spectators.

Meanwhile on Sunday, stock markets across the Mideast suffered sharp drops, in part due to lower crude oil demand as the virus outbreak has cut into air travel. OPEC and key ally Russia also failed to agree on a cut to oil production Friday. That saw crude oil prices, the bedrock commodity of the Mideast, drop. Benchmark Brent crude sold Sunday for around $45 a barrel, down some 11% from the year prior. Prices looked set to drop further as markets open Monday. Edward Bell, an analyst at Dubai’s Emirates NBD, warned a “price war” likely loomed among oil producers.

Hardest-hit was Boursa Kuwait, which saw shares fall more than 10%. The losses triggered an automatic shutdown of the Kuwaiti stock market, its second in recent days.

In Iran, the Islamic Republic’s national carrier Iran Air said it would stop all its flights into Europe amid the outbreak, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported Sunday. Iran Air said it was in negotiations to resume its European flights, ISNA said. It did not elaborate.

With the approaching Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, officials kept up pressure on people not to travel and to stay home. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, who gave Iran’s new casualty figures Sunday, reiterated that people should not even attend funerals.

In Saudi Arabia, authorities quarantined Qatif in its Eastern Province, saying that was the origin of all the kingdom’s 11 confirmed cases of the new virus. The state-run Saudi Press Agency said residents would be allowed to return to their homes while all nonessential government offices, shops and schools would be closed.

Qatif is a predominantly Shiite area of the Sunni-ruled kingdom that has seen unrest in the past. Authorities did not say how long the quarantine would last. Saudi Arabia announced late Sunday all schools and universities would be closed until further notice.

A second cruise ship in as many days on Egypt’s Nile River at the southern city of Luxor was quarantined Sunday.

The vessel with around 100 tourists was quarantined after a German tourist on the ship tested positive for the virus after traveling from Luxor to the Red Sea resort of Hurgada, said Ramadan Haggagi, who runs a berth hosting the ship.

Haggagi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that authorities tested passengers who interacted with the German tourist. It was not immediately clear whether the tourist was the same person who died Sunday of the coronavirus in a hospital in Hurgada.

Local authorities said all Nile cruise ships in Luxor are now being examined for traces of the virus.