The act of playing basketball presents its own health challenges because it takes place indoors and requires that players come into extended, close contact. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has told players that he can’t promise a perfect defense against the coronavirus, which has led to at least 115,000 deaths in the United States and is currently spiking in Orange County, home of Disney World. Nevertheless, the NBA has laid out measures aimed at protecting the players while they are competing.
“These Protocols are designed to promote prevention and mitigation strategies to reduce exposure to, and transmission of, the coronavirus,” the document read. “However, it is possible that staff, players, or other participants in the resumption of the 2019-20 season nonetheless may test positive or contract the coronavirus. The occurrence of a small or otherwise expected number of COVID-19 cases will not require a decision to suspend or cancel the resumption of the 2019-20 season.”
For starters, the NBA will use a tiered access system that will strictly limit who will be present at the game facilities. Players, coaches, health staff, equipment managers and referees will represent the first tier as essential personnel and have access to the court. Team security, front-office members, media members and the official scorer, among others, will be in Tier 2, a select group of people who may “at various times” come in “close contact” with players.
Disney employees, who will clean players’ rooms but never come in direct contact with them, will be in Tier 3. Other nonessential league employees, sponsors and union staffers will be in Tier 4, prohibited from direct contact with players. Tiers 5 and 6, composed of broadcast personnel and other support staff, respectively, also will be barred from direct access with players.
During games, each of the 22 teams invited to Disney World will split its roster of players, which can number up to 17, and coaches into two rows on the bench. The first row will comprise active players, the head coach and up to four assistants, while the second row will have additional players and coaching staff members.
These two rows will be arranged with an eye toward safe social distancing, and all individuals in the second row will be required to wear masks at all times during games. Additionally, the official scorer, game clock operator, ballboys, team staffers, cameramen and media members will be required to wear masks.
Active players, meanwhile, will not be required to wear masks during pregame warmups, in the locker room, during games or after games until they travel back to the team hotel. Coaches in the first row will be free to remove their masks during those times, although the league “recommends” that they don face coverings when possible before and after games if the situation “does not unduly interfere with the coach’s ability to do his or her job.”
Before the league assembles near Orlando, teams must brief their players about on-court behaviors that could increase the risk of coronavirus spread. Players will be discouraged from licking their fingers, spitting, clearing their nose, touching their mouthguard, wiping the ball with their jersey, sharing equipment and exchanging jerseys after games. Players will be allowed to high-five and shake hands during practices and games, but that type of “unnecessary physical contact” must be avoided with opposing teams on campus. Likewise, all players will be expected to wear masks when they move around campus, except when they are participating in an outdoor activity at a safe social distance.
Other layers of protection will be built into game day routines. Players will not be allowed to share towels, clothing or hygiene products, and they will be required to shower in their individual hotel rooms rather than at a shared locker room facility. Hand sanitizer will be made readily available, and staffers who directly contact players, such as physical therapists, must wear gloves that are discarded or laundered after each individual session. Postgame media sessions will be conducted at socially distanced news conferences and via remote interviews.
Pregame and postgame meals, as well as all other meals for players, will be provided by Disney chefs. Players will not be allowed to share food or beverages, and each team’s 24-hour meal room will include bottled beverages such as water and Gatorade along with single-use snacks such as granola bars. Food will not be distributed in a buffet-like fashion, as was common in postgame locker rooms before the coronavirus, but players will be able to eat with their teammates and staff members as long as they maintain a safe social distance of six feet inside. If players want to eat with opposing players, they must do so outside.
Basketballs will be disinfected with a mix of dish detergent and water. The court will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected regularly, with special attention paid to any “instances of suspected contamination in a specific spot."
The NBA will also turn to technology to help its players adjust to their campus environment. When players begin arriving to Disney World on July 9, they may be outfitted with a “proximity alarm” that will help them maintain a safe social distance of six feet. The device “will set off an audio alert when the person is within six feet of another person for more than five seconds,” according to the league’s memo, although “permissible pairs of people,” such as teammates, won’t trigger the sound.
Additionally, players will have the option of wearing a finger ring that can collect additional health information such as heart rate variability, body temperature deviation, respiration rate and an illness probability score to help monitor the player for increased risk of a coronavirus infection.
The facilities will be subjected to their own rules and regulations, with players able to access them through entries not available to all tiers of personnel. The 22 invited teams will compete at three basketball facilities at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex — the Arena, the Visa Athletic Center and HP Fieldhouse — and use seven practice facilities, which will be outfitted with four baskets, a weight room and a training room that a team can reserve in a three-hour block each day. Because the practice facilities and training equipment are shared, they will be cleaned before and after every session. Basketballs, the basket stanchions and other game equipment also will be regularly cleaned by Disney employees.
Silver admitted Monday that life in the bubble “may not be for everyone,” and it remains to be seen how players will react to these new guidelines. To reinforce proper behavior, the NBA will hang informational signs around the campus, reminding players to wash their hands, avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth, and to cover all coughs and sneezes.
Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases and one of President Trump’s top coronavirus experts, reviewed the plan and offered his approval during an interview with Stadium this week, calling it “quite creative" and “not reckless at all.”
“What they are really trying to do, and I think they might very well be quite successful with it, is to create a situation where it is as safe as it possibly can be for the players by creating this bubble and testing everyone,” Fauci said. “Make sure you start with a baseline of everybody being negative and trying to make sure there is no influx into that cohort of individuals and do a tournament-type play. It’s not the classic basketball season, but certainly for the people who are thirsting for basketball, who love basketball like I do, it’s a sound plan.”
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