That document, which numbered 113 pages and was distributed to teams last week, established testing procedures and outlined all aspects of a restricted, single-site campus at Disney World near Orlando. Despite its exhaustive look at life inside the proposed bubble, the protocol paid little attention to what might happen directly outside it, where the coronavirus is suddenly surging. Now, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who spent last week appealing to players concerned that basketball would distract from social justice protests, must return to the health question as teams prepare to reassemble in their home markets Tuesday.
In Florida, new coronavirus cases topped 3,000 for the first time Thursday after hovering below 1,000 for much of April and May. The state surpassed 4,000 new cases Saturday, more than five times the case count when the NBA announced its intentions to play at Disney World last month. Florida reported 2,926 new cases Monday.
Although other areas of the state, such as Miami-Dade County, have been hit harder, Orange County, home to Disney World (which will also host Major League Soccer’s return to competition), saw new cases rise significantly last week. The trend is not lost on Silver, the NBA’s decision-makers and anxious team executives and players.
“We are closely monitoring the data in Florida and Orange County and will continue to work collaboratively with the National Basketball Players Association, public health officials and medical experts regarding our plans,” an NBA spokesman said in a statement.
Orange County’s local government responded Saturday by making masks mandatory for people out in public. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who in May championed his state as a temporary home for interrupted sports leagues, has yet to require masks statewide or to roll back his phased reopening plan, which allowed restaurants, bars and gyms in most of the state to operate at 50 percent capacity June 5.
There have already been real consequences for sports in Florida. Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies and the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning closed facilities in the state last week after multiple players tested positive. The NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the University of South Florida football team also had multiple players test positive, but their facilities have remained open. The Orlando Pride announced Monday its decision to withdraw from the National Women’s Soccer League’s upcoming Challenge Cup after multiple players and staffers tested positive.
If the NBA’s bubble were impenetrable — allowing no outsiders in and no insiders out — the conditions in Florida would be less concerning. However, the plan does not prohibit players from leaving the bubble or expel them from competition if they are caught off campus. Disney employees who service the players’ rooms and a portion of media members who will cover games will be allowed to work in the bubble and return to their homes or hotels outside it.
Protections are in place to keep players and coaches from directly contacting housekeepers and journalists, but risk of exposure is constant. Michele Roberts, the NBPA’s executive director, told ESPN.com on Saturday that the union would “seek to implement” additional restrictions to bubble access “if necessary” should the situation in Florida deteriorate further.
Per the NBA’s timeline, teams will arrive at Disney World on July 7, and regular season games will resume July 30. Even so, the coronavirus challenge begins with Phase 2 of the return this week. Players must begin returning to their home markets Tuesday or declare their intentions to not participate in Orlando, for whatever reason, by Wednesday.
During Phase 2, which runs through the end of June, players will undergo coronavirus tests every other day, with tests also made available to their household members, and participate in mandatory health training. This period will also double as a head count: Teams will compile their 35-person travel parties and undertake medical reviews of all personnel for risk factors.
Phase 3 will commence July 1, when players will be able to begin mandatory individual workouts at team facilities in their home markets. Players must commute to the facility by themselves whenever possible, undergo regular temperature checks and avoid using outside gyms without prior authorization. Group workouts, scrimmages, conditioning sessions and in-person team meetings are not allowed until arrival at Disney World.
Wary of excessive contact that could increase exposure, the NBA has mandated that workouts be staggered and that no more than 10 coaches be in the gym at the same time. Teams must take additional precautions, such as disinfecting their facilities, serving individually packaged food and beverages, holding all media sessions virtually and setting up a check-in procedure to aid contact tracing.
If all goes well, teams will proceed to Disney World via charter plane or bus. All personnel must get their temperature checked before boarding, wear a mask throughout the trip and sit in a physically distanced manner. Upon arriving, players will be transported on buses directly to Disney World, where they will check in and begin an isolation period of 36 to 48 hours.
The use of incremental stages, regular testing and strict cleaning and travel practices should help limit the spread of the coronavirus, but there are no guarantees. Until teams depart for Disney World, players will live at home and be allowed to participate in protests, shop for groceries and engage in essential activities outside their home and work environments. The NBA’s early phases, much like its bubble proposal, lean toward an “on your honor” approach. Already, numerous players have been photographed at group workouts outside team facilities in recent weeks.
While Silver has said the NBA’s plans will proceed even if players test positive before or during their Disney World stays, the tight schedule allows little wiggle room to accommodate the temporary shutdown of a team facility or to delay games in the event of a wider outbreak. The NBA sought to juice its television revenue by bringing 22 teams to Orlando, playing eight regular season games and adding a potential play-in round for the eighth seed in each conference, thereby extending the duration of the season and necessitating the use of three luxury hotels to house nearly 400 players.
Those structural decisions could face greater scrutiny if the bubble is compromised or if a key player is subjected to a quarantine of up to 14 days after testing positive. So, too, could the NBA’s foundational choice: picking Florida, now a budding hot spot, as its host.
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