After months of toiling to salvage its season, the NBA had seemingly found a solution.
Now it has a problem.
“If you’d asked me two weeks ago, I would have said I thought it was sufficient,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Oxford College of Emory University. “Now, I’m not so sure.”
As the sports world inches toward a return amid the pandemic, Florida is a crucial location. Major League Soccer, which plans to relaunch with a tournament beginning July 8, joined the NBA in using Disney World as a hosting ground. The WNBA is set to hold a 22-game season at IMG Academy in Bradenton. Every major sports league has multiple franchises in the state, and half of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams have their spring training facilities there.
But Florida has also become a coronavirus hot spot. The state began reopening May 4, when it recorded 819 new cases, and a spike has followed. Florida added more than 3,000 new cases for the first time Thursday, surpassed 4,000 on Saturday and added nearly 3,500 on Sunday. On Monday, it surpassed 100,000 total confirmed cases.
In mid-May, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) invited sports leagues to come to his state, suggesting at a news conference that Florida residents were “starved” to have sports back and that the state could host events safely. “If you have a team in an area where they just won’t let them operate, we’ll find a place for you here in the state of Florida,” he said then.
More than a month later, conditions in the state are challenging that notion. While Florida is far from the only state confronting an outbreak, its spike poses a particular challenge for teams and leagues.
MLB and its players’ union have bickered for weeks over the economic aspects of how the sport will return, but the lack of typical spring training infrastructure may complicate how quickly games can return anyway. Many teams, including the Washington Nationals, have decided they would resume spring training at their home stadiums.
On Friday, the Philadelphia Phillies shut down their spring training complex in Clearwater after announcing five players and three staff members had tested positive, with 32 tests still pending. The Toronto Blue Jays, who train a few miles away in Dunedin, also shut down their facility after a player showed coronavirus symptoms. Likewise, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning closed its practice rink after three players and multiple staffers tested positive.
“There’s a growing fear amongst players right now,” one MLS player, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Athletic. “We agreed to this when the cases in Florida were low, and now that they’ve spiked, there’s real concern on a number of levels.”
Some NBA players, most notably Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, have expressed hesitation about playing basketball during widespread movements for racial justice. Other players harbor health concerns. National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts told ESPN on Saturday that the union could push for more restrictions regarding who is allowed into the league’s Disney World “bubble” or more testing for those who must be there.
Binney said extra restrictions may be necessary. The NBA designed its bubble system to keep the coronavirus from infiltrating any member of its operation. But the more infected people surrounding the bubble, the greater the chance any lapse could lead to an NBA player or staffer being infected.
“It would be better, and you could come back with less strict protocols, if you had a lower case burden,” Binney said. “That seemed to be the case in Florida for a while, where it wasn’t escalating wildly out of control. Now it certainly looks like that might not be the case anymore, and that obviously raises a lot of concerns.
“Any false negatives from a test, any incidental close contact between a Disney employee and an NBA employee, now the likelihood of that person passing along an infection has risen,” Binney added. “Any weaknesses that the plan does have — and every plan has them — is magnified.”
DeSantis said Friday that he wants to “rein in” bars and nightclubs that have operated unfettered without social distancing, but the state has not rolled back restrictions for how those businesses can operate. Florida has encouraged mask wearing, but it has made no mandate enforcing it.
“We’re going to trust people to make good decisions,” he said at a news conference.
The Florida Department of Health declined to comment, referring to DeSantis’s news conference from last week.
Even if the NBA could guarantee league and team employees will not become infected, conditions in Florida would still present issues. In Orange County, where Disney World is based, 3.3 percent of tests two weeks ago came back positive, according to state data. With those numbers, Binney said, the NBA could comfortably bring in enough tests to check players and staffers daily. But on Friday and Saturday, the rate of positive tests reached 17.9 and 16.4 percent.
“That indicates they don’t have enough tests for the sick people they have,” Binney said. “If you’re going to Orlando and testing your players every day or every other day but people in Orlando who need a test can’t get a test, that’s a pretty ethically fraught situation.”
Stopping coronavirus infection would also not mean perfect health. Games will lead to injuries, and when players suffer serious injuries, they will need to visit a hospital.
“If hospitals in Orlando are stuffed full of covid-19 patients, that’s not really an option, both in terms of diverting resources from covid-19 cases and for putting these athletes into a high-risk environment,” Binney said, referring to the disease caused by the virus.
One Florida-based team has already opted out of competition because of the virus. The Orlando Pride announced Monday its decision to withdraw from the National Women’s Soccer League’s upcoming Challenge Cup, set to be played in Utah, after multiple players and staffers tested positive.
The NBA planned on restarting its season in late July, and it’s possible that if Florida changes course and enacts restrictions, the state’s case numbers could resemble how they looked weeks ago. But even action by Florida now, Binney said, would ensure nothing. In New York, cases and deaths were on the rise for weeks even after authorities implemented some of the strictest measures the country has seen.
“This epidemic is a train, not a car,” Binney said. “You don’t hit the brakes and it stops. A lot of the damage may have already been done.”