The Heat is the first NBA team to try this approach to keeping its arena as safe as it can amid a pandemic that has yet to abate and probably won’t for at least several more months. The effectiveness of the plan remains to be seen, but as a team executive pointed out, dogs have proven adept at sniffing out illnesses such as cancer and malaria, and they have already been deployed to detect the coronavirus at airports in Chile, Finland and the United Arab Emirates.
“We’re taking a little bit of a leap forward,” said Matthew Jafarian, the Heat’s executive vice president of business strategy, by phone Thursday evening. “We’re out in front on this, but like with anything new, somebody’s got to take the first step.”
Jafarian said Miami’s decision to use the dogs was motivated by a conviction that, even with coronavirus vaccines starting to be administered, “We don’t want to just sit around and hope that sports returns to normal. We realized that we’ve got to be innovative, and we’ve got to have strong execution if we want to provide a safe environment.”
On Jan. 28, for the first time this season, the Heat is allowing approximately 1,500 season ticket holders into a home game. Among the other safety measures: a mask mandate for everyone over the age of 2; physical distancing practices; cashless transactions; enhanced cleaning efforts, plus hand sanitizer stations throughout the building; and a ban on eating and drinking in the arena bowl.
For guests who might be uncomfortable around dogs, the Heat said it has set up an “alternative testing method” that will take approximately 45 minutes before entry is allowed. Proof of a recent negative result on a coronavirus test will not be sufficient to avoid being screened by a dog.
Jafarian said the dogs, which are being provided by a company that has specialized in training canine units for jobs such as detecting explosive devices and prohibited agricultural products at airports, need no more than 10 seconds to check a person. That works out to as many as 360 game attendees per hour, per dog, provided they are lined up in an organized manner and no one gets flagged.
If a dog does detect the coronavirus in a person, it has been trained to sit down, in a relatively un-alarming way of signaling to its handler. At that point, Jafarian said, the person and anyone else in his or her group would get a full refund and information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources on how to proceed.
Jafarian noted that attendees should not take their screenings by dogs as definitive proof of whether they have the coronavirus. “This is not considered a diagnostic test,” he said.
The Heat executive also emphasized that the screenings are a complement to all the other steps being taken to keep guests and employees from catching the virus, should it make its way into the arena. Whereas fans at games elsewhere have “abused” rules that allow them to pull their masks down when eating or drinking, Jafarian said, the Heat will strictly prohibit facial exposure except in designated areas. In that regard, Miami will be able to take advantage of its warm weather and direct patrons with food or beverages to outdoor areas.
While Jafarian acknowledged that the steps amount to a “test run” in which the team will “see how it works” and adjust accordingly, the Heat is confident enough that it plans on going from four canine teams on Jan. 28 to 10 or more by the end of February, with a proportional increase in attendance.
The dog screenings have appealing elements of speed and affordability, in possible contrast to proposals by teams such as the Golden State Warriors to use rapid PCR (polymerase chain reaction) or similar tests to screen fans and employees at home games. Warriors owner Joe Lacob, who made his fortune in biotechnology, said in November he was prepared to spend upward of $30 million on the tests (via ESPN), but it still would take 15 minutes or more for each one to deliver a result. That could make for major complications when a team has hundreds, if not thousands, of fans lined up outside an arena.
NBA organizations that have already begun to allow limited numbers of ticketed fans to attend games, or soon will, include the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz.
The rollout of coronavirus vaccines promises to help get more people into arenas in coming months, but Jafarian said, “We don’t want to get into the game where we’re having to check everybody’s vaccine passports — because that’s likely to become a thing — and get into that whole world.”
The coronavirus-detecting dogs could provide a way around those sorts of checks, and if the canine teams prove effective in Miami, the Heat can “absolutely” expect other NBA teams to borrow that approach, he added.
“We truly believe,” the executive declared, “it’s going to be safer in our arena than getting on an airplane, sitting next to all these people who aren’t tested, or eating at a restaurant, where everybody’s not masked — it’s going to be safer than all those things.”