Behold, how we live now, some of us. For NBA players and everybody else, the last three months have been a strange interruption. The coronavirus has swept across the globe, and nowhere more than America. And specifically, in the last week, Florida.
Which brings us to the NBA’s plan to return to play. A year after millions filled the streets of Toronto to celebrate the Raptors’ championship, the league circulated a 113-page guide to teams on returning to play in a pandemic. It’s thorough. It’s fascinating. It calls Disney World employees Disney Cast Members, and conjures a vision of a dystopian social experiment in an amusement park as Florida burns outside the gates. Maybe this is what it takes.
“From a protocol standpoint, first impressions are good. Second impressions are, boy, everything has to go right for this to work,” says epidemiologist Dr. Nitin Mohan, who teaches public and global health at Western University, and who co-founded a public health consulting firm called ETIO.
“This is a comprehensive, thorough protocol design.You can’t poke many holes in this. I can’t imagine every player being happy with it, though. It’s fascinating, it’s kind of scary, and I guess it’s the new normal for how we go forward.”
Once they actually get the 22 NBA teams and accompanying support staff into Disney, the rules are extensive and thorough. Wash hands, keep your distance, wear a mask except when eating or enjoying time outdoors. You can high-five and handshake in games and practices, but not elsewhere. Stay six feet apart indoors, and try not to share elevators. The housekeeper will only clean your room once a week, unless you ask for more. No doubles ping-pong, and if you play cards, throw the deck away afterward. There will be enough cards.
There are rules for that and everything because if the virus gets in and spreads, the whole thing could go kablooey. In some ways, the gated life of the NBA will be a microcosm of hospitals, workplaces, even homes, worried about infection. In another way it will be an example of how comprehensively a business protects its employees when there’s this much money on the line, while 78 low-wage meat packers die in Iowa because the bosses lied about meat shortages and stayed open.
And it’s a microcosm specifically of America, where Florida is a COVID-19 disaster, with a bumbling Trumpian governor presiding over soaring case counts as the rich insulate themselves. If Florida’s daily new case count of 2,610 belonged to a country, it would have ranked 11th in the world Wednesday, and first per capita among those.
“The whole concept is have a bubble, screen everyone, test the players and the personnel, make sure that the staff and the hotel is as safe as possible,” says Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto and Toronto General Hospital, who is also a consultant for the NHL players as they try to return to play. “That’s basically it. Clean the surfaces, follow public health measures.
“But at a high level, no matter how tight you make these policies, there’s going to be some degree of porousness to each bubble. Maybe a small amount, but there’s going to be some. And the concern is, if you place that bubble in a high-burden area versus a low-burden one, you just increase the risk of introducing COVID-19.”
Inside, there are rules. Players will wear Disney wristbands that open their hotel room doors, and can double as a tracking device if they test positive after one of the near-daily evening tests. There are medical tracking devices they can choose to wear, too. There are questions about underlying conditions, which raises questions of medical privacy. Disney employees are instructed never to be in a room with a player if they can help it.
There are quarantines for player families and guests (who don’t arrive until the end of July, three weeks after players get there), quarantines for anyone who tests positive, quarantines if you leave campus without permission and get caught sneaking back in. (The betting favourite for a high-profile player who would try this would be Houston’s James Harden.) And Disney employees — like team executives, owners, injured players, media, and some sponsors — will not have to stay on the campus, and will not be regularly tested. If you’re looking for how the virus gets in, look there.
There are no set thresholds for the number of infections that would shut the league down as it tries to salvage whatever TV money it can scrape from its truncated season. Hockey will try to do the same, but will at least have the good sense to put at least one of its two locations in Canada.
Like so much now, it’s an experiment. Whether this is actually worth trying, as Black Lives Matter and the pandemic are both urgent moral and societal challenges, is a hell of a debate. It’s a money grab, more than anything. And maybe a misguided signal of normalcy.
Also, it might not work. Because there are humans involved.
“On paper, it looks really good,” says Dr. Bogoch. “The key is just, does it actually get implemented in real-world settings?”
And of course, it won’t be normal. Which players stayed in shape? Which organizations are best prepared? Who will follow the rules best, get luckiest if the virus gets in, and best weather the boredom and confinement, the rules and regulations, the pressure and the paranoia?
“If you’re down 3-1 team on a team that’s not going to win, are you inclined to follow these protocols as strictly as a team focused on winning the championship?” asks Dr. Mohan. “If you’re the 14th man on a team that won’t win, why not go for a stroll and meet someone in Orlando?”
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Or as one NBA source put it, “It’s the team that doesn’t say f– it one week in that wins.”
Maybe this is the price of money these days, and maybe this is how some of us live. Hopefully, everybody does.
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