June 26, 2020

Weekly line: Professional sports are resuming in America. But will it be a false start?

Daily Briefing

    Like many Americans, I've sorely missed watching my favorite professional sports since most U.S. sports leagues suspended their normal operations in March in light of the country's novel coronavirus epidemic. And also like many Americans—while I understand the need for and support precautions to protect ourselves and others from the virus and mitigate its spread, particularly given the epidemic's current resurgence in the United States—I've been longing for America's professional sports to resume.

    Are states' reopenings to blame for new coronavirus spikes? Experts are split.

    U.S. sports leagues have been anxious to restart, as well. Some already have (though they look very different now than they did before the epidemic began), while others have announced plans to restart operations in coming months. The plans include some unique changes that aim to keep players, staff, and fans safe from the new coronavirus—but as America's epidemic continues to worsen, some experts, and even players, are wondering whether those measures go far enough.

    NASCAR resumes—and permits some spectators

    NASCAR was the first major professional sports league in America to resume operations. NASCAR on May 17 held its first in-person race since pausing operations in March—though it eliminated all practice and most qualifying events, barred fans from attending the race, and implemented a host of new safety features.

    On June 14, NASCAR for the first time since March allowed spectators to attend a race, which was held at Florida's Homestead-Miami Speedway. NASCAR permitted 1,000 first responders and military families to attend with some new regulations in place, including physical distancing and face covering requirements, temperature checks, and only cashless transactions. And on Monday, NASCAR allowed up to 5,000 fans to attend a race at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway.

    MLS, NBA, and WNBA set to resume next month—playing in a 'Florida bubble'

    MLS, the NBA, and the WNBA are taking a different approach with their plans to resume next month: playing in what I like to call a "Florida bubble."

    All three sports leagues plan to launch their reopening plans in Florida, and while each plan differs in the details, all of them aim to isolate their players and key personal in "bubbles"—that is, asking them to reside in certain hotels and resorts, play in specified locations with frequent health checks, and limit their movement outside of those locations.

    For example, MLS teams—which from July 8 through Aug. 11 are set to play in MLS' first tournament since it suspended operations in March—are establishing a bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex located at Florida's Walt Disney World Resort, where the tournament will take place without fans.

    MLS is requiring all players and personnel attending the tournament to undergo two screenings for the new coronavirus before traveling to the resort, be tested for antibodies to the virus, and have their temperature checked. After arrival, players and personnel will be tested for the coronavirus every other day for the first two weeks, and then at regular intervals and before each match. Players and personnel will reside at two hotels located at the resort, where staff will "provid[e] enhanced cleaning of all venues and enforc[e] appropriate capacity-management and other social distancing guidelines." MLS plans to continue with its regular season schedule after the tournament concludes.

    The NBA has a similar bubble plan in place that's been praised by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci. The NBA is planning to resume operations next month, with 22 teams playing eight regular-season games starting July 30, a playoff season starting Aug. 17, and NBA Finals beginning Sept. 30. All of the games will take place at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex without fans, though NBA players and a limited number of league, team, and union personnel; sponsors; and members of the media will be permitted to attend.

    Similar to MLS, NBA will implement routine testing and safety requirements for NBA players and staff, will urge players and personnel to remain on resort property, and will urge players and staff to refrain from socializing in hotels or using rooms other than their own. In addition, NBA is requiring players and personnel to wear devices known as Disney MagicBands at nearly all times, which the association said will assist with facilitating required medical screenings. NBA also will give players the option to wear a titanium ring that reportedly can measure a user's pulse, temperature, respiratory rate, and other physiological stats, which officials hope could be used to detect whether a player is developing symptoms of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

    The WNBA is eyeing a similar plan to restart next month, though its "bubble" would be staged at Florida's IMG Academy.

    MLB announces plan for a shortened season with some interesting new rules

    MLB is bucking the "bubble" trend and instead planning to kick off a shortened, 60-game season on July 23 or 24. The organization announced that teams will mostly play other teams within their own divisions, as well as some teams in their "opposite league's corresponding geographical division … in order to mitigate travel." MLB also said most teams must train "at the ballparks in their primary home cities."

    Players and staff will undergo regular testing for the new coronavirus and have to follow an extensive list of health and safety protocols intended to curb potential transmission of the coronavirus, including new requirements regarding equipment, pitchers licking their fingers, spitting, and physical distancing. At the season's outset, fans won't be permitted to attend the games.

    NFL mandates 'tiered' system to curb potential transmission

    The NFL is moving forward with plans to start team training camps next month and kick off its 2020 season mostly as it was planned before the epidemic, though the organization on Thursday canceled its preseason-opening Hall of Fame game scheduled for Aug. 8, citing a priority of "health and safety. 

    Earlier this week, the NFL directed teams to develop a "tiered" system that dictates where personnel are permitted to be at team facilities and in which activities personnel are permitted to take part, so as to limit any potential spread of the virus as they resume operations. Players and personnel will have to comply with certain health and safety requirements associated with each tier. For example, ESPN's Adam Schefter writes that people in Tier 1 will be required to use separate entrances than people in Tier 2, if possible, and certain personnel will have to undergo routine medical screenings and testing for the new coronavirus.

    And while the NFL isn't yet planning to prohibit fans from attending games, it did say it would allow teams to limit how many fans can attend based on stadiums' local guidelines.

    NHL moves through phased restarting plan with 'hub' cities

    The NHL has implemented a four-phase approach to restarting its 2019-2020 season: 

    • Under Phase 1, which began in March, the NHL officially ended its 2019-2020 regular season and called on players and staff to self-isolate;

    • Under Phase 2, initiated in early June, the NHL is allowing players to take part in noncontact skating in small groups at team facilities and requiring players and staff to adhere to safety protocols, including testing for the new coronavirus;

    • Under Phase 3, tentatively scheduled to begin July 10, the NHL will allow team training camps to begin with certain health and safety protocols in place; and

    • Under Phase 4, tentatively scheduled for July 30, the NHL will kick off a 24-team playoff season in two so-called "hub" cities, which haven't yet been announced. Phase 4 also will mandate certain health and safety requirements, the NHL said.

    Epidemic's resurgence could foil leagues' plans

    Although America's major professional sports leagues are forging ahead with their restarting plans, the resurgence of the country's coronavirus epidemic threatens to derail them—and, in some instances, already has. 

    For example, some observers have said it's not yet safe for fans to be attending NASCAR events, particularly given that many are scheduled to take place in states seeing spikes in their numbers of new coronavirus cases. NASCAR already has had to move its upcoming All-Star Race from North Carolina, which has seen a recent spike in new coronavirus cases, to Tennessee (though Tennessee, too, has seen its daily number of new coronavirus cases accelerate over the past couple weeks). In addition, a NASCAR team this week announced that some employees have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

    And while the idea of isolating professional sports players and personnel inside a "bubble" in theory could help to contain the new coronavirus, those plans already face challenges, as well. Chief among those trials is Florida's recent—and rapidincrease in new coronavirus cases. In addition, both MLS and the NBA have reported cases of the new coronavirus among players in recent days—and some NBA players have announced they won't participate in the upcoming bubble season.

    MLB's plan, which was announced just Tuesday, also faces a cloudy path forward because of the coronavirus epidemic's resurgence and reports of players and staff testing positive for the virus in recent days. Bill Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, told Sports Illustrated, "The virus is not going on a summer vacation. It's out there being transmitted very intensely in many different parts of the country. … I'm more worried now than I was three or four weeks ago."

    Similarly, ESPN reports that the NHL has "hit some speed bumps" in its plan, as a Florida-based team last week closed its training facility amid a coronavirus outbreak that affected about 20 players and a number of staff. The NHL hasn't announced plans to delay its plan, but players and staff will be required to comply with certain health and safety protocols during Phases 3 and 4, such as being tested for the novel coronavirus every other day.

    And on top of the mounting reports of professional athletes and staff testing positive for the virus before leagues even resume operations, the Wall Street Journal reports that "[h]undreds of college football players have tested positive since returning to campus for practice"—lending a warning for what might happen once professional sports restart.

    As the Journal reports, "increasing cases and skyrocketing percentages of positive tests over the past week in populous states have made it clear that a microscopic pathogen that paralyzed American life is not under control in the U.S.—and the return of sports might have to wait until the coronavirus is contained."

    Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told the Journal, "I think it's going to be a huge challenge" for professional sports to resume given the current state of the country's coronavirus epidemic. "In that context, no matter how bombproof your own internal plan is, it's going to be very, very hard to pull off."

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