Hours before the NBA and NBPA announced the resumption of the season Friday, reality came in the form of 16 positive tests for COVID-19 among 302 players tested.
While NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Players Association executive director Michele Roberts expressed relief that the number wasn’t larger, it was a warning shot that the best intentions for the restart of the season could fall apart even in the bubble-like environment at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. The season, which was suspended March 11, is scheduled to resume on July 30.
“We know that COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future,” Silver said on a conference call Friday. “And we are left with no choice but to learn to live with this virus. No options are risk-free right now.”
Even as the announcement came, with an emphasis on the “stringent health and safety protocols,” the league disclosed the positive tests from Tuesday as teams convened in their home practice facilities.
The 5.29% positive rate is in line with the national average — and far lower than the most recent numbers out of Florida, where play will resume. The most recent numbers in Florida — where a record number of positive tests were reported Friday, nearly doubling the previous high — had a 17.3% positive rate.
“The answer is yes, the level of concern has increased, not just because of the increased levels in Florida, but throughout the country,” Silver said. “At least today, I believe, 29 of the 50 states have an increased number of cases.
“Of course, we designed our campus, in essence, to isolate ourselves from whatever the level of cases was in the surrounding community.
But since we designed our initial protocol, we are continuing to work with Disney on the testing of at least a subset of their employees that could potentially be in the same room as our players, and anyone else who’s tested daily on our campus. So we are satisfied that, once we work through those additional measures with Disney, we will continue to have a safe setting for us to resume our season.”
“Obviously, the virus came at us hard without any prior warning,” Roberts said. “And then we were faced with the prospect of losing the season, and it’s going to be an easy prospect if we were not able to do what everybody agreed had to be done, and that is to figure out a way, if we could, to restart this season in a way that guaranteed our players’ health and safety.”
The NBA said of the positive tests that already have surfaced, “Any player who tested positive will remain in self-isolation until he satisfies public health protocols for discontinuing isolation and has been cleared by a physician.”
In the safety protocols the league sent to teams last week, teams currently are in Phase 2 of a five-part plan and players will continue to be tested daily, at least in the beginning. Before joining the team in Florida for training camp, all players must quarantine until they have had two negative tests in a 36-hour period. The players who have tested positive must not only shut down workouts but undergo cardiac screening.
With the surging positive tests in Orange County, where the facility is, and the requirements that Disney employees move in and out of the bubble to perform their jobs, there has been some question how safe the bubble will be. Disney announced Friday that it had come to an agreement with its unions for a reopening of the parks after more than 7,000 employees signed petitions to delay the opening in light of the surging virus numbers.
“We haven’t worked through every scenario, but the notion would be that if we had a single player test positive, frankly, whether that player was an All-Star or a journeyman, that player would then go into quarantine,” Silver said. “We would then be tracking any players — or other personnel that that player had been in contact with — and even potentially supplement the daily testing just to ensure that others had not been contaminated, but then we would continue. That team would be down a man, and we would treat that positive test as we would an injury during the season, so we would not delay the continuation of the playoffs.
“Of course, if the larger question you’re asking, if we were to have significant spread of coronavirus through our community, that ultimately might lead us to stopping, but we’re working closely with the Players Association, with Disney and public health officials in Florida as to what that line should be, and it hasn’t been precisely designed.
“I think we just want to get down on the ground and start to see how our testing is working and how the protocols are working and then we’ll make decisions as we go.”
The NBA is plowing ahead, hopeful that its efforts at safety will work and also stressing that it will attempt to provide a platform for the social justice efforts of players, some who have hesitated to join their teams rather than focus on racial equality issues.
In the statement announcing the agreement, besides a start date for play among the 22 teams headed to Orlando, the NBA added that it is pursuing “the goal of taking collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice.”