U.S. sports leagues working to resume play have devised elaborate plans in an effort to hold off the coronavirus: players living in isolated “bubble” communities, regular testing and even connected devices to monitor player health.

But there’s little hope of keeping the coronavirus out entirely. It’s a given that players will test positive, according to people from both the medical and the sports industries.

“Having a case is almost inevitable, so it’ll be about minimizing the chain reaction,” said a person who is familiar with the plans developed by the NBA and MLB, who was not authorized to discuss them publicly. “The whole strategy is to minimize the chance of being shut down again, but they’re fully prepared to have some players become infected.”

The surging coronavirus pandemic has cast a shadow over once-optimistic plans for professional sports in the United States to resume as they have in some other parts of the world.

And while no league has yet backed off plans to restart, few signs are pointing in the right direction. New cases continue to crop up daily across nearly all professional and amateur sports, and some athletes have said they intend to sit out the season. Outbreaks in parts of the U.S. set to host the games are leading to renewed lockdowns.

The NBA’s plan, which may be the most extensive and viable, has received praise from several experts, including the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci. But it still may not work if cases spike within the league or to extreme levels in the host cities. That raises the question of just how feasible it is for sports to return, especially for leagues without the more than 100-page safety protocol being adopted by the NBA.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said repeatedly that even with a thorough plan, there’s no guarantee that play will resume.

“[It’s] never ‘full steam no matter what,’” he reiterated in an interview with Time on Tuesday. “One thing we’re learning about this virus is that much is unpredictable.”

Each league’s plan has vulnerabilities. With the bubble models being followed by the NBA, Major League Soccer and the NHL, there’s still the risk of outside infection from hotel and transportation staff. Models that don’t use a bubble, like those proposed by MLB and the NFL, rely on players self-isolating responsibly.

The NHL didn’t respond to a request for comment. When asked about the possibility of needing to suspend play again, spokespeople for MLB, the NFL, MLS and the NBA expressed confidence in their reopening plans.

All models face the possibility that so many players could test positive that a team or the league as a whole could be hobbled. The success of any model is also dependent on what’s happening in host cities since a severe spike in cases could affect the optics of continued play.

Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist who also works in the sports industry, said part of what has made it so challenging to bring back sports is the fact that the U.S. still doesn’t have the virus under control.

“The plan that you build has to work for the situation around you. If your country is doing worse at controlling the virus, then you need a stricter plan,” he said. “We’re reaping what we sowed in the U.S. Our response was late and weak, and we still haven’t gotten it under control in many areas, so that makes it harder for sports to come back.”

That includes Florida where MLS and the NBA are set to resume play this month at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at the Walt Disney World Resort. On Saturday, Florida set a single-day record with more than 9,500 new cases.

MLS is set to resume play July 8. Nearly 400 players and staff members recently entered the league’s bubble in Orlando, Fla. On Tuesday, there were four new players who tested positive, making for a total of 30 cases among the players and the staff members. MLS said it will continue to test players every other day as well as the day before matches.

Binney said getting players into their “bubble” communities is a challenge.

“The transition into the bubble is the hardest part,” he said. “Before they’ve been in the bubble for five to seven days, I would expect that every round of testing yields at least one positive.”

The NBA, which is scheduled to resume its season July 30, announced Friday that it had 16 new COVID-19 cases. Players and staff members have yet to enter the NBA’s bubble but when they do, they’ll face the most regulated set of guidelines yet defined by any league.

But there’s some question of whether all players will abide by the rules.

“It’s really hard to say whether athletes are more or less at risk in the environment the NBA is proposing,” Rachel Nichols, host of ESPN’s “The Jump,” said.

“It really depends on what they’re doing at home. Athletes Instagram everything and we see some of these guys in their normal lives,” she said. “Absolutely some of them may be taking the same level of precautions that will be in place in Orlando, but it’s possible that going into Orlando some athletes may be in a situation where they’re less at risk.”

The NHL, which is also planning to use a bubble model in two hub cities, hasn’t announced any formal dates for a return to play. On Monday, it confirmed 26 players tested positive.

Source : NBC News


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