- In July, NBA players, coaches, and team staff members traveled to Walt Disney World to resume the NBA season in a "bubble."
- Since entering the bubble, no NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus.
- Despite the NBA bubble's success in stopping the spread of COVID-19, the experiment may not work with other sports leagues.
On August 19, the National Basketball Association (NBA) announced the results of its most recent round of COVID-19 testing. Among the 341 basketball players tested, zero were positive for the novel coronavirus. In fact, no players have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 since first entering the NBA bubble more than a month ago.
Compare that to Major League Baseball (MLB). During the first week of the shortened MLB season, 29 players tested positive for the coronavirus. As of August 21, one-third of all teams have had to postpone games due to SARS-CoV-2, and reports suggest the outbreaks have come from players who flouted league safety protocols.
The contrasting experiences of the two major sports leagues reveal several truths about SARS-CoV-2 that, at this point, should be self-evident: first, that the safety guidelines espoused by public health officials and infectious disease experts really do work; and second, human error and arrogance are often the fuel that powers the virus’s spread.
“If we could do everywhere what the NBA is doing in its bubble, we would get rid of the virus,” John Swartzberg, M.D., an infectious disease expert and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Popular Mechanics. “But the Achilles heel of the NBA’s system is that if people cheat, it could break down.”
How the NBA Bubble Works
On July 7, all of the players, coaches, and staff members participating in this summer’s abbreviated NBA season traveled to the campus of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The 16 teams that made the playoffs, which began August 17, won’t leave until the end of their respective seasons—which, for the squads that make it to the NBA Finals, will last until October.
According to reporting from CBS Sports, ESPN, and the New York Times, each of the teams is staying at one of three Disney hotels. All of their practices and games are held at the campus’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. The players, coaches, and staff members are allowed to move freely within certain areas of the resort, but if they leave, they can’t come back in unless they quarantine for an extended period of 10 days or more.
“For anyone who does test positive, arrangements have been made to take them out of the bubble and to a special area where they are quarantined with appropriate medical care until it’s safe for them to return,” Harlan Selesnick, M.D., the team physician for the Miami Heat, tells Popular Mechanics.
Even before traveling to Orlando, Dr. Selesnick says, the players were required to quarantine at home when not training or engaging in “essential activities,” which were laid out in a 113-page health-and-safety booklet that the NBA distributed to all players. The teams were not allowed to practice together leading up to their trip to Orlando, and regular COVID-19 testing began more than two weeks before the teams entered the bubble.
“Prior to going into the bubble, all the teams and players had individual workouts at their facilities, four players at a time, but with no contact with each other,” Dr. Selesnick says. “They were self-quarantining and they were tested on a set schedule.”
Upon arriving in Orlando, the players were under strict quarantine in their hotel rooms for the first 48 hours. Once that period ended, the players were tested for COVID-19 before being allowed to roam within approved areas of the Disney grounds. The players, coaches, and staff are still tested daily for COVID-19. Hotel staff, NBA reporters, and others allowed to enter the Orlando bubble are themselves subject to rigid quarantine and testing protocols, and few are permitted to get close to the players.
“So far, it’s worked,” Dr. Selesnick says. “It’s been a lot of sacrifice for the players and staff, but it’s worked.”
Can the NBA Bubble Work for Other Sports?
Dr. Swartzberg has advised both professional and college sports leagues on their handling of the ongoing pandemic. He says the NBA has “two of the most powerful public health tools” at its disposal, and that, together, those two tools have enabled the association’s success.
“One, they test everybody every day, and so if someone gets infected, they can immediately remove them,” says Dr. Swartzberg. “And second, they’re socially distancing. They’re in the bubble and their contact with other people is strictly enforced.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Selesnick says it may be difficult—or even impossible—for other major sports leagues to replicate the NBA’s success.
“The NBA was already toward the end of its season when they resumed, so they were only trying to play a certain number of games, not a whole season,” says Dr. Selesnick. He also emphasizes that NBA rosters are small compared to those of other sports franchises. Just 17 players from each NBA team were allowed to enter the bubble, and the total per team including coaches and staff was 35 people, he says.
“With pro football, you have rosters of 60-plus players, plus coaches and staff,” Dr. Selesnick says. “And they’re going to be trying to play a full season.”
The size of MLB rosters lands somewhere between NBA and NFL teams. “To create a bubble like the NBA’s and have everyone there for the entire season—that wasn’t something [the MLB] elected to do, probably because of the expense,” Dr. Swartzberg says.
MLB officials have attempted to establish “virtual bubbles” around each of its teams’ members, with rules and restrictions similar to the NBA’s. But with so many more players and staff members, there has always been a much greater chance that individuals will flout or ignore the rules. The early season’s outbreaks have already led the MLB commissioner Rob Mangred to consider scrapping the season.
The NHL, meanwhile, has small team rosters and a shortened season, much like the NBA’s. And, at least so far, its league’s bubble has worked about as well as the NBA’s.
But Dr. Swartzberg agrees that the NFL is likely to struggle. And he can’t see how college football will be able to safely move forward this fall. “Colleges and universities can’t keep players in a bubble, and they don’t have the financial resources to do daily testing,” he says.
There’s always the chance that new-and-improved testing or treatment protocols could change the COVID-19 math. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently granted emergency approval to a new saliva-based COVID-19 test that could return positive results more quickly and cheaply than the current nasal swab tests.
If college or pro leagues could afford to test all players before each practice or game, and also feel confident in the tests’ results, that could allow them to move forward safely. But as of now, experts say it will be very hard for most sports to replicate the success of the NBA bubble.
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