NBA needs to be prepared to pull the plug on Orlando restart

The NBA is hoping to restart its season at Wide World of Sports at Disney. But the area is dealing with a surge in coronavirus cases. (Photo by Todd Anderson / Disney via Getty Images)
The NBA is hoping to restart its season at Wide World of Sports at Disney. But the area is dealing with a surge in coronavirus cases. (Photo by Todd Anderson / Disney via Getty Images) /

As coronavirus cases continue to rise within Central Florida, the NBA needs to be ready to pull the plug if it cannot guarantee player health and safety.

The sports world has been planning a return ever since things with the coronavirus seemed to calm down and life began to creep toward normalcy.

It was a sudden jolt when the NBA closed itself down with the reality of the virus touching the league directly. The NBA became inadvertent leaders in taking the virus more seriously — not that they were not before, they were preparing to bar fans from games in hopes of finishing the season. Every other league followed the NBA’s lead once it suspended its season.

The public took those cues too.

When sports shut down, suddenly the coronavirus pandemic became not merely a thing specific communities needed to worry about but something that could affect anybody in society. And affect them seriously.

Life found a way to move on. The government — at both the state and federal level — started to get a handle on the virus and started to bend the curve downward. The rate of infection and positives tests decreased and life started to feel normal again.

The NBA planned its return in this environment. It sought a place where it could control the environment and sequester players away from everyone else, hoping to wall the virus out and finish the season before figuring out how to conduct a 2021 season.

Things have advanced quickly in so many ways throughout the last three weeks. Florida seemed to have a good handle on the virus and was beating fears the state would become an epicenter.

But now things have changed.

The virus has surged in the state with the state setting record for daily new cases. While most of the cases remain in South Florida, Central Florida has seen a similar surge in new cases. And the testing rate has followed, proving that more cases are not merely a product of more testing.

Things are not going in the right direction.

As cases continue to rise in Central Florida and the virus seeps its way into sports teams, the NBA has to be wary.

There are already concerns among its players about their health and safety — and their ability to stay involved in the growing social justice movement. The events in Florida are not going to ease those concerns.

And as conditions continue to change, the NBA needs to be prepared to pull the plug on the entire season. They are likely too deep into conversations and the process of restarting the season to start over. If they cannot play at Disney in late July, their hopes of finishing the 2020 season are likely over.

And if they cannot guarantee the health and safety of their players — let alone their security and confidence in those safety precautions — they need to back out and reset for December 2020 when hopefully things are back under control.

The league can only gameplan around this virus so much. And with cases on the rise in Central Florida, the risk may quickly become greater than the rewards.

The sudden surge in positive cases

The situation in Florida has not been as dire as everyone thought, but the recent surge is raising concerns.

When the world first started shutting down, images of people at Florida’s beaches flooded airwaves. it seemed like people were not following social distancing guidelines and Florida localities were slow to close down beaches.

Even closing things down after the St. Patrick’s Day weekend seemed to be moving slowly, giving people one last hurrah before a nearly two-month shutdown.

From the start, Governor Ron DeSantis was defiant and flippant over the results in his state. He blamed people coming in from outside states for spreading the virus.

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That cause was always a bit dubious, but the data suggested his state had a greater handle on things than everyone anticipated. Once Florida closed things down, the rate of positive tests stayed low and Florida seemed to be an example of how a calm and measured approach could bend the curve downward.

Eager to do something of a victory lap and seek some economic advantage over states that were still in the throes of the virus, DeSantis eagerly and excitedly opened the state back up for sports.

He allowed WWE and AEW to conduct shows at its facilities within the state and welcoming golf exhibition matches provided they maintained social distancing. Quickly, the NBA, MLS and even MLB jumped in to try to restart their seasons in the state.

Things were working well and the state slowly began to reopen.

It is unclear exactly why things have changed. Perhaps citizens have let their guard down — the data suggests most of the new cases in the state are coming from young people — and gone back to normalcy too quickly.

But the reality is this: cases are on the rise at a record pace throughout the state.

In Orange County, specifically, the number of positive cases and the rate of positive tests have increased.

On May 31, the county had a positive test rate of 2.3 percent. That number has spiked to 5.1 percent on June 7. That positive test rate number continued rising in the last few weeks.

The number of confirmed positive cases has gone from 54 on June 7 to an ever-increasing 340 on June 18. The real jump occurred on June 10 when the county had 121 positive tests, the first time with more than 100 positive tests since the shutdown. That number has continued to rise to the record amount it is at now.

Suddenly the state seems to be flailing.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings has issued an executive order requiring all citizens to wear masks in public — with only very few exceptions carved out.

The good news is that the health system is better prepared for this spike. Hospitals are not feeling a crush of new patients and capacity is still manageable. Tests are more widely available and are not restricted to anyone with symptoms.

If a resident wants a test, they can largely get one — although the wait times at the testing center at the Orange County Convention Center remains quite long. The NBA and MLS coming into Central Florida should not limit either the area’s testing capacity or hospital usage.

This is not a time for panic, but it is certainly a time for concern. Especially for a league trying to bring a lot of people from the outside into one of the hotspots for the virus.

Sports is not safe

The county has assured all parties that they have the capacity to continue their plans to host these sports leagues nearby, according to The Orlando Sentinel. Disney is known for its strict safety protocols at its theme parks — and its customer service — and can effectively wall things off.

The NBA, specifically, has set up its own set of safety protocols. The details of that plan were revealed just this week and seem to be designed to find positive cases very quickly and ensure that it does not spread.

The league has its plan already set to make sure players enter the campus setting without any positive cases. That is something vital.

But already, it is proving difficult to keep the virus completely out of the sports world despite the best-laid plans.

WWE announced this week that one of its trainees tested positive for COVID-19 and that performer was in attendance at one of the company’s tapings. Making matters worse, main roster talent found out about when the company issued a press release informing the public.

On Friday, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced they were shutting down their practice facility and Amalie Arena because several players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

Things got worse in the Tampa area too.

A Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant coach tested positive for COVID-19 and two others were in quarantine. The Philadelphia Phillies shut down their spring training facility in Clearwater and the Toronto Blue Jays shut down their facility in Dunedin because of an outbreak.

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Finally, the PGA TOUR has made its return and had its first positive test when Nick Watney withdrew from the RBC Heritage in South Carolina on Friday after coming down with symptoms and then subsequently testing positive.

Watney played Thursday’s first round and tested negative when he arrived at the tournament.

On one hand, all of these incidents are signs the league’s testing protocols work. They have caught cases fairly early and shut things down to prevent further spread.

On the other hand, these incidents are also a sign that no matter how much the league tries to innoculate itself from the virus, it may always be a step behind. The testing is readily available and can catch things early, but it is not always clear it can catch things in time.

But risk remains. And not testing protocol it seems can keep players 100-percent safe. The question with the coronavirus is not if it invades the campus setting, but when.

Moving forward as planned

The NBA still plans to have all 22 teams arrive in Central Florida in early July. Even with the rise in cases in the area, the NBA has faith in its testing protocols — every player will begin getting tested regularly next week in preparation for the start of the season — and trust that Disney will be able to keep the world walled off when they arrive to their campus.

It is becoming increasingly clear that despite the NBA’s best efforts to create protocols and a safe environment may not be enough.

From there, the league is hoping to catch any outbreaks early and keep that person away from the larger population so it can finish its season.

For now, there is no sign the county or Disney could not support the league and all of its needs. If all the players are sequestered on their own in the campus setting and outside interaction is limited, they might reasonably believe they can keep their players safe.

The signs though are that there is no absolute safety. The virus has found its way inside even the best safety protocols. And once the virus is inside the bubble, it certainly could spread easily.

That is the scenario the league wants to avoid. That is the scenario that everyone fears.

If the league can no longer guarantee this kind of safety, then it has to be willing and ready to pull the plug. The league has to put health and safety above all. If it cannot guarantee its protocols will work to keep the virus out in this environment, then the reward of finishing the season is not worth the risk.

Things in Florida are not looking good at the moment. And the league has to know this and feel ready to hit the escape button and send everybody home.

In Orange County, the hope is requiring face coverings will help slow the spread and signal to the population to take prevention seriously. There is still time to fight things back.

And for now, only the rate of positive tests is up. The county is not facing the same crush of hospitalizations it did back in March and April.

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That is the window in which the NBA will try to squeeze through to finish the season. But the county has to do its part to turn the tide to assure the safety of everyone — let alone the NBA.