Everyone thinks they can win a road game. Only 40 percent of NBA teams actually do.
In unfamiliar terrain, one meager misstep can destroy months of preparation.
Last week, the NBA rolled out a 113-page health and safety memo in preparation for restarting the season at Disney World. The plan, requiring only a 36-hour quarantine upon entry, is far from perfect, often mistaking action for effectiveness. But it does try to mitigate risk, if not prevent the spread of the coronavirus completely. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s chief infectious disease expert, called it “quite creative.”
But the plan’s biggest weakness — Disney World staffers entering and re-entering the campus, potentially carrying COVID-19 — has been exacerbated by a depressing yet entirely predictable rise of coronavirus cases in Florida, particularly in Orange County, the location of Disney World.
A similar “bubble” concept has worked in Germany, where Bundesliga rolls on safely. But location matters. Germany has averaged around 600 new cases per day this week — that’s, by the way, amid a spike. Florida recorded 5,500 new cases just today, shattering its daily record.
The Toronto Raptors have already entered Florida, but not yet Disney World. In the coming weeks, the NBA’s 22 teams will venture onto the Disney campus in a state where the government has consistently flown in the face of medical recommendations, a state run by Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose primary reaction to the pandemic has been to open his state’s doors to businesses that can’t operate in states with stricter pandemic-related restrictions. Elected to represent over 21 million people, DeSantis witnessed the rise of a pandemic and wondered how he could gamify it.
Outdoor basketball courts in some states are still closed, but DeSantis has set the stage to welcome professional sports (and other events) to restart in Florida. “What I would tell commissioners of leagues is if you have a team in an area where they just won’t let them operate, we’ll find a place for you here in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said on May 15, volunteering his state as a Petri dish. So far, the MLS, NBA, WNBA and UFC have obliged.
According to Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal, on June 4, when the NBA approved a restart scenario, 3 percent of coronavirus tests returned a positive result in Orange County. Since then, that figure has successively jumped to 17.3 percent. In April, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the NBA would prioritize the data over the date. But the league is setting up camp in a state that has consistently done the opposite. Silver’s words, unless the NBA pulls back and re-examines the plan, will ring hollow.
The league might want to take a cue from how the people inside are feeling. The NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning shut down their facilities after players and staffers tested positive for COVID-19. Spring training in Florida has halted.
DeSantis still doesn’t plan to shutter businesses. Some of the businesses he is purporting to save have taken it upon themselves to close down.
The workers that are supposed to enter and re-enter the campus? Over 6,000 Disney World employees have signed a petition lobbying the theme park to reconsider reopening.
DeSantis has obfuscated and downplayed matters in an attempt to make Floridians believe the murky present isn’t all that bad. He has blamed the increase in cases on an increase in testing, even as the percentage of positives has risen. He has pointed to a lack of hospitalizations as reason for optimism, even as beds reach capacity across the state, including in Orange County. Instead of reintroducing restrictions, the state is changing the reporting guidelines regarding how ICU beds are counted.
Today, Florida Democrats asked DeSantis to reissue a statewide mask requirement.
In May, Rebekah Jones, a data scientist for the Florida Department of Health, was fired for repeated subordination. Jones contends that it was because she refused to manipulate case data. On Tuesday, she tweeted that multiple sources at the Department of Health were told to “change the numbers and begin slowly deleting deaths and cases so it looks like Florida is improving next week, in the leadup to July 4.”
None of this should be particularly surprising. Money-driven businesses are incentivized to open up shop in states that are loath to regulate the spread of the virus. Three months, we’ve learned, is an eternity in the virus’ timeline. No one can predict its future, but in Florida, leagues can at least trust that the regulatory terrain likely won’t change enough to shut them down.
But restarting games in Florida gives the NBA only the illusion of control in the face of a virus that has proven to control everything in its path. It’s like making a deal with the devil just to have control over the thermostat. You can’t make hell less hot.
If the NBA doesn’t hit pause on this experiment, the only thing they’re betting on is that the cases will miraculously go down. The biggest question surrounding the restart of sports, as ever, is what if someone dies? It’s not something the state of Florida seems preoccupied with.
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