Florida’s virus spike gives NBA players one more reason to hesitate
By Marc Stein
Robert A. Iger, the executive chairman of the Walt Disney Co., introduced the phrase into the NBA lexicon. Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner, passed it on to the news media.
In a virtual meeting with NBA team ow- ners on April 17, Iger counseled his audience to make “data and not the date” the focus of the league’s comeback efforts.
Some two months later, as 22 teams ramped up activities in practice facilities and prepared to begin regular coronavirus testing for players and staff members last week, fret- ting about the data was suddenly one of the most popular pastimes in the NBA universe.
The main reason: Since last Tuesday night, when the league began distributing a 113-page guide of health and safety protocols to govern its planned restart of the 2019-20 season at Walt Disney World next month, the rate of confirmed coronavirus cases in Oran- ge County, Fla., has risen dramatically.
Last Tuesday through Saturday, accor- ding to state data, 17 percent of coronavirus tests in the county returned positive results. That was a significant jump from the 10-day period before that, from June 6-15, when the positive rate was 5 percent.
The spike is yet another source of appre- hension to manage for league and union offi- cials, who just emerged from weeks of com- plicated discussions to come to terms on all the health and safety restrictions for its restart beginning July 7.
As today’s deadline approaches for pla- yers to notify their teams whether they wish to withdraw from participation, for whatever reason, there are three main sources of anxie- ty among the players and executives in the league: — The location of the contained campus for the restart is a fresh source of unease. The NBA chose Disney World for its single-site resumption of play for many reasons — bu- siness reasons among them, given Disney’s status as the league’s top media partner. But Orange County’s increase in positive tests over the past two weeks has made it an “in- fection hotbed,” as described by Perry Hal- kitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health. — As Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers said last week in a video chat with fans, some players are wrestling with fears that returning to full-time basketball may di- vert momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement, which has surged worldwide sin- ce the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
“In six weeks, the world may need some healing, they may need us to be on the floor,”
Williams said. “But if more black kids or more black adults or any adults dealing with police brutality are getting killed and we’re still outraged, I don’t know if it’s in our best interests to suit up, because it looks like we don’t care.” — A third prime worry that has been routinely overlooked with so much else hap- pening is the injury risk players will face after what has been, for many, the longest layoff of their career from full-speed, five-on-five play. There are certainly several players who have been participating for weeks in un- authorized workouts and pickup games — a photo of LeBron James and Ben Simmons tra- ining together was posted on Instagram last week by the Klutch Sports Group, the agency that represents both players — but there are likewise many players who struggled in the initial stages of the pandemic to find places to get shots up.
Through June 29, there will be a maxi- mum of four players allowed in team practice facilities. The next week, until teams begin arriving at Disney World on July 7, up to eight players will be allowed. Players can thus only count on roughly 20 days of full practices and scrimmages with five-on-five work in Florida before the season resumes — considerably less than the norm. A month’s worth of pic- kup games in team practice facilities every September typically precede the start of NBA training camps.
Regarding the first (and perhaps fore- most) concern, Halkitis, like many in his field, has praised the scope of the NBA’s plans to combat the coronavirus at the Disney cam- pus near Orlando. “It is very, very, very well structured,”
Halkitis said of the 113-page document in a telephone interview. “My reaction is that it makes the best use of the science we have to date, knowing perfectly well that things can change tomorrow.”
The main weakness in the NBA’s ap- proach, Halkitis said, is the prospect of players or team staff members leaving the campus without authorization and exposing themselves to the coronavirus — or “workers who are not staying on the grounds” bringing it in.
“Do I 100 percent believe that people aren’t going to leave?” Halkitis said. “I mean, these are adults, right? Human behavior is re- ally hard to control.”
Yet he also acknowledged that the wo- rrying trajectory of the testing data, at the very least, is bound to prompt questions about whether even the NBA’s strict protocols will be sufficient. The Florida Department of Health has seemed to acknowledge the shifting situation, issuing a lengthy health advisory Saturday that included a reminder to “wear masks in any setting where social distancing is not possible,” and a recommen- dation that “all individuals should refrain from participation in social or recreational gathe- rings of more than 50 people.”
Another concerning development in the state from the weekend: Major League Base- ball, while still searching for the labor agree- ment it needs to salvage some semblance of a 2020 season, ordered all team facilities in Florida and Arizona to shut down after pla- yers in both locations tested positive for the coronavirus.
“If the numbers were staying stable or they were going down, I’d have lots of confi- dence in the plan,” Halkitis said of the NBA’s restart. “The numbers going up mean you have a different circumstance now, which increases the probability of transmission and makes the plan — which is excellent but not foolproof — more susceptible to infiltration by the virus.
“I keep using the flood and the dam example: A dam holds water, but if there’s a lot of pressure on the dam, like lots of infec- tions, it’s more likely to crack. And that’s the problem here. They have to keep an eye on what’s going on.”
As players and coaches begin to reunite in earnest, with only two weeks to go befo- re charter planes are revved up to take them straight to Disney World, one suspects that no one on the NBA map will have to hear that advice twice.