Welcome to the Happiest Place on Earth. COVID testing nightly.
By Marc Stein
A knock on the heavy brown door of my first-floor hotel room at Walt Disney World finally came Sunday just before 10 p.m.
This was an all-business knock. Three technicians from BioReference Laboratories wearing white coats and face shields, and accompanied by an NBA representative, had arrived to administer my first coronavirus test.
According to the rules in the NBA’s corner of Disney World, no one is allowed inside the 314-square-foot room I am limited to through Sunday. So I slid a chair up to the doorway to receive a swab of each nostril and my throat. The sticks were snapped and placed in a tube, then stored in a crate to take back to the lab. The swabs, roughly five hours after I checked in, took less than a minute.
I took my second coronavirus test Monday night, nearly 24 hours later, even before I had a result confirmed from the first. But the end goal remains unchanged: I need a week’s worth of negative results from daily tests to gain full entry into what everyone refers to as the NBA bubble — even though league officials, as Commissioner Adam Silver put it last week, acknowledge that it is better described as a campus because it is by no means “hermetically sealed.”
Only two reporters are fully inside so far. Once the rest of us are allowed to look around, access restrictions for reporters will be the most onerous in league history. The NBA believes that’s the appropriate approach for what is surely the most complex undertaking in league history, but the strictness makes it difficult to say how much of the bubble we’ll be able to see.
Reporters can go to only three places after quarantining — game venues, practice sites and the hotel designated for the news media. The three hotels that house the 22 teams are off-limits.
Yet this first-of-its-kind event, even after accounting for all those deterrents, was simply unmissable.
Regular readers know that for weeks I have voiced concerns about the dangers of the NBA restart, stemming from the virus as well as soft-tissue injury risks. That apprehension hasn’t gone away; how could it when Florida racked up a national record 15,300 new coronavirus cases Sunday as I arrived? But this is the league I’ve been fortunate to cover for nearly 30 years. The moment is just too big, too historic and too different to stay away.
“This is going to be a very unique opportunity to observe the human condition,” said Tommy Sheppard, the general manager of the Washington Wizards.
Closer to 20 journalists, compared to the anticipated 10, have been approved to enter, a reflection of the considerable curiosity surrounding 22 teams living and playing at a single site without fans. That includes journalists from The Associated Press, The Athletic, The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, Southern California News Group, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, The Washington Post and The New York Times. A like number of journalists from the league’s official media partners, ESPN and Turner, is also expected, including one reporter from each who was allowed to arrive early to complete their quarantines before teams started arriving July 7: Malika Andrews (ESPN) and Chris Haynes (Turner).
Those outlets will have enjoyed a 12- or 13-day jump on the rest of us by the time we can exit our rooms and attend a practice. Yet I learned long ago, from several mentors at The Orange County Register in the 1980s when I was just starting out, that sportswriters shouldn’t bemoan work conditions to readers because they simply don’t want to hear it. So I will shut up and report from behind that brown door until lockdown ends and report even more on the other side.
A few more highlights and observations to share from the first 48 hours:
— The next time you fly, expect to feel disoriented. Being back in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport Sunday for the first time since March 13, even as much as I typically travel, was … tense. Any time a line had to be formed, just figuring out where to stand and how to social distance was awkward.
— On top of the well-chronicled three daily food drop-offs made to everyone in quarantine, room service is available from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. I’ve tested it twice, but I have not yet tried either the New York strip steak or the braised beef short ribs that had the Los Angeles Lakers’ newly signed J.R. Smith excited, amid his various complaints, when he read the menu aloud last week on Instagram Live.
— I am a coffee snob who has zero dexterity to make my own coffee decently, no matter how hard I try. I stuffed one suitcase and two large duffel bags to capacity — but that left no room to bring my own fancy coffee maker. So I purchased some space-efficient Keurig pods that looked interesting online, packed them to use with the machine in my room and hoped for the best. After it was too late, I shared this plan with Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles. “Keurig ain’t it,” Ingles said with a laugh. Utah’s coffee connoisseur was right.
— The biggest inconvenience so far: finding out, after fully unpacking, that we must move to a new room after completing the seven-day quarantine. I couldn’t function until two months’ worth of clothes were all on the extra hangers I brought, or until I found places for the extra work supplies, toiletries, hats, snacks (peanuts mostly) and maybe even a small stash of a glass-bottle soft drink you may have heard colleagues rib me about in the past.
— I can handle the isolation — I think. I can’t leave the room until Sunday night, but I haven’t seen any security presence outside my window. I nonetheless intend to obey the rules and stay put, no matter how badly I would like to walk to the ice machine steps from my room. Even that is not permitted.
— The thick, gray, rubber MagicBand bracelet that functions as a room key is adorned with two iconic silhouettes: Mickey Mouse and Jerry West, the inspiration for the NBA logo. It may prove to be the best Disney souvenir we take home when this is all over — if we indeed get to keep it.
I am scheduled to be here until early September, before a handoff to my colleague Scott Cacciola. Of course, as we all know by now, planning in 2020 tends to be futile.
So especially in these early stages, for me as much as anyone, bubble life is probably best approached day-to-day.