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What Will Life Look Like Inside the NBA Bubble?

The NBA’s campus site proposal is under scrutiny as the number of positive COVID-19 tests spikes in Florida. While the league is taking extensive measures to protect its players, more questions continue to arise.

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

On its surface, made shiny by global camps, philanthropies, and “This Is Why We Play” commercials, the NBA is a progressive league. The most progressive of the four major American leagues, as its fans say, often and proudly. There are no blatantly racist or appropriated logos, unlike the NFL, MLB, and NHL. The NBA boasts 11 full-time female assistant coaches, more than the NFL, MLB, or NHL employed in 2019. Gregg Popovich’s and Steve Kerr’s condemnations of police brutality and the current administration birthed the “Popovich/Kerr 2020” slogan. When NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in 2014 in response to the death of Eric Garner, it was viewed as self-expression; when Colin Kaepernick knelt in 2016, it was a scandal. Or that’s how we remember it. In reality, commissioner Adam Silver said he preferred players stick to the dress code.

Last week, the NBA released a 113-page health and safety protocol for its plan to restart the 2019-20 season in Orlando. The proposal is exhaustive, but it’s not without inconsistencies that raise concerns. The league’s humanitarian image—a feat, for an enterprise run by billionaires—is at risk. Since the beginning of the NBA’s Disney World return pitch, players and fans have had reservations. Will basketball returning distract society from the quest for social change? Is the campus safe? Is this where healthcare resources should be going? Florida’s count of coronavirus cases is hitting new peaks daily. The state is approaching 100,000 infections.

College football teams across the country that began workouts have already started to re-quarantine after mass infections. The NBA, meanwhile, is seemingly doubling down on its plan, championing the efficacy of its campus concept. From ESPN:

“In at least one recent call with high-level team executives, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has acknowledged the spiking numbers in Florida. Team sources described the general tone of that call, including the questions asked of Silver on it, as tense. Another called Silver’s tone ‘resolute but somber.’ He expressed a resolve to go on, while recognizing the seriousness of the coronavirus spike.”

The success of the bubble depends on the security of the bubble. (The NBA says “a small or otherwise expected number of COVID-19 cases will not require a decision to suspend or cancel the resumption,” although it did not note what the “expected” number is.) If something goes wrong—i.e., an older coach approved by the league physician falls severely ill—the blowback will be significant. Couple this with the fact that the coaches union is adamant that its older coaches are included in the restart, and the situation is further complicated. There’s no shortage of risk when it comes to resuming an operation this large during a pandemic. Here’s a breakdown of the NBA’s social and safety guidelines for the Orlando campus:

Arrival

Players will be quarantined alone in their hotel rooms for 36-48 hours until they produce two negative COVID-19 tests. (They’ll start testing on June 23, and will fly private.)

Isolating Within Isolation

It could be a lonely experience. Players and staffers are not allowed to visit each other’s hotel rooms. They can use the pools, trails, and golf courses on campus, and can socialize in their hotels’ “players’ lounges”—but not without restrictions. No doubles in ping-pong (I would like to see who enforces this and how). No using the same pack of cards twice. It’s oddly specific given the league is also allowing its players to play in enclosed gyms without masks, breathe on each other, touch the same ball, yell to their teammates, and speak in huddles. (Did you know that speaking loudly for one minute can emit more than 1,000 virus-containing droplets, and those droplets can travel beyond 6 feet?)

It’s very clear the NBA wants this to be fun—or to distract its players from the fact that it’s not fun at all. The league is planning on providing movie screenings, DJ sets, three freshly prepared meals a day (four on game days!), boating, bowling, fishing, golf, and the availability of barbers, manicurists, pedicurists, and hair braiders. A “limited number” of players can also attend other teams’ games along with media, executives, league and union personnel, and “even some sponsors.” From a safety perspective, inviting sponsors raises issues (the protocol says they’ll have no direct contact with players or teams); from a monetary standpoint, it’s another way to mitigate the losses already suffered from a postponed season. (That could be repeated for much of this entire endeavor.)

The protocol also says that while the players are at Disney, they will not be tested for recreational drugs. (Performance-enhancing drugs and masking agents, yes; the fun stuff, no.) Players were “advised” that Florida has not legalized marijuana use.

Leaving the Bubble

When I think “bubble,” I think of the dome The Simpsons dropped on Springfield. The NBA bubble is not material, though, and players can leave at any time (Silver prefers the “campus” terminology). If a player leaves without approval, he must quarantine for at least 10 days upon return, and will have to do the deep nasal test (as opposed to the shallow nasal or shallow oral testing). Now if there’s an excused absence—for example, a family emergency or the birth of a child—then the player would have to quarantine for just four days on campus, so long as he tested negative each day he was gone.

If the absence is approved, the NBA is able to track the player’s health while he’s gone. It’s sensible, except the league gets to decide what a permissible absence looks like. Giving a player who left without permission a deep nasal test—which sounds painful and not unlike getting your brain brushed—would make sense only if there was conclusive evidence the tests were more accurate than the less intrusive alternatives.

The other issue with prohibiting players from leaving campus is that other people—namely, Disney employees—will be allowed to come and go each day. As of now, they will not be tested daily beyond temperature checks, either, although some players have voiced concerns and NBPA president Michele Roberts said she will pursue more restrictions if she deems necessary. In May, when the NBA was first considering Disney as a site, I wrote, “Isolating a hotel or two full of guests is a hazard in itself, but that’s before accounting for hotel concierges, who have to interact with the guests; maids, who have to clean where others have slept, breathed, lounged, and bathed, and who have to launder their clothes; kitchen staff and servers; and sanitation crews, both in the hotels and the arenas.” Tack on the guy who has to split up doubles teams in ping-pong, and that’s putting a lot of people from the outside world into a supposedly protected one.

Guests

When the bubble site was proposed, one major question was whether the families could come along. Either a player (or referee, coach, or broadcaster) must endure long-term separation, or the league must allow even more people behind its partition. In the end, both sides compromised. No guests will be allowed until the second round of the playoffs, when eight teams remain. (That’s more than 50 days apart for families.) Each team will have as many guest hotel rooms as it does players on campus (between 15-17).


Other Safety Measures, MagicBands and Masks

Football teams have a proximity problem. There are 53 players on an active NFL team, and college programs can have up to 85 players on scholarship. Locker rooms, much like classrooms, are a cesspool for viruses. There aren’t nearly as many people on an NBA roster; at Disney, each team will have up to 17 players. (Initially, teams can send a maximum 37 people, including players, coaches, trainers, strength coaches, equipment managers, front-office personnel, and mental health professionals.) The league has also essentially removed the pre- and post-game locker room presence from Disney. Players will dress at their hotels, then go to the arena, and will go back to their hotels to shower afterwards.

Everybody is required to wear masks indoors at all times unless they’re eating, alone in their room, playing, or working out. (Hopefully this is better enforced than it is with the general public.) No one on the floor during a game has to wear a mask (officials, players, the bench, or first-row coaches). Players will have the option to wear an optional “proximity alarm” off the court, which notifies them when they’re within 6 feet of another person wearing the device for more than five seconds.

Wearing a MagicBand is required. Disney guests have been given “MagicBands” in the past—these are plastic and rubber bracelets containing an electronic chip—to check into rooms, enter parks, charge food, etc. In addition, the NBA will give its players an option to wear a “smart ring,” which can supposedly “predict” COVID-19 symptoms in advance by measuring temperature, respiratory functions, and heart rate.

Or, as Kyle Kuzma called it, a tracking device.

On Saturday, NBA spokesman Mike Bass told ESPN that the league is “closely monitoring the data in Florida and Orange County and will continue to work collaboratively with the National Basketball Players Association, public health officials, and medical experts regarding our plans.” With infections spiking and the start date creeping up, the NBA is under more pressure than ever to prove its campus is safer than the outside world.