The sports world has gone dark. The NBA season is suspended. Major League Baseball’s is delayed. The coronavirus, which has officially been deemed a pandemic, and which led President Trump on Friday to declare a national emergency, has shut down countless sporting events and leagues across the United States.
And it has millions of fans wondering: How long will the sports shutdown last?
“I can promise you no one on this planet can answer that question,” Myron Cohen, a global health expert at the University of North Carolina, told Yahoo Sports on Sunday.
And he might as well have been speaking for the epidemiology community as a whole. In interviews with experts, “we don’t know” was a common refrain. When asked if there was a way to make any specific predictions, Dean Winslow, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford University, told Yahoo Sports: “There actually aren’t.”
On Thursday, Adam Silver said that the NBA’s “hiatus will be, most likely, at least 30 days.” But he admitted: “The notion of at least 30 days was just to try to give people some guidance.” When asked whether resumption in 30 days was realistic, Stephen Morrison, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Health Policy Center, told Yahoo Sports: “No, I doubt it. I think there’s probably no chance.”
Hours later on Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control suggested that, in fact, the shutdown would last much longer. The CDC recommended “that for the next 8 weeks, organizers cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States.”
"To look at anything shorter than 60- or 90-day scenarios doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin told Yahoo Sports. “This isn’t going away in a few weeks. Yesterday, the number of cases in our city literally doubled. I think we have to plan for this to last quite awhile."
Why coronavirus uncertainty reigns
The reason for widespread uncertainty is that so much about the coronavirus remains unknown. Testing, and therefore data, in the United States has been extremely limited. “There are rules that govern the transmission of this [disease],” Cohen said. “There are rules that govern who gets sick and how sick they get. And what we’re trying to do right now is understand the rules.”
The resumption of suspended seasons and the beginning of MLB’s depend on containment of the disease. And the trajectory of COVID-19, experts say, is impossible to predict with any specificity.
“It will all get down to whether or not we arrest the outbreak — i.e., we have to get to a point where those who are infected are not infecting two or three other people,” Morrison explained. “In other words, the reproductive rate has to get down below one. And right now, we don’t know exactly what the reproductive rate is, but we know that this is highly transmissible, and very hard to see and detect. And so it’s at least 2-3 people getting infected by each person who is infected.”
As long as that rate persists, public gatherings will be on hold. This past weekend, the United States finally seemed to commit en masse to social distancing as a mitigation strategy. Some experts feel that commitment came too late.
“The virus is way out in front of us, and we’re playing catch-up, and we’re intervening very, very late,” Morrison said. “So hopefully the kind of social distancing that is happening, and people doing hand-washing, and tightening up infection control in health facilities, will all dampen the contagion, and get us down below a reproductive rate of one. And then that would bring it under control, and people would begin to feel comfortable about lessening the controls on social gatherings like sports events.”
But how long that will take?
“We don’t know how long, in part because we hope the various interventions being tried now will affect the timing,” Steve Morse, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University, told Yahoo Sports in an email. “We don’t have relevant prior experience to go by. Under ideal circumstances, theoretically these measures could even stop the epidemic altogether, but that’s too much to expect.”
In fact, if they are successful in reducing the severity and quantity of cases — if the United States is able to “flatten the curve” — that success, while critical, may actually extend the period during which social distancing is necessary. “If these mitigation measures are successful in slowing down the rate of spread, then they will also likely prolong the pandemic, meaning that we would have to keep up these measures longer,” Morse explained. “It will be a marathon, not a sprint.”
And sports leagues, it seems, will have to play by these social distancing rules. Unless, that is, they can find a way to resume play while maintaining social distance.
“Humans are very adaptable,” Cohen said. “It’s not going to be the same. And it’s not going to be the same for some period of time. But there’ll probably be workarounds. Alternative strategies for the athletes.”
Are there ‘workarounds’ for NBA, others?
Among both hopeful sports fans and some experts, there has been a thought: What if all players self-quarantined themselves to avoid the coronavirus? And essential staff did the same? And they all tested negative? Could the NBA, for example, operating in its own bubble, and according to strict best practices, resume games without fans? Even while the rest of the nation is confined to their homes?
Expert opinions vary. “It seems to me like that would be a reasonable thing to do,” Winslow said.
“Perhaps,” Morrison said,“but I doubt they would want to do that, for the same reasons that drove them to suspend the season.”
“Testing is inadequate, and people who test negative one day could become carriers the next, and not know they’re carriers, and infect others,” Morrison continued. “The nature of this particular virus is that it’s particularly insidious in that way. So you can have perfectly healthy, asymptomatic professional athletes become infected through any number of normal contacts they have in their daily lives. Even if they’re isolating themselves, there’ll still be some transmission. There’s going to be, I think, an excess of caution, and that excess of caution will only intensify as the outbreak becomes much more visible to us.”
Cohen, though, thinks contingencies along these lines will be explored. He said limiting contact between players and staffers would be feasible. “You can see workarounds of people playing in empty stadiums,” he said.
“Playing the game itself with people, even with intimate contact, who know that they’re negative,” is not a risk, he continued. “If they know they’re negative, I see potential for athletes to compete with each other, but in different settings, under different conditions. That’s a decision that not just the NBA, all the professional sports leagues will decide. They’ll decide how they can create an environment where they think the athletes can play safely, and provide the competition.”
“I do think there’ll be adaptation,” he later continued. “I don’t know if it’ll be in 30 days. ... I think they’ll have workarounds, if not in a month, in two months, or three months, or four months.”
How soon will sports leagues return?
The NBA, it seems, is preparing for this timeline. ESPN Adrian Wojnarowski reported Sunday evening that the leagues’ owners and executives were “bracing for the possibility of mid-to-late June as a best-case scenario for the league's return.”
The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that, beginning Monday, players would be allowed to travel — a signal both that the NBA is preparing for an extended hiatus, and that no extensive self-isolation plan will be in place anytime soon.
As for the eventual timeline, Silver said on Thursday that “it’s frankly too early to tell.” Too early to understand the timeline of the coronavirus’ spread. Too early to assess the viability of workarounds. And on Sunday, that remains the case.
“As we test more and more people, we’ll have a much better sense of where we are,” Cohen said. “And then the mathematical modelers will have a much better sense of where we are, where this is going, how much we can interrupt new cases. … The next two weeks become really critical for understanding where we’re going, and the effects on our healthcare system.”
Said Morrison: “I think we need to plan that this is going to carry us deep into May, at a minimum. And we’ll see where we go from there.”
To Winslow, “the optimistic scenario would be that in a couple of months, the cases will start decreasing dramatically because of both the control measures and also the environmental factors.” He noted that “as heat and humidity increase, then transmission [of a coronavirus] tends to decrease as well. Just because of some inherent biological qualities of the virus.”
“But we don’t know that,” Cohen clarified. “No one can count on that.”
“Most likely,” Cohen continued, “this is gonna look a lot worse for a while before it looks better. And the ‘lot worse’ is going to be very difficult, for everybody. The ‘lot worse’ is gonna be frightening. ... So it’s gonna be bad. And that may affect the thinking of the sports world too. Because they may not be prepared for what’s about to happen within our society for at least a month or two.
“But there’ll be a light at the end of this tunnel.”
Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg contributed reporting.
More from Yahoo Sports: