How safe would an NBA bubble be at Disney World?

As more details trickle out regarding the NBA’s return next month, some prominent players have begun voicing concerns.

They’re reluctant to put themselves at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, to endure weeks of semi-isolation and to siphon attention away from the Black Lives Matter Movement.

The NBA hasn’t revealed how it intends to create a bubble-like environment at Disney World yet, but key elements of the league’s plan have already surfaced. About 1,500 players, coaches and staffers who test negative before entering the Orlando bubble will have virtually no contact or interactions with anyone else for up to three months while the NBA finishes the regular season and crowns a champion.

How safe is the NBA’s audacious Orlando plan? Yahoo Sports asked infectious disease experts Ali Khan, William Schaffner and J. Stephen Morrison. They discussed whether Disney workers should be subject to the same rules as NBA players, who is most at risk if an outbreak happens and how worrisome rising Florida infection rates are.

Workers at Walt Disney World paint Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on March 12, 2020. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Workers at Walt Disney World paint Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on March 12, 2020. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Can the bubble work?

In theory, yes. Experts say the NBA’s bubble can keep inhabitants safe if they neither bring the virus in, nor have any contact with outsiders. Those experts point to virus-free aircraft carriers or island nations with stringent travel restrictions as proof.

In reality, it’s not so simple. To prevent exposure, NBA players must comply with rules forbidding them from leaving the Disney World complex. The league must also figure out how to manage boundaries between the bubble and the outside world to avoid the virus seeping in.

“If done right — and that means right — the NBA can prevent players from being exposed,” said Khan, a former CDC director and dean of the University of Nebraska’s College of Public Health. “However, if there’s a mistake made, they’re at risk of an explosive outbreak with lots of people being infected.”

For the NBA’s plan to have a real chance to succeed, players must be willing to live in isolation. That means no sneaking away to get a meal, to go to the club or to visit friends outside the bubble. Even wives and kids are off limits to players until August 31, the date the NBA will reportedly allow guests into the bubble.

Of course it’s not like NBA players will be confined to prison cells. Disney resorts offer abundant entertainment options. The league could choose to give players access to upscale restaurants, sprawling pools, perfectly manicured golf courses and even an occasional after-hours ride on a rollercoaster.

It’s unclear how the NBA plans to police player movement, but the league does have the power to implement deterrents for non-compliance. According to The Athletic, NBA players who leave the Orlando bubble can expect to be quarantined for a minimum of 10 days and to have to produce two negative tests to return to the floor.

“On paper, this sounds like a terrific way to attempt to isolate a group of people, but I don’t know how well you can confine that many people inside Disney World for 2-3 months,” said Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious disease specialist. “They’re not going to have a police force walking around the edges of the bubble keeping everyone in. So I think in fairly short order, you will find some breaches of the protocol.”

What rules will Disney employees have to follow?

It won’t only be players, coaches and team employees within the NBA’s Orlando bubble. The league will also require the help of Disney staff to prepare and serve food, clean hotel rooms and maintain the massive operation.

The presence of Disney employees within the bubble raises a few questions. Will Disney staff be subject to daily COVID-19 tests like NBA employees? Will they come and go as they please once their shifts are over? To put it succinctly, what’s the point of the severe restrictions placed on NBA players if others within the bubble won’t have to do the same?

At minimum, Disney employees will be required to follow newly implemented safety protocols. They’ll wear face coverings at all times, maintain social distancing, clean common areas and surfaces more frequently and adhere to daily health screenings and temperature checks.

Disney employees who will work within the NBA bubble have not yet been approached about a different set of expectations, according to Eric Clinton, president of Disney’s labor union, United Here Local 362. Clinton would welcome daily testing were Disney to offer it, but doesn’t expect Disney employees to be subject to the same quarantine measures as NBA players and staffers.

“I think it’s very unrealistic to think that a custodial worker who makes $15 an hour and has three children at home would be expected to quarantine at Disneyworld so NBA players feel safer,” Clinton said. “I don’t know how you would justify that. That is a very drastic expectation.”

Even if Disney employees within the NBA bubble have no special requirements, public health experts say Disney’s companywide protocol may be sufficient.

“That would seem to equate to the conditions that apply to retirement communities that attempt to be bubbles and make pragmatic compromises with their employees,” said Morrison, director of the global health policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

How worrisome are the Orlando area’s rising infection rates?

As the NBA plots its Disney World return, Florida’s coronavirus numbers are trending in the wrong direction.

The state reported 2,016 new cases and six new deaths on Sunday, continuing a surge that began almost two weeks ago. Saturday’s 2,581 new cases marked the first time since the outbreak began that Florida reported more than 2,000 new cases in one day.

While South Florida has been the state’s hardest hit region, the infection rate in the Orlando area has been climbing fast. There were 169 confirmed new cases of coronavirus in Orange County on Saturday, the fourth straight day the number eclipsed 100. On June 1, the county reported just 15 new cases.

“We are on our way up. There’s no other way to describe it,” Orange County health officer Dr. Raul Pino said during a news conference on Thursday.

Infectious disease experts said the Orlando area’s recent spike in cases should worry the NBA, especially considering the state faces allegations of fudging its numbers in an effort to attract large businesses. The more prevalent the virus is in the surrounding community, the more like it is to infiltrate the bubble via a Disney employee who returns home and reenters the bubble on a daily basis.

“The NBA should be having a very serious conversation with the mayor of Orlando and the county commissioner,” Khan said. “They should be saying, ‘We would be glad to bring this multibillion-dollar exercise to your city for three months, but what you need to do is get cases down in the community and help protect us.’

“Yes, the bubble offers some protection to our athletes, but nothing drives down risk more than no cases in the surrounding community. There’s not enough masks, soap and social distancing in the world to protect us from a community that has widespread increasing transmission. That’s the honest truth.”

Who’s at the most risk during an outbreak?

If there’s an outbreak inside the bubble, some NBA coaches might have more reason to worry than their players would.

Infectious disease experts continue to say that at the most risk of developing severe cases are people over the age of 65 or with underlying health concerns.

Earlier this month, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told TNT that “certain coaches” may not be allowed on the bench when the season resumes “in order to protect them.” That prompted an immediate outcry from older NBA coaches, who noted that they may be healthier and thus at less risk than some of their younger counterparts.

Of the 22 NBA teams expected to be in Orlando, three have head coaches 65 or older: Gregg Popovich, 71, Mike D’Antoni, 69, and Alvin Gentry, 65. A handful of assistant coaches also fall into that age range.

NBA players would typically be at less risk than the general population of developing a severe illness from COVID-19, but infectious disease experts are quick to point out that low risk does not mean no risk. The virus is not benign for even the healthiest adults in their 20s and 30s.

“Young adults do get infected, they do get hospitalized and they do die,” Khan said. “Less often but they do.”

Are there potential long-term consequences if a player contracts COVID-19?

Infectious disease experts concede they don’t yet know much about the long-term ramifications of contracting COVID-19, but early signs suggest that those who overcome severe cases may still be left with lasting damage. That could be career-threatening for NBA players who need to be at peak physical condition to succeed.

“This is not simply a respiratory disease,” Morrison said. “It’s a disease that attacks the vascular system, it attacks the kidney, it attacks the brain, it throws off clots in a way we don’t understand that leads to strokes.

“Everyone, regardless of age and condition, needs to take this seriously. No one should be cavalier about the risks. Twenty-seven-year-old fully healthy, fully fit people are getting this and dying or surviving with severe after effects. It is not to be messed with. At all.”

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