Should Florida’s coronavirus spike worry the NBA? ‘Absolutely,’ experts say

The state of Florida reported 11,365 new coronavirus cases over three days this past weekend — its three worst days on record. Orange County, home of Walt Disney World, reported 437 on Saturday — more than entire countries once considered epicenters of the pandemic. Test-positive rates topped 15 percent. Seven-day averages surged.

And all of that, for an NBA attempting to finish its season at Disney in Orlando, is problematic, experts say.

“Extremely concerning,” says Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University.

“Absolutely,” says Bill Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.

“Of course, they should be concerned about case numbers around where they’re trying to build their bubble,” says Jared Baeten, an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington.

“Yes,” says Kathleen Bachynski, a public health professor at Muhlenberg College. “And that’s because a true bubble is just really, really hard to create.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 11: A detail view of official Spalding NBA logo basketball on the floor during a preseason game between the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on October 11, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Pacers defeated the Bulls 105-87. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Rising coronavirus numbers in Florida are putting at risk the NBA's planned return. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The bubble comes with risks

The NBA last week distributed a 113-page “Health and Safety Protocols” document. It explains how the league, essentially, will attempt to shelter itself from the outside world. It’s one of the most remarkable, carefully crafted plans the NBA has ever produced. And public health experts like it. In general, Baeten says, bubble-building “is a reasonable task.”

But, he clarifies: “It has to go hand in hand with good public health measures in the communities surrounding it. ... People in communities where a bubble is landing have to be participatory in trying to push down infection numbers.”

Which is why Adam Silver is reportedly worried — and why experts say he should be. European sports leagues have had success with versions of the bubble concept. Florida, however, reported thousands more COVID-19 cases this past weekend than the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain combined.

“That is a very serious outbreak, and it’s going to get worse,” Binney says. “This is very quickly approaching scram reactor territory for me. Even with a bubble plan. I’m deeply, deeply worried.

“I still like the NBA’s plan,” he clarifies. “This is not the NBA’s fault. This is the state of Florida’s fault. The NBA has done nothing wrong, other than putting their eggs in the Orlando basket.”

The bubble, Baeten says, is not absolutely impermeable. So its strength, experts say, depends on the environment around it.

“Everybody knows the bubble has to interact with the outside world,” Schaffner says. “The hotel staff, for example. They’re not in the bubble. They’re going to go home to their families, and conduct whatever personal life that they want.”

More virus threats outside the bubble means more chances for a Disney staffer or non-NBA-employed person to bring it in. The chain of events that leads to the infection of an NBA player remains both preventable and extremely improbable. But there will be thousands of opportunities for it to occur. “It would really only take a couple pricks of that bubble, or pops in that bubble, for COVID-19 to get in,” Bachynski says.

Will NBA be able to restart?

Experts also raise broader concerns. The NBA will administer tens of thousands of tests while at Disney. It will spend large sums on advanced technology. “If the numbers are spiking in the local community, it would also be important to think about, well, where are we pouring all these resources?” Bachynski asks. “And is that really the right thing to do?”

Says Binney: “If there’s that much disease, and there’s that much of a severe outbreak, and if hospitals start to get overwhelmed, and you don’t have enough testing there, which they don’t ... if the situation still looks like this next month, I’m not sure how you could start.”

If the bubble were built in a locale without the virus, the only concern would be guests traveling from afar. But in Florida?

“It seems almost impossible to imagine the virus won’t get inside the bubble, given rising case numbers,” Baeten says. “It seems inevitable right now.”

Says Binney: “I’m really worried. And I’m especially sad for the NBA, because they’ve done more or less everything they could. And it just may not work out.”

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