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For professional sports, life in the bubble may be the answer

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Sports illustration Sam Ford
Sam Ford/THE

In the age of coronavirus, sports bubbles have become the way to keep players and staff healthy.

Development Staff Reporter

Professional sports was one of many major American norms stripped away by the coronavirus pandemic. Their return is a small victory for many, although the games will come with numerous new obstacles.

Since sports have returned, fans have seen the National Hockey League (NHL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) handle the COVID-19 pandemic successfully. Each of these leagues have returned in a “bubble,” which is essentially a campus-like environment for all teams and staff to stay.

The NBA resumed play at the Walt Disney World campus, a very effective bubble setting. There have been zero positive COVID-19 cases dating back to before July 29th, and only a few minor hiccups along the way involving players leaving the Disney campus and returning, only to be required to quarantine for 48 hours after.

The WNBA has resumed play at the IMG Academy campus in Bradenton, Florida and similar to the NBA, have maintained no new COVID-19 cases.

The NHL has returned with two “hub” cities—Edmontonand Toronto– each city acting as its own bubble for its Eastern and Western conference teams. Each team gets its own hotel floor for all players and staff to limit contact with others, as well as having league approved designated areas for players to go if they decide they want to leave their floor.

For each league, players and staff receive frequent COVID-19 tests, never going more than 48 hours without a test. As for Jennifer Horney, founding Director and Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Delaware, the strict protocols that have been implemented and the routine, relatively daily testing is all worth it.

“They have the financial resources and the capacity to do the constant, consistent testing that they need to do,” Horney said. “That return on investment is big for them, they can spend a lot of money doing testing because they’re making a lot of money by continuing to have these events.”

Unlike the aforementioned professional leagues, the MLBand NFL have struggled to balance the potential of a COVID-19 outbreak.

The MLB has handled COVID-19 scares since the season returned, seeing teams such as the Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds all manage positive cases, some in larger quantities than others. However, according to the MLB and the Players Association, out of the 12,301 COVID tests administered, there have only been 4 new cases since August 14th.

The MLB has dealt with these COVID-19 outbreaks effectively, learning from their mistakes as the season goes on. The protocols for baseball have been primarily focused on limiting contact as much as possible and constantly changing the baseballs in the field of play. When a positive case arises, players and staff are required to quarantine. MLB subjects the players and staff to contact tracing, which is a way for the league to see who was in contact with the person who tested positive for COVID-19.

One of the teams affected by an outbreak was the Cincinnati Reds, who had two unnamed players test positive for COVID-19.

Red’s pitcher, Trevor Bauer, gave a glimpse of what the process was like for the team amidst these positive cases on his vlog earlier this week.

“I was a high-risk encounter, meaning I gave the player a high five at some point, so I’ve now been informed that I have to stay away from people.”

Bauer was required to quarantine for two days after he was deemed as a high-risk encounter, but he explained that he hadn’t been told to quarantine until after that period.

“I don’t think MLB knows how I’m supposed to do that either, given they’re just making this up as they go,” Bauer said.

The MLB took the risk to not operate in the bubble, and the consequences have led to outbreaks upon their return. According to Jennifer Horney, this is something that the NFL, who plans on returning in a similar fashion, should take into consideration.

The NFL may need to rely on a system like the MLB’s when maneuvering an outbreak, a system that would include limiting contact as well as contact tracing.

“It’s the same process of doing the contact tracing, but it could be enhanced with some other elements,” Horney said. “The NFLis hard, it’s a lot more people. They can take something like less contact at practices that they’ve done because of the issues with CTE, or they can take something they’ve already done successfully and modify it for COVID.”

The NFL has had the benefit of seeing sports leagues across the country deal with the struggles of returning to play during the COVID-19 pandemic. How an outbreak will be handled on a team with over 75 people including players and staff, however, remains to be seen.

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