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Pro Basketball Is Returning To Florida As The Coronavirus Surges

The New York Knicks and Washington Wizards square off on March 10, the day before the NBA suspended its season because of the coronavirus.
The New York Knicks and Washington Wizards square off on March 10, the day before the NBA suspended its season because of the coronavirus.

Updated at 7:54 p.m. ET

Ready or not, the NBA restart is a go.

It appears the league is as ready as it can be to play three months of basketball inside a protective bubble near Orlando, Fla., while on the outside coronavirus cases currently soar.

Whether it's a success – at this point all one can do is dust off the oldest of clichés.

Time will tell.

The NBA and its players union, the National Basketball Players Association, announced Friday they've finalized a plan for 22 teams to arrive around July 7 and start playing games that count, on July 30. Everyone will live and play on a "campus" at Walt Disney World Resort. Games will take place in three separate arenas without fans in attendance.

The NBA and union have agreed on a comprehensive set of health and safety measures to try to keep players and all NBA staff as safe as possible in the midst of the pandemic. The hundred-plus page protocol covers every possible aspect of a protected life in the bubble while acknowledging that protection might not be perfect.

"It's possible that staff, players, or other participants may test positive or contract the coronavirus," the document reads. "The occurrence of a small or otherwise expected number of COVID-19 cases will not require a decision to suspend or cancel the resumption of the 2019-20 season."

Key phrase there, obviously — "small or otherwise expected."

Judging by a first round of mandatory testing, in advance of the restart, the situation so far seems manageable. Sixteen NBA players tested positive out of 302 screened on Tuesday.

Once inside the Florida bubble, some within the league believe the numbers will be even lower.

"I think the precautions the NBA is taking to enhance the safety of the bubble participants are nothing short of extraordinary," an unnamed team general manager told The Athletic in an anonymous poll of general managers. "Once [everyone is] on campus, I think [people within the league] will appreciate the NBA's work on this."

Others aren't as certain.

"If the cases keep spiking in Florida, things are going to happen," another general manager said. "I'm really, really concerned for the league big-picture wise in many, many ways."

Some players have expressed concerns about the resort staff members, including housekeepers, who won't live in the bubble. Most won't be tested.

"Everything that we know about Disney, and we've read over the years, " a team athletic trainer told ESPN, "is that you don't realize how many thousands of people work there, right? That's the magic behind it all — the amount of staff and the amount of services that they provide. And they're in and out of the bubble."

In response to concerns, National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts said if necessary, the union and the NBA will try to put more restrictions on "third parties" getting access to the bubble.

The health and safety protocol requires Disney staff members to wear masks and maintain social distancing if they're in the same area with NBA personnel. Housekeepers will clean rooms when players and NBA staff aren't there.

In a media conference call later Friday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that "we are continuing to work with Disney on the testing of at least a subset of their employees that could potentially be in the same room with our players and anyone else who's tested daily on our campus."

"So we are satisfied that once we work through those additional measures with Disney, we will continue to have a safe setting for us to resume our season."

Still, Silver acknowledged his level of concern has increased in recent days.

"Not just because of the increased [cases of COVID-19] in Florida," he said, "but throughout the country. At least today I believe 29 of the 50 states have an increased number of cases."

Silver was asked what happens if the bubble doesn't work. If instead of a small number of infections, there's an outbreak.

"If we were to have significant spread of coronavirus through our community, that ultimately might lead us to stopping," he said.

"But we're working closely with the players' association, with Disney and public health officials in Florida as to what that line should be, and it hasn't been precisely designed. I think we just want to get down on the ground and start to see how our testing [daily, at least at the start] is working and how the protocols are working and then we'll make decisions as we go.

"One thing we're learning with this virus is so much is unpredictable. We're not saying full steam ahead no matter what happens. We all talk daily, and we're going to see how this continues to play out, but we feel very comfortable right now with where we are."

Another element of Friday's finalized agreement isn't pandemic-related but just as important to many players. It's a plan for taking collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice.

Since the police killing of George Floyd in late May, many players have gotten directly involved in protesting and speaking out on social issues. Some players believe the Florida restart could detract and distract from efforts at social reform.

But Silver said the restart will provide a platform to address social justice issues.

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association reportedly have discussed plans for more Black representation around the league, involvement of more Black-owned and operated businesses, and a foundation that would increase educational and economic development opportunities in Black communities.

The NBA has been the most progressive of all the major pro sports leagues in this country. But as with the comprehensive health and safety protocol, all are waiting to see if the social reform agenda also proves to be more than a grand plan.

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