Concern rises around NBA with Florida virus spike

The surging number of coronavirus cases in Florida, which posted a record-high Saturday for the third consecutive day, have raised concerns in many corners of the NBA, from players to team executives to the league office itself, as it prepares to resume play in Orlando next month.

Florida added 4,049 new cases Saturday, which broke the previous single-day record of 3,822 set Friday. In all, the state has set records for single-day cases in seven of the past 10 days and is approaching 94,000 infections — becoming a national hots pot along with Texas and Arizona, states that are also seeing surging case numbers.

In at least one recent call with high-level team executives, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has acknowledged the spiking numbers in Florida. Multiple team sources described the general tone of that call, including the questions asked of Silver on it, as tense. Another called Silver’s tone “resolute but somber.” He expressed a resolve to go on — a confidence in the NBA’s bubble concept — while recognizing the seriousness of the coronavirus spike, sources said.

The National Basketball Players Association held a virtual town hall with players this week and addressed concerns about the Florida cases, multiple sources familiar with the matter told ESPN. Players brought up the fact that Walt Disney World staffers who will not reside in the NBA campus — including hotel housekeeping — will not be subject to any coronavirus testing, sources said. One mitigating factor that was cited, a source added: Many of the surging cases are in areas other than Orlando.

South Florida remains the state’s hardest-hit region, accounting for almost half of the total cases in the state, and Miami-Dade County alone has nearly 25,000 cases.

Walt Disney World, which will house 22 teams, sits largely in Orange County and in part of Osceola County — both located in Central Florida, a region that hasn’t been hit nearly as hard. Orange County has about 4,500 cases, and Osceola County has reported about 1,000.

NBA spokesman Mike Bass told ESPN that the league is “closely monitoring the data in Florida and Orange County and will continue to work collaboratively with the National Basketball Players Association, public health officials and medical experts regarding our plans.”

Of the rising figures, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told ESPN, “Can’t say I am surprised, given the state’s approach to re-opening. We are obviously clearly monitoring the situation. While we take some solace in knowing our players will not travel commercially to get to Orlando, that access to the campus is severely limited and, of course, all of the other health and safety protocols in place, the numbers will keep our attention. If necessary to add further restrictions respecting those third parties having access to the campus, we will seek to implement them.”

Roberts added that by “third parties,” she meant Disney staffers who will be servicing the hotels where teams are staying or providing other services on the campus.

She said it remains to be seen what restrictions — if any — might be possible given that many Disney employees are unionized.

That sentiment was relayed in interviews with several team officials throughout the league, including several general managers.

Said one head athletic trainer of another team that’s attending, “Everything that we know about Disney — and we’ve read over the years — 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.”

The league in its 113-page health guidelines sent to teams this week outlined several precautions meant to minimize and even eliminate contact between Disney staffers and NBA personnel. Disney will assign staff to specific hotels rather than having them rotate between hotels, the document states. They will service rooms only once a week, and only when players and staff are not present in those rooms. Disney staff will wear personal protective equipment, including masks, and maintain social distancing if they are ever in the same space with NBA personnel, the guidelines state.

Team bus drivers are expected to be retained via a non-Disney vendor, and be subject to some coronavirus testing, a source familiar with the matter told ESPN.

Several leading epidemiologists praised the NBA’s general plan in interviews with ESPN over the last two weeks, even while acknowledging there was no way for the NBA to maintain a true “bubble.” They said that absent authority to govern the work conditions and medical monitoring of Disney staffers, the NBA had taken appropriate steps to reduce the threat of any of them transmitting coronavirus to league personnel. Entirely eliminating the threat is not possible, those experts told ESPN.

Most teams aren’t slated to arrive in Orlando until July 7, 8 or 9 — except for Toronto, which is scheduled to arrive June 12-22. And no games are expected to take place until July 30. Given the weeks-long gap between the most recent reports in Florida, several team executives and other team officials say they’re hopeful that the numbers of coronavirus cases will start to decline.

Per the NBA’s health and safety protocol, players are scheduled to begin being tested June 23, and team executives and other staffers tell ESPN that they do expect some positive cases when the results arrive. Some executives and staffers speculated it may be better to get positive cases out of the way now, since players can quarantine before going to Orlando. Others cautioned that positive cases will set back their readiness to play games.

ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Company.

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