The Golden State Warriors have presented an ambitious plan to state and local officials to re-open Chase Center in San Francisco at 50 percent capacity for this NBA season, which owner Joe Lacob believes can be the model for all sports franchises and entertainment venues to safely bring back fans amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lacob said the Warriors are prepared to spend upwards of $30 million to test every fan, Warriors employee or player with the most accurate form of COVID-19 testing for each home game or day they come to work at Chase Center.
“I not only want to get this done and show the world how we can do it now, I’m willing to spend the money to do it,” said Lacob, who holds a master’s degree in public health from UCLA, and built his fortune as a venture capitalist in biotechnology. “This is a serious, serious problem. It cannot go on for multiple years … because if this were to go on for several years, the NBA is no more.
“You cannot sustain this league with no fans. You can do it for a year. We’ll all get by for a year. But suppose we’re in this situation next year. Now we’re talking some serious, serious financial damage to a lot of people.”
Lacob said he and a team of Warriors employees have been working nonstop on this plan, internally called “Operation DubNation,” since the NBA shut down March 11.
It hinges on the use of rapid, PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests or equivalent amplification technologies which can detect traces of the virus’ genetic material in nasal or throat swabs within 15 minutes, and are far more accurate than rapid antigen tests, which look for a protein that is present on the surface of the virus, that is shed.
The NBA used the more accurate PCR tests as it completed its season in Orlando, but results largely came back overnight as samples were tested in a nearby lab. Major League Baseball also used PCR tests, but results often took more than 24 hours as samples were sent to a lab in Utah-contributing to the unfortunate situation in Game 6 of the World Series in which Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner was pulled from the game in the eighth inning after his test results came back positive.
Rapid PCR tests or equivalents have only become available in the last few months -with Hollywood studios among the first to benefit from them as the industry resumed production. The NBA also used them this summer and fall, testing thousands of samples, which helped the Warriors in devising their plans.
Thus far three companies, Mesa Biotech, Visby and CUEHealth have earned FDA approval and are ramping up in volume of production, which Lacob said is the key breakthrough enabling the Warriors to meet the volume of tests they will need.
They are currently far more expensive than rapid antigen tests and far less readily available, which led the New York Times to call them “the new velvet rope” when it comes to parties, entertainment events or gatherings for the well-heeled.
But Lacob believes it is essential to use the more expensive, rapid-PCR test because it is close to 99 percent accurate in detecting the virus in people, even before they become infectious. Experts think that rapid antigen tests, which are what the White House has been using, could miss 30-50 percent of people who have enough viral load to be infectious.
“The White House used less sensitive tests, meaning that they’re going to have more false negatives,” said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF, who has reviewed the plans the Warriors submitted to state and city public health officials last week. “The Warriors are planning on using the most accurate, most sensitive tests we have, and that’s a big difference. I don’t think anybody else could do anything more than they’ve done. This is as close to making it as close to perfect a plan as I’ve seen for anything reopening.”
The Warriors plan also calls for everyone who enters Chase Center to wear a mask, keep social distance and a state-of-the-art air filtration system which has the capability to use 100 percent outside air, or purge the full building’s air supply and replace it four times in an hour if necessary.
In a memo sent to teams on Wednesday, the NBA set forth guidelines that only required testing of fans seated within 30 feet of the court. Fans would be required to undergo and return a negative coronavirus test that is either a PCR or equivalent test, sampled no more than two days prior to the game tip off; or an NBA-approved antigen test or a rapid virus amplification test (such as PCR, LAMP or Isothermal) sampled the day of the game.
However only certain areas of the country are allowing fans to attend sporting events at this time.
California has not approved fans in any capacity since the pandemic began, and San Francisco announced this week it was rolling back a number of re-openings-including indoor dining and capacity at gyms and movie theaters-with the recent rise in coronavirus cases in the Bay Area and statewide. The Los Angeles Lakers announced Wednesday that games at Staples Center would be held “without fans” until further notice. Lacob believes that his plan will eventually be approved by city and state public health officials, once he explains and proves the science behind it.
“Let us prove the concept. Let us use our money, our resources, our 7-8 months of work, our expertise to prove the concept,” Lacob said. “That’s what I’m trying to get the state, the city and the government to entertain. “This (rapid-PCR) test is orders of magnitude more accurate than the (rapid antigen) test at the [White House] Rose Garden event. This is the best you can do. A lot of people don’t even know these tests exist yet, and they are ramping them up.
“By springtime, the rapid PCR tests will be manufactured in amounts nearing 100,000 per day by some of these companies. But I’m trying to show the world, trying to show the sports world in particular, and California, a way to do this. A safe way to have people come to an event and be totally safe walking in that building. The numbers bear it out.”
Team president Rick Welts said this endeavor to re-open Chase Center might even be a bigger challenge than navigating all the political hurdles he had to deal with in getting it built.
“Chase Center has now been closed more days than it was open,” Welts said. “It’s something that’s hard to even get my head around. We never felt out of control of the process with Chase Center, because as many obstacles as there were, we were really confident we could overcome them. And this one, there’s just so much that’s not in our control, and so much less known about what we’re trying to solve, and such a different level of expertise, that it’s incredibly hard to get a consensus on.
“But to have Joe with the background that he has is incredible. It’s been fascinating to listen, especially to Joe, in calls with doctors and things where he stands toe-to-toe with the knowledge that virtually any doctor has about different types of testing and advantages and disadvantages and efficacy of how they work.
“It’s been really, from an intellectual standpoint, fascinating, but incredibly complicated trying to learn so much about something that no one had heard of nine months ago.” Welts said that the public health officials he’s dealt with, including Dr. Rutherford, have so far been very receptive and interested in learning about the Warriors plans. In a recent visit to the team’s old practice facility in Oakland, Welts said California Governor Gavin Newsom spent about an hour with team officials, asking questions about the plan.
“He was very up to speed on our plan. He definitely was curious about what we were doing and why we’re doing it the way we’re doing it,” Welts said. “The governor has been great about learning about what our plan has been. But, I guess for obvious reasons, he wants to hear from his health officials before he weighs in on the impact.”
ESPN reached out to Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Secretary for Health and Human Services, whom the Warriors submitted their plan to, as well as Dr. Tomas Aragon, San Francisco’s health officer. Neither returned emails seeking comment on the plan.
The San Francisco Department of Health did issue a statement to ESPN, saying, “We have received the Warriors proposal and are in the processing of reviewing it in context of the current surge of COVID-19 cases in San Francisco, the Bay Area and the state.”
However Rick Klausner, a member of the Rockefeller Foundation task force that has advised the National Governors Association and cities like Los Angeles, Detroit and New Orleans on their testing strategies during the pandemic, said he has reviewed the Warriors plans and that his only concern is the logistics of testing upwards of 10,000 fans and employees each game night.
“The idea is great,” Klausner said. “I think the idea is safe, it’s doable. Pulling off the logistics is hard, but if Joe is able to work out the logistics and do this right … he needs to document everything because that needs to be made available to everyone. We do need successful models, whether it’s opening up schools or opening up the entertainment industry, et cetera.
“So I think it’s superb that Joe is trying to do this. From a technical and scientific and medical perspective, I feel comfortable that if he can pull it off, with rapid PCR tests, masks, using the decreased density and mass, I personally think this is safe.”
Klausner suggested it may be better to attempt the plan with 1,000 fans or 2,000 fans first, to work out the logistics. But otherwise said it would be of great public health benefit to test so many people, and contribute data to the scientific community.
The Warriors initial plan calls for fans to be tested onsite at Chase Center, or at drive up locations around the Bay Area within 48 hours of the game. They have partnered with CLEAR, the company that uses corneal scans and finger prints to identify pre-approved air travelers, to link test results to the ticket holder on a mobile device.
The Warriors did not play the final 17 games on their schedule, which Lacob estimated cost them $50 million in revenue. If they were to play this season with no fans, he estimated they could lose another $400 million in revenue and $200 million on the bottom line. Spending $30 million on a comprehensive plan to re-open their arena at 50 percent capacity is well worth it financially. But Lacob said that was not the driving force behind the project.
“I want people to understand this is not the Warriors just trying to make more money,” he said. “Yes, we’re trying to get fans and get revenue, but I’m trying to set a standard. I’m trying to show the world how this can be done, safely.
“There are many, many thousands and thousands of people in the sports, entertainment businesses, not just basketball, that are out of work. They cannot put food on the table. They cannot provide for their kids. Their kids aren’t in school. They’ve got to take care of them. What are they going to do about childcare?
“There’s so many reasons why we have to figure out ways short of the vaccine being a cure all to allow people to get back to work, allow people to work at our venues. There’s thousands of people, 500 Warrior employees and 1,500 on a game day, but beyond that, there’s all the vendors. There’s so many people that are relying on this and don’t have jobs.
“Someone needs to step up and show not only the sports world, but actually show the world how we can still resume some parts of normal life while we’re fighting this virus and waiting for the vaccine.”
Lacob said he’s been in close touch with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Dave Weiss, the league’s senior vice president of player matters, who leads its health and safety efforts. When asked about the Warriors plans, Weiss told ESPN:
“Joe Lacob and the Warriors have put in an incredible amount of work and thought to develop an innovative approach to testing that could help fans attend Warriors games this season. The safety of the NBA players, staff and fans is paramount, and we’re continuing to work with the Warriors and other teams on testing plans, along with protocols that include additional important public health measures.”