The word bubble has several meanings. Although it’s most commonly used to describe a sphere of liquid enclosing air or gas, it can also be used to describe an inflatable dome-shaped structure or an enclosure that protects patients from infection. Lately, bubble is also being used to describe an area in which competing sports teams reside in isolation in order to play a series of games safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The players and all related personnel (including coaches, trainers, and staff members) must follow established safety regulations 24/7, whether they’re playing, practicing, or enjoying some downtime. Some leagues have embraced “sports bubbles,” while others have taken different approaches. So, are sports bubbles effective in the fight against COVID-19?
The Success of the NBA Bubble
After temporarily suspending the 2019-2020 season in March, the National Basketball Association (NBA) established a bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida to prevent players and other personnel from contracting COVID-19 during the final eight games of the 2019-2020 season as well as the 2020 playoffs. Twenty-two teams participated, remaining within the bubble (which cost an estimated $180 million) from late July to mid-October. A 113-page manual detailed all of the health and safety rules, which included all of the following policies, amongst others:
- Teams were allowed to bring 35 people to Orlando, with up to 17 of those openings going to players. They must include an athletic trainer, a strength and conditioning coach, an equipment manager, a team security official, and a senior basketball executive.
- Teams were required to quarantine in their hotel rooms upon arrival. They could only leave quarantine once they had passed two coronavirus tests taken at least 24 hours apart.
- If someone within the bubble tested positive for COVID-19, they would live in isolated housing if hospitalization was not required. After healthcare professionals had ruled out a false positive, the infected person was required to remain isolated until they presented no symptoms and passed two consecutive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests taken more than 24 hours apart. The person would also need to receive clearance from an infectious disease doctor.
- If someone within the bubble tested positive for COVID-19, the league would begin a contact-tracing program to determine if anyone else had contracted the coronavirus. The league would not shut down, however.
- All basketballs must be disinfected using the NBA’s protocols, which include washing the ball with dish detergent and water, allowing the ball to air dry, and spraying it with an EPA-approved disinfectant.
- If a player left the bubble, they would be subject to a 10-to-14-day quarantine and a PCR test. If this required them to miss games, they may receive a smaller paycheck.
Was the NBA’s bubble effective? Yes, extremely so. In fact, on October 12, 2020, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “The NBA may be the best example Americans have of a coronavirus success story.” Although the league’s plan was expensive and logistically challenging, it allowed them to stage 172 games without a single player, staffer, or league official testing positive for COVID-19. The NBA’s rigorous and comprehensive strategy set a great precedent for future sports bubbles.
The Issues Arising Within the NFL
Unlike the NBA, the National Football League (NFL) did not choose to employ a bubble strategy to continue games during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the league considered bubble options (including self-contained “market bubbles,” which were recommended by epidemiologist Zachary Binney), officials and players did not feel that bubbles would be “realistic or desirable,” especially as they would require each team to isolate hundreds of employees (players, coaches, medical officials, staffers, etc.) for at least five months. Instead, the NFL created what it calls a “virtual football bubble,” combining strict rules at team facilities and stadiums with basic guidelines against high-risk behaviors when employees are out in their communities.
The NFL season kicked off on September 10, 2020, and the first two months of the season have been rife with COVID-19 protocol violations and positive test results. The largest outbreak thus far occurred within the Tennessee Titans, which had 23 players and staff members test positive. Although the NFL fined the team $350,000 for their handling of the outbreak (which included failing to communicate workout protocols and failing to wear masks in facilities), no one on the team was suspended. More recently, as COVID-19 cases rise around the country, the NFL is experiencing another surge of infections. Between November 1st and 7th, 56 NFL employees (including 15 players and 41 staff members) tested positive for COVID-19. As of November 6th, 50 percent of NFL teams were dealing with at least case of COVID-19.
Despite these setbacks, the NFL has not given any indication that they will transition to a bubble. Instead, they are focusing on preventing the transmission of inevitable infections. One way in which the NFL hopes to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus is requiring teams to take special precautions, known as “Intensive Protocol” if someone tests positive for COVID-19. These measures include holding most meetings virtually, limiting the amount of time players may spend in locker rooms, requiring all personnel to wear masks during practice, and prohibiting huddling between plays at practice.
Health Experts Weigh In
What do health professionals say about these differing methods used to allow sports leagues to play during the pandemic? In August, Sports Illustrated asked approximately 150 doctors with expertise related to COVID-19 about their opinions regarding American sports leagues’ handling of the pandemic. They were asked, “If your full income came from playing in one of the four major U.S. men’s professional sports leagues, how likely would you be to play?” While 90 percent said they would definitely or probably play in the NBA, less than 40 percent say they would definitely or probably play in the NFL.
The doctors were wary of the NFL’s “virtual bubble” plan, especially considering that it’s a “physically intimate sport.” Virtual bubbles are not substitutes for actual sports bubbles. Many also cited the possibility of short- and long-term health effects for those players who contract COVID-19 as a reason why they would choose not to play if they were pro athletes.
Finally, many of the doctors doubted that the NFL would be able to play its typical 256 games plus playoffs and the Super Bowl. Although there is no guarantee that the “virtual bubble” approach will enable the NFL to play a full season as well as post-season games, for now the NFL continues to play using these limited rules.
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