The players will quarantine in the happiest place on earth and won’t be allowed to leave the Disney World campus without permission. They will be in masks except when they’re playing basketball, eating or hanging outside. And they will have to abide by strict regulations in games of cards and ping-pong.
Those are some of the details from the NBA’s voluminous manual of health and safety protocols that will govern life in the bubble — a 113-page document sent to teams on Tuesday informing them what to expect from one of the wildest experiments that professional sports has ever seen.
The league’s guidelines for the 22 teams moving to Orlando, Fla., in early July to restart a season that has been suspended for three months represent the NBA’s strategy for getting back to work safely during a pandemic.
The problem is that basketball appears to be riskier than other sports attempting to restart. It’s a high-contact game played indoors with players who are not exactly socially distanced. And the nature of the sport may be one reason that more than a dozen NBA players, coaches and staffers tested positive for the coronavirus in March.
But the whole point of NBA’s exhaustive protocols for the bubble, which is already the most extreme of the measures implemented by major American sports leagues, is to keep players healthy and minimize the chances of an outbreak that would shut down the season.
The players will have to self-isolate when they arrive to make sure no one is bringing the virus into the bubble. They will be subject to regular testing and frequent temperature checks after they clear quarantine. They will be sequestered in three Disney hotels — the Gran Destino, the Grand Floridian and the Yacht Club, for all you Disney fans keeping score at home — and eventually, they will be able to socialize with other players while keeping 6 feet of distance. They can even attend each other’s games in otherwise empty arenas as the world’s most athletic spectators.
NBA players being the only fans at NBA games won’t be the only peculiar sight when the regular season resumes on July 30 before the playoffs tip in August. The players will get dressed before games and shower after games in their hotel rooms—not the locker rooms in the arena. The coaches will be encouraged to wear face masks on the sidelines, and it will be required of their assistants on the second row of the bench.
The league’s measures are so detailed they include everything from advice for disinfecting basketballs to recommendations against previously inconsequential behavioral quirks like fiddling with your mouthguard. And then there are the ping-pong rules.
One of the complaints from players who are reluctant to be away from their families for months—guests are not invited until the end of August—is how they will spend their free time if they’re stuck on the Disney campus. The league says that it’s planning entertainment options, including movie screenings and DJ sets, and there will be videogames and table tennis in players-only lounges. But they expect players to practice social distancing—which means no doubles matches.
Some players have expressed concerns with the NBA’s restart plan that range from the restricted environment to the distraction from the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country.
The campus itself will not be as impenetrable as the concept of a bubble suggests. But if a player leaves without permission, he will have to isolate for at least another 10 days and potentially subject himself to a nasopharyngeal swab, which is more uncomfortable than the nasal, oral and saliva tests. Disney staffers not living on campus won’t be tested, even with cases in Central Florida sharply increasing, but they also won’t be in contact with the players.
There is only so much the NBA will be able to control once the players hit the court. But the protocols were written to account for almost everything else that might happen inside the bubble—including how to respond to a positive test.
The league was the first to shut down on March 11, when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the first player who tested positive for a virus that had not yet paralyzed American life, but the NBA acknowledges that one positive test won’t be enough to suspend or cancel the season.
The plan in Orlando calls for any player who tests positive to enter what the league is calling “Isolation Housing” that will be off the NBA’s campus. They will be retested away from other players to confirm the positive outcome, and they will be confined to Isolation Housing until they register two consecutive negative tests. Only then can they rejoin the bubble.
But positive tests will sideline players for at least two weeks. That could easily shape the NBA playoffs if a star contracts the virus—even if he doesn’t get sick.
He won’t be able to return to the court immediately after he leaves quarantine. Players have to wait two weeks from the first positive tests if they’re asymptomatic or two weeks from the resolution of their symptoms before they’re cleared to play again.