Can’t see sports returning with later ‘waves’ of COVID-19 possible

Sanford Stadium is empty waiting and hoping for football season on Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Athens, where a mandatory shelter in place has been in effect long before many metro Atlanta towns took similar steps. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

In normal circumstances NBA Twitter is an entertaining source for funny memes and endless arguments. Those things are still there during these abnormal times, which is a nice diversion. But NBA Twitter also has become a place for good and important things during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sixers center/Twitter legend Joel Embiid pledged $500,000 to COVID-19 relief efforts and to help team employees who were facing a 20% reduction in salary (he essentially shamed the franchise's owners into reversing course on the those cuts.) Warriors star Steph Curry used his Twitter clout to promote a live Instagram discussion with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been the reassuring voice amid the federal government's incompetent response to the pandemic.

Recently, the NBA's official Twitter account hosted a Q-and-A with Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General. He provided some helpful information about the coronavirus. Murthy also deflated my hopes that sports will be played at some point this year.

One of the questions submitted to Murthy: Will there be subsequent waves of infections? Murthy’s answer, in part:

“Right now, we are in the middle of the first wave of the coronavirus. But it is possible there could be second waves and third waves. Like with other viruses, like the cold or the flu, we know that every year we deal with waves of this. So we have to be prepared that COVID-19, the coronavirus, could come back again.”

This is the crux of the matter for U.S. sports leagues looking to start (football) or restart (baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer) play this year. They may be able to do so if the current coronavirus crisis subsides. Maybe they can play games without spectators at limited sites.

But what happens if, after sports start again, there is another wave of COVID-19 infections? Would leagues just keep playing games during a resurgent pandemic? Would they allow spectators when, as Murthy explained, a “surprising number of people with coronavirus don’t have any symptoms” and still can pass it along?

Could sports leagues adequately protect their workers? Would they quarantine those workers, including support staff, when they are not on the job?

As of Friday, there already were more than 6,500 deaths in the U.S. attributed to COVID-19. Infectious disease experts say there could be thousands more, even with intervention efforts. Sports league may be able to play games as thousands of people still are dying from a pandemic, but should they?

Hearing from experts such as Fauci and Murthy made me skeptical that sports will return this year. Even if the pandemic is controlled by summer, the possibility of another wave of infections looms over everything. The already-dubious idea of sports as an escape from real life especially rings hollow when real life means a deadly pandemic.

Sports leagues were slow to accept that COVID-19 wouldn't allow them to continue playing games, even without spectators. That was understandable in some ways. The leagues were protecting their business interests. It also took time for governments and citizens to accept the reality of the pandemic.

Now most reasonable people acknowledge that social distancing measures are necessary to slow the spread of the virus. If those restrictions are eased at some point this year they be needed again if, as Murthy said is possible, there are more "waves" of COVID-19 later. A vaccine isn't expected to be available until next year.

The NFL still says it’s planning to start on time with fans at games. There have been various reports about the NBA seeking to hold a tournament-style event without spectators at a central location, possibly Las Vegas. Baseball is holding out for a shortened season.

Sports Business Journal reported that college football is contemplating the worst idea of them all: an abbreviated season played in July, August and September. Setting aside the hot weather and closed campuses, that plan assumes that warm weather will slow the spread of coronavirus.

Here's what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about that: "It is not yet known whether weather and temperature affect the spread of COVID-19."

Sports leagues would have to test participants for COVID-19 once they start playing games. But the NBA already earned public criticism because asymptomatic players were tested while there’s a shortage of tests for ordinary citizens with symptoms. There would be more public anger if sports leagues continued to test athletes before the tests are widely accessible.

The social disruption caused by COVID-19 is secondary to the sickness and death. On that list of disruptions, sports and other live events rank low. I once hoped and believed the games will return by the end of summer. NBA Twitter, of all places, helped me understand why that view is too optimistic.

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