(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Coronavirus Coverage

Opinion: How the NBA should handle the surge in COVID-19 cases

Having stricter regulations for COVID-19 will help the NBA.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/jonathankim11/" target="_self">Jonathan Kim</a>

Jonathan Kim

December 30, 2021
As of Dec. 27, 120 players remained in health and safety protocols. This surge in COVID-19 cases has been the common story across not only the NBA, but most professional sports leagues in recent weeks as the Omicron variant continues to sweep throughout the world.

The Omicron variant hasn’t only affected players and team employees’ health, but also affected the quality and competitiveness of the games played in the NBA. The COVID-19 outbreaks have decimated many of the league’s rosters, which require a league-minimum eight active players to start a game — this has resulted in some games postponed and necessitated teams to sign multiple players to 10-day contracts, most of these athletes from the league’s scrap heap or straight out of retirement.

With so much uncertainty about what teams will be able to compete in games on a daily basis, many agree that some significant change to the season’s scheduling or the protocols are necessary.

Some have pushed for postponing the season for a few weeks to ensure that all players currently in health and safety protocols can recover once games resume. A postponement would essentially help the league gain a handle on the season in a time when a growing number of players are testing positive and games continue to be individually suspended.

The NHL, for example, postponed their season two days prior to its usual planned three-day Christmas break from Dec. 24-26, according to ESPN. However, as NHL players continue to still enter and remain in protocols, the league delayed the season once again by at least one additional day.

The NHL’s experience with suspending the league’s season is one that the NBA can potentially learn from as well. Postponing the season, whether it be for the NBA or NHL, seems more to be a short term solution to a long term issue. While taking this route may temporarily allow for NBA’s teams to recover, resuming play following the postponements wouldn’t prevent further players from testing positive nor lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver spoke on this issue of potentially suspending the season in a recent ESPN interview.

“We’re finding ourselves where we sort of knew we were going to get to for the past several months, and that is that this virus will not be eradicated and we’re going to have to learn to live with it,” Silver said.

This idea of needing to “learn to live with it [COVID-19]” is an important one that has not only troubled the NBA, but our society as a whole.

Dr. Fauci recently stated in a National Press Club briefing that the goal for handling the pandemic is not to completely eradicate the virus, but rather to eventually turn COVID-19 into an endemic where it doesn’t play a noticeable part of people’s daily lives.

“It’s going to be a low, low, low level of infection that really doesn’t interfere with our way of life, our economy, our ability to move around in society, our ability to do things in closed indoor spaces,” he said.

So if postponing the NBA season isn’t the most realistic nor logical option, what is?

Recreating the “bubble,” a strategy the NBA used to host the 2020 playoffs would undoubtedly be successful in halting COVID-19 transmission among the league, evident based on its previous success. Teams would be isolated and under extremely strict restrictions for the entirety of their season. Players and team staff would also have very limited access to the outside world, including their families, and fans would also be prohibited from attending games.

However, it is definitely the least realistic solution due to its financial impact as well as the mental health effects on everyone involved in a bubble. The fact that professional athletes make millions of dollars does not take away from the reality that they are still human as well. Spending 4-6 months in an isolated space with limited interaction with others would not be a realistic option for players, team staff and other figures in the bubble.

Ultimately, continuing with the season is the only option for the NBA. However, along the way, the league must also enact and enforce stricter COVID-19 rules, while at the same time, loosen the amount of time that fully vaccinated and boosted players spend in protocols.

All of this starts with strongly enforcing current rules already set in place. While all coaches and staff members are mandated to wear masks in nearly all situations, and players are only exempt from this rule when playing on the court, a quick look around the league shows that this mandate is barely enforced.

Increasing testing and social distancing measures for vaccinated players, which compared to last season had been decreased, is also an important action to take, especially when so many people are meeting indoors for the holidays.

Limiting the number of players allowed in team cafeterias, weight rooms and other facilities, which has not been a rule implemented for vaccinated players this season, could be in play. Similar to last season, the league should also increase the number of virtual interviews and press conferences to limit the contact between players or coaches and the media.

Organizations should also limit fan capacity for the time being, as well as implement a mask mandate and require all fans to either be fully vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before entering. Scotiabank Arena, home of the Toronto Raptors, has been the only stadium up to date to have limited fan attendance after they cut down capacity to 50%, according to the NBA.

However, in order for the season to still move as smoothly as possible without individual games being postponed, players fully vaccinated and boosted should also be able to leave health and safety protocols in as quick, yet also safe manner as possible.

The league has already begun to move in this direction after recently announcing that fully vaccinated NBA players and coaches “who are asymptomatic can now clear quarantine after six days if COVID-19 testing data shows they’re no longer at risk to be infectious,” according to ESPN. Previously, vaccinated individuals had to wait either 10 days in quarantine and be asymptomatic or test negative twice within 24 hours before being allowed to return to their team.

This new conclusion came after the CDC shortened the recommended isolated time from ten to five days. Decisions such as these allow players to rejoin their respective team faster without endangering other people upon their return, while also being another incentive for more players to be vaccinated.

A decision to continue with the 2021-2022 NBA season amid the surge in COVID-19 cases and rise of the Omicron variant might not seem to be the most logical method for the sake of public health. However, as we all must learn how to live with COVID-19, moving forward with the season while enforcing strict safety measures such as masking and vaccination is the only realistic option until the end goal of making the pandemic into an endemic is achieved.