TORONTO – When the Toronto Raptors landed in Tampa, Fla. on Monday evening, several players and staff members weren’t quite sure where they could go or what they were permitted to do.
Not only were they unfamiliar with the city – their home for training camp, which begins this week, and likely for the duration of the 2020-21 season – but they’ve got to navigate it amid a global pandemic.
Most of them were coming from their off-season homes across the United States, where COVID-19 protocols vary from state to state. Some crossed the border and flew down from Toronto – a city on lockdown, where only grocery stores and essential businesses remain open, where you can order takeout from your favourite restaurant or have food delivered but you can’t dine-in.
What they learned pretty quickly upon arrival is that restrictions in Florida – where positive cases continue to soar – are minimal.
Want to grab a bite to eat? Restaurants are allowed to operate at full capacity. How about nightlife? Bars and clubs are also open, though “limited social distancing protocols” are “encouraged”, according to the city’s official website. Masks are recommended but not mandatory under the state’s Phase 3 guidelines, which have been in place since September 25. Not to worry, though, because “menus, if laminated, should be cleaned after each use.” That’s reassuring. Gyms are open, as are movie theatres.
“People keep asking me, 'where are you staying? What's going on? What's around you?' And I have no idea,” guard Norman Powell said via videoconference from the team hotel, where Toronto’s players and staff are staying until they get settled in the city and find temporary homes to rent, and located just down the street from Amalie Arena, where the Raptors will play their home games in downtown Tampa.
“[I’m] trying to figure the whole city out, where to go, even what to do in terms of just being able to walk on the beach. Especially the rules and laws here with COVID. You're so used to what was happening in the bubble, you knew the rules there. Going back [home] to California [during the off-season], you knew the rules there and what was changed, what was open, where you could and can't eat. Same when I lived in Vegas. Being in Vegas, there's a little bit more freedom there, but certain things are locked down, things you can't do. So it's just picking up the environment that you're in, and trying to make the best decisions possible.”
The NBA recently issued a 134-page manual detailing its health and safety standards for camp and the upcoming season, though teams didn’t receive it until this past weekend – just a couple days before the Raptors were set to fly south. Once again, protocols will be tight on the league’s watch – masks, frequent sanitization and social distancing, where possible, in arenas and practice facilities. Players and staff will be tested daily, like they were in the bubble.
However, that’s where similarities to the restart end. The NBA reported zero positive tests during a three-month span that saw them finish the regular season and complete the playoffs on the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando this past fall – a remarkable feat, given the circumstances.
In addition to the testing, safety measures on site, and the commitment and sacrifice of thousands involved, the league’s bubble experiment was successful because it was contained, thus minimizing the risk of exposure and outbreak.
What the NBA is hoping to pull off this season – what other leagues have already done, to mixed results – will be far more challenging. This season, all 30 teams will operate out of their home cities, with the lone exception of the Raptors, who couldn’t get the government clearance they needed to play in Canada and will be based in Tampa for the foreseeable future.
Teams will play games in their arenas – some will even host a limited number of fans – and travel around the United States. And while the league and its clubs can strictly enforce the protocols in their buildings, and even encourage their players and employees to follow those same rules after business hours, there’s only so much they can control.
On their own time, each individual will be free to come and go as they please. Ultimately, it will be up to them to make the right decisions – not only for themselves and for the health and safety of their teammates, but also for the sake of the league and for the season.
“There's certainly more freedom than there was in the bubble, but we're going to have to use very, very good judgement to keep this moving,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “The responsibility falls on each of us, individually, to make sure we're following all the protocols. I hope that everybody has their own health and safety [interests] and the health and safety of their family first and foremost as kind of how they're moving around their day.
“Obviously, [VP of player health and performance] Alex McKechnie and his staff will be giving continual reminders and all that kind of stuff too, but it does place maybe an extra layer of importance or priority that's different than a normal season. We're certainly not in a normal season or in normal times, so we're all going to have to be very vigilant on this aspect.”
When it became clear that playing their home games in Toronto – their stated preference – was unlikely, the Raptors considered multiple contingency options stateside. With the backing of their players, several of whom were consulted in the process, they chose Tampa, in part because of the warm weather and no state income tax. But in doing so they’ve also chosen to work out of a known COVID-19 hotspot.
On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Raptors landed in Tampa, Florida became the third U.S. state to surpass one million reported coronavirus cases, joining Texas and California.
For the Raptors and the rest of the NBA to pull this off and get through the planned 72-game schedule, and the playoffs to follow, it will take a buy-in from everybody. From the league’s best players all the way down to the trainers and equipment managers, everybody needs to stay disciplined and commit to following proper health and safety protocols – on, and more importantly, away from the basketball court. If the NBA can take anything away from the other leagues that have attempted something similar, it’s this.
The first few months of the Major League Baseball campaign were mired by multiple outbreaks. Several teams, including the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals were forced to close their facilities and cancel games. It wasn’t until commissioner Rob Manfred reinforced the protocol and threatened to shut down the season that teams, presumably, tightened up and cases started to go down.
It’s been inversed in the National Football League, where cases have skyrocketed as the season’s gone on, culminating in the Ravens-Steelers game – originally scheduled for last Thursday – getting pushed back three times and eventually landing on Wednesday afternoon after more than 14 Baltimore players tested positive throughout the week.
When everybody is doing their part – wearing masks, washing their hands, social distancing and reporting their symptoms, among other preventative measures – then things can go relatively smoothly. But once that commitment slips, even from one or two people, then so do the results, as we’re seeing in the NFL.
All it takes is one player, coach or staff member to go for a meal in crowded restaurant or hang out with friends indoors without wearing a mask. All it takes is one person contracting the virus to put the rest of their team – as well as any other team they’ve played against or been in contact with – at risk.
There are going to be isolated cases – that’s unavoidable outside of a bubble setup. Of the 546 players tested during the initial return-to-market phase, 48 returned positive tests, per an NBA press release on Wednesday. Earlier this week the Warriors announced that they were delaying their first practice after two players tested positive.
The NBA’s health and safety guide covers the protocol for dealing with isolated cases, and what’s required for players who test positive to return to play. That won’t jeopardize the season, it states. What it doesn’t specify is how many cases, or outbreaks, would necessitate another league-wide shut down.
Ensuring that those cases remain manageable will depend on how fast they’re caught and treated, and whether they can be contained before they become outbreaks.
“As most people know, you’re not going to prevent people from contracting the virus with the testing but you are able to contain the spread,” said Toronto general manager Bobby Webster. “The daily testing is something that we’ll do every morning, which is similar to Orlando, but we are out interacting, we are in a major city with exposure risks. But I think that’s [something] we’re all learning to live with. How do you go get a coffee? How do you go to the grocery store? How do you do different things where you’re trying to have some sort of normalcy but reducing the risk for yourself and ultimately reducing the risk for the entire team?”
“During the season [there] might be a couple delayed games or whatever it is, it's just the nature of the reality that we're in right now,” said Powell. “But hopefully our team will stay true to [the league’s] protocols and regulations, hold each other accountable, stick to our routines and just get through this as fast and safely as possible.”