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The Feasibility of a Return to Professional Sports During a Time of Pandemic

Photo by James Carey Lauder

The Feasibility of a Return to Professional Sports During a Time of Pandemic

To call Friday, June 19 an outlier would be rather obtuse. To remain uneducated in the field of a fast-spreading virus during the time of COVID-19 would also come off as seeming rather dense. The past week in Manitoba has seen an increase in positive COVID-19 test results, stemming from the June 1 opening of Phase II. The past week in any Canadian province or American state south of the 49th parallel has been nothing short of terrifying.

Whether it was Major League Baseball shutting down its ‘spring training’ league-wide following an array of positive COVID-19 tests among players and staff, or the announcement of 23 players from Clemson University’s football program having tested positive for the virus, or the report of a prominent NHL figure having been diagnosed with COVID-19, the news from across various sporting platforms was anything but enlightening.

And then there was Florida.

Early Friday morning, news broke from Tampa Bay that the Lightning had three players and “a number of staff members” test positive for COVID-19. That report was later backed up by a team release from GM Julien BriseBois, indicating that the club has determined to shut down operations while all equipment and ares of the building undergo a complete and thorough cleaning.

“We have learned that three players and additional staff members have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus,” a team-issued press release read. “Those players have been self-isolated following CDC protocols and are asymptomatic other than a few cases of low-grade fever. Those who have been in contact with these individuals have been notified. The Lightning continue testing and are strictly following all NHL and government procedures as part of the league’s Phase 2 guidelines. Upon receiving positive tests yesterday, team training facilities will remain temporarily shut down until we can ensure a safe environment.”

Later in the day the National Hockey League announced that over 200 players had been tested for COVID-19 since the beginning of the NHL’s Phase II small group on/off ice training sessions. Of those 200 players, 11 have tested positive. Since having been allowed to open training facilities on June 8, NHL clubs have had their players subject to mandatory testing. Weekly reports will be produced by the NHL on the number of tests administered, as well as the results of those tests. The results will not include the identity of the players or teams with positive tests.

Florida, as a whole, has seen a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases over the past seven days. After setting a single-day record this past Thursday with 3,207 new cases, the state blew that number away on Friday with 3,822 cases – three of them belonging to Tampa Bay Lighting players. Saturday saw a new record as 4,049 new cases were announced, bringing the three-day total to 11,078.

And yes, the National Basketball Association continues to hold to its plan of hosting its 22 qualifying teams in Orlando under the bubble of ‘Disney World’ for the 2020 postseason in one of North America’s hardest-hit geographical regions.

Not to be outdone, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 3,246 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, surpassing Thursday’s daily high of 2,519. 3,109 new cases were announced for Arizona on Saturday. Friday’s number of 3,246 new cases included one of the NHL’s highest profile players in Auston Matthews. The report of Matthews’ positive diagnosis surfaced Friday afternoon, and indicated that the Leafs’ sniper continues to self-isolate in his Arizona home, while hoping to be ready for Toronto’s July 10 beginning of training camp.

“Per the National Hockey League protocol with respect to COVID-19, the Toronto Maple Leafs will not be commenting on reports surrounding testing for any of the Club’s players or staff,” the Maple Leafs commented in a team-issued press release Friday evening. “A person’s medical information in this regard is private. The club will defer to the NHL’s policy on handling the disclosure of positive test results, in that the league will provide updates on a regular basis with aggregate totals of the number of tests conducted and number of positive tests reported without disclosing either the identities of affected clubs or players.”

Putting those absurdly high positive case numbers into perspective, Florida now has hit a total of 94K cases of COVID-19. Arizona is at roughly 50K total cases. Over the past week, Manitoba has exceeded 300 total cases. Canada, as a whole, has just hit the 100K COVID-19 positive mark. Breaking things down further, the latest provincial single-day updates saw 206 new COVID-19 cases in Ontario (roughly 33,000 total cases), two new cases in Manitoba (roughly 300 total cases), 49 new cases in Alberta (roughly 7,600 total cases) and eight new cases in British Columbia (roughly 2,800 total cases).

Despite not being considered as one of the NHL’s 10 chosen potential ‘hub cities’, for which the 2020 postseason play-in tournament, division leader round robin tournament and the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs would be held, Manitoba holds the very best data surrounding the spread of COVID-19. With Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver all having been declared ‘candidates’ at the May 26 NHL postseason unveiling, reports surfaced on Saturday that the list of 10 teams had recently been narrowed down to six host cities, with all three potential Canadian markets still in the mix. The expectation is that the host cities will be selected by the end of the coming work week.

Although Manitoba’s Bell MTS Place may be the situated in the city currently posting the best COVID-19 numbers, Winnipeg does not have the means necessary to host the NHL’s play-in and postseason (appropriate accommodations, practice arenas, training facilities, dressing rooms etc.).

The province opened Phase II of it’s return on June 1, and has seen varying levels of success. Despite the continual positive tests (12 new cases since June 12), following a period in which Manitoba had just 11 total new cases from May 11 to June 11, Phase III is set to begin on Sunday, June 21. Some may disagree on the timing set out by Premier Brian Pallister, but that being said, Florida’s South Beach opened to the public on June 10. Yes, that South Beach. Meanwhile Manitoba’s South Beach Casino continues to boast an empty parking lot.

On Friday, the National Football League’s top doctor Allen Stills, Chief Medical Officer of the NFL, announced his optimism of the 2020-21 NFL season occurring, however he does expect things do be done “differently” this fall. These comments came just hours after The White House Coronavirus Task Force leader Dr. Anthony Fauci announced that if there were to be a second wave of the virus, football “may not happen this year,”.

On Saturday, the NFLPA’s medical advisor Dr. Thom Mayer sent out the following message, indicating a new direction for the NFL’s players:

“Please be advised that it is our consensus medical opinion that in light of the increase in COVID-19 cases in certain states that no players should be engaged in practicing together in private workouts,” the statement read. “Our goal is to have all players and your families as healthy as possible in the coming months. We are working on the best mitigation procedures at team facilities for both training camps and the upcoming season, and believe that it is in the best interest of all players that we advise against any voluntary joint practices before training camp commences.”

The state of professional sports in North America is in shambles. The Canadian Football League very well may not have a 2020 season, and if it does, it will see a schedule of eight-to-10 games per team, with a Grey Cup held in the city of the finalist with the best regular season record to date. While on Friday, the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball club announced its 58-game-in-70-day American Association season schedule, featuring only six of the league’s 12 teams, while being based out of three American hub cities.

The Toronto Blue Jays were one of four MLB teams to shut down spring training facilities following the report of positives tests within the south Florida facility. On Saturday, the MLB issued a memo announcing all teams to begin training at their home stadiums/fields when able, except for the Blue Jays, who will continue to train out of Dunedin once appropriate measures have been taken to ensure players do not contract the virus while at the Florida facility.

Now, what all this might mean for the NHL is completely up in the air. Commissioner Gary Bettman – alongside Mark Schiefele, Connor McDavid, John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk and Ronald Hainsey of the Return to Play Committee – did not indicate a certain number, as to how many COVID-19 positive test results would shut down the operation. But the statistic indicating 11 positive tests of the approximate 200 surveyed certainly has raised some eyebrows.

With the Canadian Federal Government officially announcing the removal of the mandatory 14-day self-isolation period for professional athletes entering the country, the next decision of that nature falls on the shoulders of those leading provincial legislatures. With Vancouver and Edmonton now sitting above Toronto as hub city options, at least one Canadian market is almost entirely expected to be granted as a host for the 2020 postseason. With Vegas originally pulling ahead as a frontrunner, the tides have turned with the recent outbreaks in the heavily feared ‘second wave’.

Of the 24 teams to be granted a berth in the qualifying round of the 2020 postseason, Winnipeg remains as one of just two teams not to begin training during Phase II of the league’s plan for reopening. The number of Winnipeg Jets players currently living in town is extremely minuscule, and previous legislation served as a deterrent for players considering returning to begin small group training sessions. In past individual virtual media calls, both Blake Wheeler and Andrew Copp have indicated living in the COVID-19 hotbed of Florida during the current break from the action.

As it currently stands, NHL training camp is expected to be two weeks in duration, beginning on July 10. Teams will then travel to the two chosen hub cities on July 23 or 24, prior to one exhibition tune-up game per team. The play-in qualifying round and round robin tournament is reportedly scheduled to begin on July 30, with the postseason set to be wrapped up by October. The 2020-21 NHL season would then begin somewhere from mid-December to early-January, in order to free up the national television networks for the now-2021 Summer Olympic Games, set to run from Friday, July 23 to Sunday, August 8, 2021.

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