Bubbles are best: experts say return of sports risky as COVID-19 pandemic continues

·10 min read

Watching Connor McDavid let a slapshot fly or Fred VanVleet sink a deep three can be a salve to the soul of a sports fan run down by the difficult realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while health experts agree that the NHL and NBA saw great success in wrapping up their seasons in "bubbles", some are concerned that the return of professional sports could see the virus spread not only between athletes, but into the larger community.

Here’s a look at risks they see with various return-to-play scenarios as the sports calendar attempts to fill up after a quiet November:

BUBBLE UP

When the NBA and NHL announced they were creating sealed-off environments in which to finish their seasons in the summer, some skeptics expected to see COVID outbreaks.

Neither league saw a single positive test result in their bubbles.

“We didn’t see those massive transmission events that we were concerned about,” said Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist with the University of Manitoba. “The bubble aspect worked. The problem that we get into is how well can you maintain that for an entire season?”

While effective from a health perspective, players weren’t enthused about spending months locked down and separated from loved ones. They aren’t eager to repeat the experiment this season, with the NBA having all teams play in home markets (except for the Toronto Raptors, who will call Tampa, Fla., home because of border restrictions).

Some sports are trying to repeat the bubble experience, albeit for shorter time periods.

The world junior hockey championship is expected to begin in a bubble in Edmonton later this month. Team Canada’s selection camp is already underway in in Red Deer, Alta., though all athletes and staff are currently under quarantine after two players and a staff member tested positive for the virus.

Because there are more cases in the community now than earlier this summer, there’s a greater chance of the virus crossing into a protected environment, as anyone with access to the facilities can bring it in, Kindrachuk said.

“If there’s high community transmission, you’re hoping that those people stay negative,” he said. “But even if they have a negative test, that doesn’t mean necessarily that the next day they’re not going to become positive and that they’re potentially spreading the virus. So it becomes extremely difficult.”

Frequent testing in a walled-off environment allows for positive cases to be identified quickly, but the virus can be passed on before a person is tested, he added, and the number of tests needed over an extended period can take up resources needed elsewhere.

“How much extra pressure do we potentially put on to communities that are underneath much larger restrictions in regards to being able to maintain these bubbles?” Kindrachuk asked.

Another bubble could add extra pressure to Alberta’s health-care system.

Curling Canada announced this week that it is planning to stage events in a protected environment in Calgary. The organization has not yet released details on dates, event specifics or formats.

The National Women’s Hockey League, which includes the expansion Toronto Six, will also need to protect its bubble when the league begins play in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Jan. 23.

While most leagues with deep pockets have found ways to play during the pandemic, sports like curling and women's hockey face the threat of being replaced if they spend too much time away from fans, said Moshe Lander, a sports economist with Concordia University.

“If you’re not even on TV, then you can quickly find yourself irrelevant,” he said. “And that poses an existential threat to those leagues, to those circuits, where you miss a season. And that’s a problem.”


PLAY ON

Some leagues have opted to return with seasons that look almost normal, albeit with more face masks and less fans.

The NFL has gone 12 weeks with teams travelling between cities and some stadiums even allowing a limited number of fans in the stands.

But outbreaks among players and staff have climbed recently, forcing the league to postpone games and teams to play without stars.

The NFL shows what happens when you combine the lack of bubbles with a high number of community cases, Kindrachuk said.

“We’re seeing a lot of players, a lot of coaching staff that are testing positive. All these things start to come down to the question ‘Is it worth the risk?’” he said.

After seeing success with a bubble in Florida earlier this year, NBA teams — except the Raptors — are returning to their home arenas for a season set to begin on Dec. 22.

The league tested players as they started individual workouts and announced on Wednesday that 48 players — about nine per cent — tested positive. Those athletes are now isolating before they can join group workouts.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League also decided to forge ahead with travelling when it started its season in October.

It hasn’t been a smooth journey, though, with five teams having to halt activities due to outbreaks, and provincial restrictions postponing games and practices.

The league hosted a temporary bubble in Quebec City last month to help alleviate some of the schedule crunch, then announced last week it will suspend play until at least Jan. 3.

When teams are moving between communities, there’s a much higher risk of transmitting COVID-19, said Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious disease expert with the University of Toronto.

“(Teams) can do things to reduce it, and they’re trying to, but it’s not perfect,” he said.

Junior hockey “absolutely” poses a unique challenge because athletes are together for long bus trips and are integrated with their communities, living with billet families, Morris said.

The QMJHL is the only major junior league to have started its season, with the Western Hockey League saying it plans to begin in early January and the Ontario Hockey League setting early February for its return.

Lisa MacLeod, the Ontario sport minister, has said OHL players will not be allowed to body check in the 2021 season due to COVID-19 concerns.

Morris isn’t convinced that banning body checking is the best way to cut down on transmissions.

“I would say that’s ill informed and has no relation to our understanding of the transmission of the disease,” he said.


SOMETHING NEW

Details for the 2021 NHL season have yet to be unveiled, but the league has is now targeting mid January for a start date.

Several possible scenarios have been floated, including temporarily realigning divisions to reduce travel and deal with border restrictions.

The possibility of an all-Canadian division “really would help” because the pandemic is at very different stages in the U.S. and Canada, and each country has different approaches to public health, said Dr. Brian Conway, head of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre.

“The Canadian division makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Conway also doesn't see huge concern in having players return to Canada from other countries, assuming each man is tested and quarantines upon arrival.

Testing athletes as they arrive for training camps allows teams — and the league as a whole — to create a baseline where no one is infected, Conway said.

“It’ll start out well, they’ll be reassured by how things go, and then as you move forward, there will be more and more cases,” he said.

After the baseline is established, athletes and staff will interact with people in the community. Because numbers in the community are currently so high, each interaction will carry greater risk than it would have earlier this year, Conway said.

Those interactions between the community and athletes are what’s driving up numbers in the NFL, he added.

Conway said he’s worried about what happens when athletes get time away from the rink. There have already been cases this year of NHL players being caught out at nightclubs despite the pandemic, he noted.

“I’m very, very concerned that people who are in a bubble or are in a very, very controlled environment and then are (allowed) to loosen the rules for the next couple of days, that people are going to view this as a licence to do whatever they want, the old normal,” he said. “That’s a big risk.”

In order to keep transmission of the virus low, the NHL needs to come up with serious consequences like steep fines or forfeited games for breaking COVID protocols, Conway said.

“There needs to be in place a lot of education. Sort of ‘This is what you need to do and this is why,’” he said.


WHAT TO DO?

As COVID-19 cases climb, questions are being raised about how much longer professional sports will be able to continue.

“With the (way) things are going in the U.S., it’s hard to imagine any of the major sports reasonably continuing to have games outside of a bubble,” Morris said. “So they’ll either have to bubble or take a pause. I think that’s the high likelihood.”

Even if games can be played, some experts wonder whether they should.

The long-term impacts of the virus are still relatively unknown, Kindrachuk said, and leagues should be asking whether returning to play right now is worth the risk.

“If we just put this off by the months that we need to be able to get things back in our communities to where we need, get transmission back under control, to me, that is more worthwhile,” he said.

Others say society needs to continue to function in order to maintain people’s mental and physical health.

“In North America, team professional sports is so much a part of the day-to-day lives of many that it has to exist in some way,” Conway said. “So I think if we were to turn around at this stage, given what’s been done, and shut it down, there would be a very big push back that would affect health.”

Sports also need to continue from an economic perspective, with multi-billion dollar TV deals that need to be fulfilled, said Lander.

Leagues also need to find a way to keep players safe so competition remains at a high level, he added.

“The show has to go on and it has to be legitimate. It can’t just be trotting out a bunch of third stringers or practice squads, or there’s a problem,” Lander said.

Getting fans back in the stands is important, too, Lander added, but having people take in a sporting event live can’t risk public health.

A super-spreader event or a death linked to a game would be catastrophic, he said.

“The public backlash would be so severe that it’s not worth violating for a season or maybe even two seasons to get things done.”

Athletes and sports leagues are in a unique position to help others, Morris said, but in order to do so, they’ll need to focus on public health instead of playing games.

“If I were in professional sports — every single professional sport — if they want to have the greatest chance of success moving forward with the least risk to their athletes, they would be spending the time right now on mobilizing the public to follow public health measures and to encourage people, when the vaccine comes, to take the vaccine,” he said.

“Sports are really influential and they can make a huge difference in the trajectory of the pandemic.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2020.

— With files from The Associated Press.

— Follow @gkarstenssmith on Twitter

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press