It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
The return of major sports in the United States from their coronavirus-caused breaks was supposed to coincide with flattened curves and reduced concerns about infection and death rates and hospitalizations.
Instead, cases are skyrocketing, and concerns are rising with them. The worry is perhaps most profound in Florida, the home of two Major League baseball teams and the choice location for the “bubbles” of the N.B.A., Major League Soccer and the W.N.B.A., and in Texas, home to two M.L.B. teams and the planned site of at least 60 baseball games in the coming months.
The leagues say their return-to-play protocols will minimize the chances of infection for both athletes and team staff members. But experts in infectious diseases say that while extensive planning and exhaustive manuals — the N.B.A. and M.L.B.’s guides are both 113 pages — offer plenty of guidance on how to eat and train and wash, some infections are inevitable, and the leagues don’t have a clear answer to how much is too much.
The challenge for those still plotting a return, experts say, is that much is ultimately beyond the control of any league, team or executive, all of whom are at the mercy of the rising national infection rates — and those in their home cities.
“I’m less optimistic about sports coming back as time goes on,” said Melissa Nolan, an epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina. “It’s hard to justify a resumption of sports when we are still struggling to open up basic services.”
In March, all it took was a single positive test to shut down the N.B.A. What will it take now? And will the steady drip of individual players deciding not to play soon turn into a torrent?
If the past 10 days are any indication, this is all about to get more complicated. M.L.B. teams will be hopscotching the country by the end of July, and already players are taking a pass. Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals said Monday that he would opt out of the season. His teammate Joe Ross, his former teammate Ian Desmond, now with Colorado, and Mike Leake of the Arizona Diamondbacks have also said they will not play.
The N.B.A. announced over the weekend that 16 of its players had tested positive in its first round of samples, and several stars already have said that they will stay home when the league restarts in late July. M.L.S., which has had 24 positive tests, could resume its season next week without its reigning most valuable player.
At the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship last week, several players withdrew after either they or their caddies had tested positive for the coronavirus. And while the National Women’s Soccer League’s monthlong tournament is underway in Utah, it began without an entire team, the Orlando Pride, which had to withdraw after six players and four team staff members tested positive during its preparations.
Several European soccer leagues have been able to restart their seasons, even those in Italy and Spain, which were being ravaged by the disease only a few months ago. The difference between Europe, and especially Germany, where the Bundesliga has been back in action for more than a month, and the United States is that those countries were far more effective in driving down infection rates.
“People want to know why we haven’t been able to have sports back sooner,” said Zachary Binney, a sports epidemiologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “It’s because we don’t have the virus under control.”
The result is a situation that appears to become more uncertain each day. “We are bringing sports back not without fingers crossed and pinning our hopes on the idea that things will go OK,” said Neel Gandhi, a colleague of Binney’s at Emory’s School of Public Health. “But the past week has shown we are still very vulnerable. We might be worse than we were a month or two ago.”
League officials have acknowledged that they are aware not all of their players are going to be comfortable with their plans to return to competition. Some athletes have expressed concerns about their own health, or that of a family member. Others wonder how much risk the virus poses to their long-term health.
The N.F.L. and its players’ union are continuing to negotiate all of these issues, and those discussions have included not only opt-out provisions but also — notably — a shutdown threshold, though nothing has been finalized. Unlike the N.B.A. and other leagues that are trying to complete or resume seasons interrupted by the pandemic, the N.F.L. still has some time.
Football players don’t report to training camp until the end of July in a normal year; by then, there should be some initial lessons from what other leagues have gone through, including those that have restarted or plan to in restricted environments — so-called “bubbles” — and those, like baseball, that will not.
The early reviews from inside the M.L.S. bubble have been positive. Teams began arriving in Orlando, Fla., last week. The San Jose Earthquakes were first because they had not been able to practice as a full squad in the team’s home market.
Tommy Thompson, a San Jose defender, said during a video conference Friday that players were largely staying in their rooms when they were away from the field. There, he said, they read, watch movies or play video games, and then gather for team meals inside the Disney resort the league has taken over for the next month. For the moment, players said, everyone is aware of the potential consequences of venturing outside the restricted areas under the league’s control.
“I feel as safe as I could possibly be,” said Chris Mueller, a forward for Orlando City S.C. “I feel safer here than I was at home.”
Still, the point at which a surge in infections on any team, or league, crosses some yet-to-be established coronavirus red line is still unclear.
Binney said if three or four players on a team test positive, the leagues should view it as a sign of an outbreak and shut down the team for a period of time. But how many teams have to be shut down for a league to call off its season isn’t clear.
“If you don’t set a red line you are giving yourself an excuse, when a lot of money on the line, to push it farther than you should,” he said.