The US will likely see the return of NASCAR and the PGA before football, basketball, and hockey amid the coronavirus pandemic. Here's why.
- The new coronavirus typically spreads when droplets pass between people in sustained, close proximity.
- Contact sports like football, basketball, and hockey are seemingly impossible to play safely, unless athletes and staff are tested first.
- While the US has ramped up its coronavirus testing capacity in the last month, not every American who wants a test can get one.
- Some professional sports team were lambasted in March when their players and staff obtained tests ahead of the public. They want to avoid similar criticism when returning to game play.
- NASCAR announced it plans to return to the track on May 17, without testing its drivers, who operate individual cars.
- Most likely, sports in which athletes can more easily maintain social distancing while competing will return sooner.
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Dr. Anthony Fauci said it might be challenging for major sports to return in the US this year.
"Safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything," he told the New York Times on Tuesday. "If you can't guarantee safety, then, unfortunately, you're going to have to bite the bullet and say, 'We may have to go without this sport for this season.'"
While the option to live-stream events makes eliminating fans easy, there's no way around the fact that the new coronavirus typically spreads when droplets pass between people in sustained, close proximity. What's more, experts have discovered that between 25% and 50% of people infected with COVID-19 show no symptoms when they're infections.
So unless athletes who play football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and hockey — all contact sports, really — and their support staff test negative before competing in games, it's impossible to eliminate the risk of the virus spreading during sporting events.
And right now, according to Fauci, the US doesn't have the testing capability to make that a reality.
"I would love to be able to have all sports back," Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said. "But as a health official and a physician and a scientist, I have to say, right now, when you look at the country, we're not ready for that yet."
Not enough available testing
At the beginning of the US's outbreak, the lack of available testing ruffled feathers. Celebrities and athletes jumped the testing lines amid harsh criticism. On March 11, the state of Oklahoma used 60% of its testing capacity on NBA players and team staff after a member of the Utah Jazz tested positive, allowing them to bypass the long waits endured by ordinary citizens waiting for tests.
Now, more than 6.5 million Americans have been tested so far for the coronavirus; the US testing-per-capita rate is among the highest in the world. But given the country's staggering case count and dearth of commensurate tests, still not every American who wants a test can get one.
This raises issues for professional leagues who may want to use widespread testing among their teams to clear athletes to play. Team commissioners and owners said they don't want to secure tests for players in the current environment, AP reported Friday.
"We would have to ensure that testing is widely available and front-line health care workers have access before we begin talking about regular testing in the context of professional sports," NBA spokesman Mike Bass told AP.
'You've got to be really creative'
The number of tests needed to get professional contact sports going is staggering. About 3,000 kits would need to be available for Major League Baseball players, staff, and broadcasters for every round of testing, AP reported. Even if the National Hockey League and NBA returned with a smaller number of teams for their respective postseasons, those leagues would likely need 1,000 tests each time. And there's no metric in place for how often these rounds of tests would need to happen (plus, some test results can take one to two days).
And even if teams were able to obtain the number of necessary tests without taking them away from Americans who needed them, players and staff would steal need to aggressively isolate themselves from society, Fauci said.
"You've got to be really creative. That's going to be more difficult and more problematic," he told the New York Times.
If teams are going to play contact sports without an audience, according to Fauci, it would be important "to test all the players and make sure they're negative and keep them in a place where they don't have contact with anybody on the outside who you don't know whether they're positive or negative."
He added: "In other words, we said that for baseball, get the players in Major League Baseball, get a couple of cities and a couple of hotels, get them tested and keep them segregated. I know it's going to be difficult for them not to be out in society, but that may be the price you pay if you want to play ball."
And not all ballplayers are on board with that idea.
"What are you going to do with family members?" Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels outfielder, asked during an NBC Sports Network interview.
"My wife is pregnant, what am I going to do when she goes into labor? Am I going to have to quarantine for two weeks after I come back? Because obviously I can't miss that birth of our first child. So, there's a lot of red flags, there's a lot of questions," Trout said.
Golf and NASCAR racing could come back sooner
Some sports like golf and NASCAR racing, which are better suited to social distancing, could return sooner amid the coronavirus pandemic — even without testing. Golfers could stagger their tee times on courses and walk solo between holes; NASCAR racers already compete individually in their respective cars.
The PGA announced in April it hoped to restart in two months' time, according to ESPN, though its chief of operations Tyler Dennis said it hadn't yet determined how much coronavirus testing might be needed for golfers.
On Thursday, NASCAR announced it would return to live racing (with fans, of course) on May 17 in South Carolina, the Wall Street Journal reported. Attendees will have their temperatures checked and the use of protective equipment and social distancing measures will be required at the venue.
But NASCAR will not be testing drivers and their staff.
"Those tests remain in short supply," NASCAR vice president of racing operations John Bobo told AP. "Getting results can take two to three days. Really, those tests should be targeted for people most in need."
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