Will fear of second wave scuttle the season?

CoronavirusClearly, the return of sports is not significant in the face of a deadly pandemic that requires us to cease our normal lives in order to keep each other healthy. But the return of sports will be important because it will signal the re-normalization of society and thus the presumed passing of the coronavirus.

The question we all want answered and for which there is no answer yet: When might that happen? July? October? Next year?

And, if we have to repeat social distancing every few months, should/will the 2020 season even be played?

The NFL has pushed on with the roster-building facets of the league year — free agency and the draft — even though the pandemic has affected the ability of teams to assess players, some deals have been nullified and the draft will be conducted from homes.

But practicing and playing games will be a different thing entirely. No one knows whether the season might start on time. Projections still indicate it should be possible, but decision makers will properly approach an NFL season with extreme caution, and the fear of a second wave could be the thing that scuttles it.

In late March, we looked at the projections of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation to find a possible timeline for the return to normalcy (and thus the return of the NFL). Based on the projected course of the virus, it seemed like people in most states might be safe to return to work by July – which could mean camps might open on time.

That IHME projection remains fairly stable, with the U.S. peak expected around mid-April and the curve flattened by June 1. There still might be a few straggler states (e.g., Florida and Wisconsin) that do not peak until mid-May (and thus flatten their curves a little later, too), but life could return to somewhat normal by July.

However, even after we get past this cycle of the virus, there is concern it will return in the fall – with social distancing again becoming necessary in September. In fact, some think we will need intermittent lockdowns until a vaccine is found – which might not be until October 2021 (Bill Gates is funding seven concurrent tests to try to hasten this effort).

Pandemic historian Howard Markel, who reportedly coined the phrase “flatten the curve,” recently said communities must be devoted to social distancing: “Once you are doing it, you have to have the patience to see it through. If you pull the trigger off too early, not only will the circulating virus do what it naturally does, but all the economic and social disruptions are for nothing.”

South Korea, touted for its early response that kept numbers low, already is bracing for a second wave. As is China, which thought it had it under control.

The chances of a second wave in the States depend largely on whether the overtaxed health care system becomes better positioned to track and isolate the virus.

As IHME states: “Our model says that social distancing will likely lead to the end of the first wave of the epidemic by early June. The question of whether there will be a second wave of the epidemic will depend on what we do to avoid reintroducing COVID-19 into the population. By the end of the first wave of the epidemic, an estimated 97% of the population of the United States will still be susceptible to the disease, so avoiding reintroduction of COVID-19 through mass screening, contact tracing and quarantine will be essential to avoid a second wave.”

So what does this mean for the NFL?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom says he doesn’t expect NFL games to be played in his state in August and September — at least not with fans in the stands.

“I’m not anticipating that happening in this state,” he said last weekend. “One has to be very cautious here. Our decision … at least here in the state of California, will be determined by the facts, will be determined by the health experts, will be determined by our capacity to meet this moment, bend the curve and have the appropriate community surveillance and testing to confidently determine whether that’s appropriate. Right now I’m just focused on the immediate, but (sporting events are) not something I anticipate happening in the next few months.”

Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s medical director, agrees with Newsom: “As long as we’re still in a place where … you have to quarantine every single person who was in contact with (someone who tested positive) … then I don’t think you can begin to think about reopening a team sport. Because we’re going to have positive cases for a very long time.”

Some have suggested there will be no sports (or other major events) until a vaccine is developed, which is a very depressing thought since a vaccine won’t be ready until perhaps October 2021. Others have suggested that NFL games could start without fans, and players and staff could undergo daily temperature tests and even regular virus testing.

Playing without fans is contrary to the concept of pro sports, which are designed to be played in front of spectators. But football players are like everyone else: They need to be able to work and earn money.

If the first coronavirus wave does complete by June (as projected by IHME), the lockdowns in most places seem likely to be lifted or at least greatly eased at that point – because states will look for the earliest safe window to start rebuilding their economies. Even Newsom will be hard-pressed to keep California shut down for more than three months; any longer and most small businesses will fail and many bigger companies will struggle to recover, too.

But, even while letting businesses reopen, California and other states still might limit the numbers of people who can gather for events. And that’s where the delay in the start of the NFL season could come – if travel and infrastructure issues don’t already create problems.

As Peter King suggests, the NFL surely is looking to schedule around all possibilities – for 14 games or even 12, a truncated preseason or none. So, if the league can’t start until October, it will have a plan. And, if it can’t start at all, there will be no need for a plan.

“I would say that’s everyone’s hope is that we are in a position to (start the season on time),” Sills said. “But the reality is none of us know those facts for certain right now. We hope and pray for the best and prepare for the worst …”

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