Amid all the questions about when sports are going to resume and what their regular seasons and postseasons are going to look like and where games will be played and how often players will be tested, there are a couple very important questions that every league needs to be ready to answer before anything starts back up: What happens if a player tests positive for COVID-19? And what happens if an outbreak occurs within a team or across multiple teams?
On a Zoom call with reporters on Monday, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask expressed those exact concerns and wondered how any league can resume without satisfactory answers.
"I think the biggest question probably for everybody is, if we’re able to resume play, how can we keep everybody safe?" Rask said. "That’s my question, too, in my head. And then on another note, it doesn’t feel right to take guys away from their families for many, many months at a time. I don’t think that’s even an option now. But most importantly, the safety of the players. What happens if someone gets infected or gets this disease? What’s going to happen then? I’m sure those are the questions they’re trying to find answers to. Before that happens, I don’t think there’s any hockey, or any sports, in any country."
We got some idea of what the answers to these questions might be Monday morning when Peter King shared details of a lengthy conversation he had with Dr. Anthony Fauci in his Football Morning in America column.
Fauci has expressed some optimism that sports could return to empty stadiums once we see a sustained decline in coronavirus cases across the country and we have enough testing to regularly test players.
Talking to King, Fauci said that teams and leagues may be able to continue playing if only one player tests positive, but he made it clear that player would then need to isolate for 14 days and stop playing.
"It would be malpractice in medicine to put him on the field, absolutely," Fauci said.
If multiple players on a team test positive, though, Fauci said powering through wouldn't be an option. The whole team would have to "shut it down" for at least 14 days.
"You got a problem there," Fauci told King. "You know why? Because it is likely that if four of them are positive and they’ve been hanging around together, that the other ones that are negative are really positive. So I mean, if you have one outlier, I think you might get away. But once you wind up having a situation where it looks like it’s spread within a team, you got a real problem. You gotta shut it down."
How leagues would handle such a situation is unclear. What if an NHL or NBA team has an outbreak in the middle of a playoff series? Does the whole postseason get put on hold for another two weeks? If it happens multiple times, is that the end of the season once and for all? How would the NFL or MLB adjust their season schedules if a team can't play for two weeks?
Team sports have started to return without fans in other countries. Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League has been playing for a month and is now starting to allow up to 1,000 fans at games, while the Korea Baseball Organization returned to game action last week. In Europe, Germany's Bundesliga soccer league will return this Saturday, and England's Premier League received government clearance on Monday to return June 1.
While every country's situation is different -- and the U.S. is still seeing far more new daily cases than those other countries -- American sports leagues will obviously be watching all those other leagues to learn about what works, and also potentially what doesn't.
It's possible leagues would be able to avoid the virus by having teams be quarantined in one location, but to Rask's other point, that would likely mean keeping players away from their families for a long period of time, and it's hard to see any players association going along with that.
Obviously everyone hopes that once the NHL and other leagues resume, following best practices as much as possible, being careful, keeping fans away, and testing regularly will allow games to be played without risking players' safety too much. But if they run into a setback once they do return, those leagues are going to have to have a plan in place for how to deal with it.