And the NBA’s new protocols can’t change the fact that playing a sport inside can spread a virus.
Monday’s game in Washington left a sour taste in Suns fans’ mouths for many reasons.
Losing by more than 20 to a shorthanded and not very good Wizards team is one thing, but less than 12 hours after the final buzzer, two Wizards players tested positive for the Covid-19, setting off a chain reaction of game postponements for both teams.
As of now, the Suns won’t play again until Monday in Memphis at the soonest, while Washington remains in limbo with now six players testing positive.
But even prior to Monday’s game, there were warning signs involving Washington. For more than a week, the Wizards had started to appear like an invisible tissue connecting each known Covid case in the NBA, as laid out partially here by Jenna West of SI.
None of that is to blame Washington for the situation they and the Suns currently face, as it’s hard to know where one infection came from versus another. But the hard fact is that Bradley Beal was cleared quite quickly after initially isolating following a postgame interaction with Jayson Tatum, who we now know has Covid. It hasn’t been reported whether Beal is one of the six Wizards currently infected, but that decision in and of itself was a mistake by the league.
The Wizards played Boston on Friday, after which Beal and Tatum spoke postgame for several minutes. As a result, Beal was forced to miss Washington’s game against the Heat the next night, though that was announced just prior to tip-off. Less than 48 hours later, Beal was cleared to play against the Suns.
Even if Beal ultimately did not get sick, the NBA’s handling of the situation illustrates how inconsistent and ineffective their protocol is right now. Setting aside the (speculative yet legit) possibility that someone on the Wizards was perhaps spreading the disease while testing negative throughout early January, Tatum played all of Friday’s game and was likely infected that night. Anyone who guarded him could have caught the virus at that time and then played against Miami (which now has its own outbreak) and Phoenix. But because the league decision-makers determined their postgame dap was not cause for emergency measures, effectively nothing was done.
Now, the Suns continue to miss games despite all negative tests throughout the week. A Suns spokesperson told me the team did not have an update as of early afternoon Friday.
Shortly after the positive cases for Mo Wagner and Rui Hachimura were announced by the Wizards, the NBA and the players’ union agreed on more strict rules on and off the court to try to limit the spread of the virus. Players are no longer allowed as much freedom on the road, and the league will more strictly enforce mask wearing and social distancing during games.
That should help stem the tide of infections coming into NBA team facilities, but it won’t do much if someone who is infected and still tests negative (either through a false negative or a pre-symptomatic negative test).
Without a Bubble, players are operating much like everyday people while they are at home. They are allowed to conduct “essential activities,” which we can assume includes tasks like grocery shopping or getting gas. Places like Arizona, where the governor has all but promised that the virus will be allowed to spread unabated while the vaccine rolls out and he focuses on his higher priorities like opening schools, it’s next to impossible to avoid the virus entirely. That means nobody in the NBA is entirely secure.
But rather than think that way or operate using the common sense assumption that the virus can spread during a basketball game, the NBA is focused on “cool-down chairs” and whether players can eat at restaurants. Beal and the Wizards were allowed to play in a game they clearly shouldn’t have been, and now the chain reaction is forcing the league into far more postponements than otherwise would have been necessary and disrupting the nightly schedule less than a month into the season.
There’s not an easy fix here other than praying that the situation in America improves soon or potentially pressing pause for a couple weeks to let the current infections in the NBA subside, but let the Suns-Wizards game this week be a cautionary tale for what can happen when protocols are neglected or the sticky science of viruses supersedes even the best intentions.