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Silver worried about potential hole in NBA bubble

Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association. (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As National Basketball Association teams begin to arrive in Orlando, Florida, this week to prepare for the league’s return to play starting July 31 amid the Covid-19 pandemic, league commissioner Adam Silver said he was concerned the quarantined campus at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex will show “in essence a hole in our bubble.”

Speaking in a virtual interview with Fortune Brainstorm Health, Silver said he anticipates more positive cases to emerge upon teams reporting and going through their initial quarantining. Already, the league reported a 5.3 per cent rate of positive tests in initial testing, and Silver previously acknowledged the league “can’t outrun the virus.” Subsequent reporting of cases has elevated that overall player positive rate to 7.1 per cent.

But Silver said a greater fear is an incidence of continued positive tests after activities start in Florida.

“We won’t be surprised when the first come down to Orlando if we have some additional players test positive,” Silver said. “What would be most concerning if once players enter this campus and then go through our quarantine period, then if they were to test positive or if we were to have any positive tests, we would know we have an issue…We would know that there’s in essence a hole in our bubble or that our quarantine is not working in some way.”

A sizable number of positive cases inside of that protected setting would result in a second shutdown of the season, and Silver has consistently said, “we’re not saying full steam ahead no matter what happens.” But a specific number of cases that would trigger that threshold has not been identified. 

“Certainly, if we had any sort of a significant spread at all within our campus, we would be shut down again,” Silver said.

Several individual teams, including title contenders such as the Milwaukee Bucks, have closed practice facilities in recent days due to positive cases within their respective organizations.

“We began testing all our teams roughly two weeks ago and as we reported we had a significant number of positive cases,” Silver said. “I think that is more a representation of what is happening around the country.”

Much of the United States in recent weeks has seen a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases, with Florida standing as a hotspot in the resurgence.

“When we set it up down this path, in terms of coming back and in Orlando, Florida was not experiencing case levels at the rate they are now, and Orange County where Orlando is was not,” Silver said. “On the other hand, we designed this campus environment so that we could be as protected as possible from the environment around us.

“So, on paper and dealing with our experts, it should work. But we shall see. I’m confident, based on the positive cases we’re seeing from our players in the general public around the country that it will be safer on campus that off this campus,” he said.

Other major US sports properties have also struggled with the components of restarting play amid the pandemic. Major League Soccer’s return to play, starting with a tournament beginning this week at the same Walt Disney Company-owned complex in Orlando as the NBA, has already seen the removal of one team from the competition, the possible departure of a second club, and one player calling the whole effort “a bit stupid.”

Major League Baseball has also grappled with testing and reporting procedures as team training camps have resumed.