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US sports industry grappling with new spike in Covid-19 cases

Spectrum Field, Spring Training home of the Philadelphia Phillies, was shut down following the incidence of eight positive Covid-19 tests by those using or working at the facility. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The entire US sports industry’s recovery efforts have taken a sizable hit in recent days as resurgences in Covid-19 cases, particularly in states such as Florida and Arizona with higher concentrations of sports activity, have prompted many leagues and events to revisit their return-to-play plans and training procedures.

Major League Baseball was particularly hard hit as positive tests were reported within a matter of hours on June 19 at training facilities for the Philadelphia Phillies and Houston Astros in Florida, and training facilities for the Toronto Blue Jays and San Francisco Giants were also closed following several players reported experiencing symptoms from the virus. The Phillies shut down their training facility in Clearwater, Florida, late last week after five players and three staff members working at the site tested positive. 

The National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lighting, located just a few miles away, closed their practice facility after three players and several staff members had positive Covid-19 tests.

Industry sources said the outbreaks then prompted MLB officials to order the closure of all team training facilities across the entire league to allow for deep cleaning. And if a deal can be reached with the MLB Players Association to salvage the 2020 season, every team with perhaps the exception of the Blue Jays will train at their home ballpark instead of training facilities in Florida and Arizona, which each state reporting sharp upward spikes in new cases in recent days.

The league has not yet made a formal announcement about the broad-based closure of training facilities for cleaning. But the New York Yankees did disclose plans to train at Yankee Stadium in New York if the 2020 season. The greater New York City area was once was the American epicenter for Covid-19, but in recent weeks has seen a sharp retreat in its new caseload.

“We will vigilantly work with [New York] Governor [Andrew] Cuomo, [New York City] Mayor [Bill] de Blasio and their health authorities, as well as with federal officials and Major League Baseball’s own medical and infectious disease experts, to ensure our facility maintains the best possible safety standards,” the Yankees said. “The health and safety of our players, staff, and employees, and of their respective families, will always be our top priority.”

As MLB was grappling with how to manage the virus resurgence, PGA Tour golfer Nick Watney was forced to withdraw from the RBC Heritage in South Carolina ahead of the tournament’s second round after he tested positive for Covid-19. Watney, though not testing positive upon his initial arrival to the tournament last week, was the first Tour golfer to test positive since that property’s return to action. 

The tournament, however, continued as scheduled, with the event won by Webb Simpson. Watney is now in self-isolation in South Carolina, and initial tests of those who were in contact with him have come back negative.

“For the health and well-being of all associated with the tournament and those within the community, the Tour has begun implementing its response plan in consultation with medical experts including working with those who may have had close contact with Nick,” the Tour said. 

The National Football League Players Association also urged players to not conduct any sort of group workouts prior to the start of training camp next month as players on five different NFL teams have tested positive, including Dallas Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott.

“Please be advised that it is our consensus medical opinion that in light of the increase in COVID-19 cases in certain states that no players should be engaged in practicing together in private workouts,” said Dr. Thom Mayer, NFLPA medical director. “Our goal is to have all players and your families as healthy as possible in the coming months.

“We are working on the best mitigation procedures at team facilities for both training camps and the upcoming season, and believe that it is in the best interest of all players that we advise against any voluntary joint practices before training camp commences,” he said.

A large sweep of college football programs, meanwhile, have reported positive tests for Covid-19, with the degree of severity of symptoms ranging widely. Numbers have also ranged from just a handful of cases per school to several dozen within a single team. Among the schools impacted were prominent entities within the sport including Alabama, Clemson, defending national champion Louisiana State, Michigan, and Texas.

The disclosures of the positive tests arrived as players have started returning to campus for workouts in advance of an intended return to action this fall.

“As the state of South Carolina….continues to experience community transmission of Covid-19, individuals are advised to continue to practice non-pharmaceutical interventions, including face coverings and social distancing, said Clemson University’s athletic department, which reported 28 positive tests out of 315 tests of student-athletes. The athletes testing positive are being isolated for 10 days, and none of the cases have required hospitalization. 

The Florida situation particularly bears watching as The National Basketball Association, Women’s National Basketball Association, and Major League Soccer are each planning to restart play in the state in the coming weeks. But Florida in the last week has seen its number of new Covid-19 cases surpass 4,000 per day. By comparison, that number generally hovered under 1,000 new cases per day during the entire month of May. But a hotly debated and liberal reopening policy within the state led by Governor Ron DeSantis is thought to be contributing to the new surges.

Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, told ESPN she is closely monitoring the Florida situation closely.

“Can’t say I am surprised, given the state’s approach to reopening…While we take some solace knowing our players will not travel commercially to get to Orlando, that access to the campus is severely limited, and of course, all of the other health and safety protocols in place, the numbers will keep our attention,” Roberts said. “If necessary to add further restrictions respecting those third parties having access to the campus, we will seek to implement them.”