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Marlins' COVID-19 outbreak raises concerns for NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL

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Editor's Note: With MLB postponing games in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Miami Marlins' clubhouse, NBC Sports Boston asked its MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL Insiders to assess where all of the United States' four major sports stand, and what the leagues' plans are going forward.

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Leave it to baseball's most useless franchise, in one of America's worst states as far as COVID-19 outbreaks, to bring the sport to its knees.

If you had "Florida Marlins" in your COVID shutdown pool, congratulations! You were always going to win.

Combining the franchise that doesn't try to win in the state that refuses to acknowledge a pandemic was destined to end with multiple failed tests, at least one irresponsibly played game, and now cancellations in one city and a probably moved series from one to another..

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Baseball deserves this for thinking it could play games while the virus still rampaged across the U.S. Every other league should be watching, because this is what happens when you try to play games without a bubble before the first wave of COVID has ended.

Baseball's real concern shouldn't have been its season, but the possibility that one of its players infects others. If the season somehow continues, here's hoping Charlie Baker tells the Red Sox that if they want to play in Tampa, they're going to spend 14 days in quarantine when they return from Florida.

 

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September 10. That’s when the NFL opens its season. Until then, there will be no joint practices and no preseason games. 

There will be no interactions between teams from COVID “hot spots” in the South or Southwest and those places on the Eastern Seaboard that have already been through the first wave of this pandemic storm. In the past seven days, Florida’s had more than 76,000 cases. Massachusetts has had 2,000. 

And that’s the biggest issue with the Miami Marlins' situation. The team-to-team interactions they’ve engaged in — first with preseason games in Atlanta and then with a three-game series in Philly. Now, both of those teams — and all of MLB — need to hit the pause button to determine if on-field interactions caused spread. Not that anyone would ever definitively know which interaction caused it. 

Also, if we learn that neither the Braves nor Phillies has a spate of positives, what do we do with that information? Chalk it up to a lucky break or use it as evidence of relative safety between two baseball teams competing? 

Back to football, though. There will be plenty of positive tests this week. Players have descended from around the country on their places of employment. Plenty of Patriots are coming from hot-spot areas and — since estimates are that about 40 percent of cases are asymptomatic — you can expect a few to test positive despite feeling tip-top. 

An asymptomatic player is quarantined and can’t return until either 10 days after the test or five days if he tests negative twice. 

A player who shows symptoms and tests positive must wait for 10 days after the first symptoms appeared AND 72 hours since the symptoms passed PLUS test negative and have a team doctor and league medical officials sign off on his return.

As for the rest of the players, coaches and support staff, the next 46 days teams will be in their own bubbles. 

Yes, you may see a Patriot player out getting gas in Foxboro or in line at CVS. You may even see one outdoors without a mask. 

But the league’s stringent rules about taking care to stay out of harm’s way, the daily testing, and the indoor masking should all help these teams to isolate cases to the point that, when September 10 comes and the current hot spots inevitably cool down, COVID-free players are going to be taking the field to begin the season against teams and in cities that — in late July — had the stuff all around them. 

 

Consider this: on April 29, there were 1,963 new confirmed cases in Massachusetts and 11,118 tests performed. Six percent of cases were hospitalized. On June 12 — 44 days later — there were 392 cases out of the 10,186 tests performed. And on July 25 — this past Friday — there were 210 cases out of 11,330 tests. It gets better.

And the NFL has 46 days to wait for it to do so. 

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For all the consternation about the NBA setting up its bubble inside a Florida hot zone, the return of zero positive coronavirus tests last week showed that, with proper testing and distancing measures, basketball has an ability to stiff-arm the virus if everyone follows the strict precautions.

It will be interesting to see how much the NBA has to tighten its bubble whenever a player or staffer invariably is impacted by the virus.

The NBA’s bubble is designed to prevent the sort of outbreak now afflicting the Marlins. It eliminates many of the variables that MLB’s travel brings into play, and it would seem baseball must reassess its plan if it has any hopes to navigate a full season.

The Marlins story, though, is a reminder that everyone in sports is basically crossing their fingers and hoping to get through this thing without the virus making it impossible to continue.

And there’s no guarantees that any league can get to a finish line.

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As Major League Baseball is dealing with a Miami Marlins COVID-19 outbreak and cancelling regular season games while deliberating what to do next, the NHL is all systems go with a well-thought out and carefully crafted plan to Return to Play. 

Twelve NHL teams from each conference traveled to protective bubbles in Hub Cities of Toronto and Edmonton on Sunday afternoon, and are readying for their first practices in the Phase 4 Return to Play plan. There were no significant outbreaks in Phase 3 training camp with only two positive test results among the 800 NHL players, and there were zero positive tests in the July 18-25 time period with over 4.256 tests administered to the 800 NHL players. 

 

It was a case of players showing discipline by quarantining themselves, coaches and staff wearing masks at all times and players being masked and separated in all areas aside from the frozen sheet and the weight room. It might have seemed counter-intuitive given that the players came into close contact with each other on the ice, but the near-perfect results are impossible to ignore. 

From now on, each of the 52 members of the travelling parties among the 24 NHL playoff teams will be tested daily and will be living their lives on a bubble campus created by the NHL to live separate from the rest of the world. Bubble life means living in a hotel, separated from their families for up to 10 weeks with only tested, approved and credentialed people coming into contact with the hockey players on a daily basis. 

Some other leagues like Major League Baseball and the NFL might talk about being “in a bubble”, but they are not in a bubble if players are still living at home with families that aren’t following the same restrictions that they are. Even NHL players weren’t really living “in a bubble” until arriving in Toronto and Edmonton where they are not expected to go anywhere aside from the league hotel, the practice and game arenas and that’s about it. 

Clearly the NHL and NBA are in different, better situations than Major League Baseball and the NFL because they won’t be traveling, and everything can be safely and securely contained within their respective bubbles. But the NHL also made the sagacious choice of pulling the entire operation out of the United States, where COVID-19 clearly hasn’t been contained in states where NHL teams call home like Florida, Texas, Arizona and California. 

They made sure everybody had tested negative prior to leaving, left those with even the slightest COVID-19 health question marks at home and now they’re planning to stay in Canada for the next three months where they have successfully contained the virus. 

Compare Canada’s 114,000 cases and 8,891 deaths to the 4.3 million cases and 150,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States and it’s pretty clear why the NHL pulled out of America completely and instead headed North. 

The NHL will hold the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton during September and October where there have been only 10,000 cases and 187 COVID-19 deaths since the outbreak in March. They have set themselves up for a successful completion to their season because they came up with a smart, detailed plan that’s worked at every step along the way thus far.