On Monday, the NHL announced that nine additional players had tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the league's total to 35 positive cases since the season pause on Mar. 12. 23 of those 35 players had reported to team facilities for Phase 2 of the league's restarting plan, which took effect on Jun. 8.
As the U.S. continues to struggle to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, this flux of new positive test results coming out of the NHL begs the question: should we really be moving forward, full-steam ahead, with the restart plan while COVID-19 is still running rampant in the league's facilities, let alone all over the country?
Believe me, we all want hockey to start. In an ideal world, all sports would be able to safely restart today. The problem is, we are absolutely not existing in an ideal world right now. As of July 1, the U.S. has seen a spike of over 250,000 new cases- even as some states and municipalities shift into latter phases of their reopening plans. Texas, Arizona, Florida, Nevada, California, and Tennessee have all seen dramatic rises in reported COVID-19 cases within the last few weeks. You know what those states all conveniently have in common? They each serve as a home to at least one NHL team.
After several Colorado and Ottawa players tested positive early on in the pandemic, the NHL has since stopped revealing any identification pertaining to newly infected players. The league certainly isn't required to name names, but the CDC's Jul. 6 numbers of the counties wherein certain teams are confined for training camps are grim.
Texas' Collin County, home of the Dallas Stars' practice facility, has reported 1,457 new COVID-19 cases since Jun. 22. That's more new cases in three weeks than the county reported in total between Mar. 9 and Jun. 7.
Arizona's Maricopa County hosts the Coyotes' practice facility and has seen the most significant spike of almost any other county in the nation; the Scottsdale area has more than doubled its case total since Jun. 22.
In Florida, the Panthers' localities of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties have combined to report over 33,000 cases since Jun. 22. Hillsborough County- the home of the Lightning's practice facility and arena- is now close to tripling its case total since Jun. 22.
Nevada's Clark County has reported over 9,000 new cases since Jun. 22- more cases than they reported in the span of Mar. 5 and Jun. 3- but is merrily ushering the Golden Knights back into their facilities for the NHL's impending round-robin playoff series. Tennessee's Davidson County reported over 1,000 additional cases in just three days between Jul. 2 and Jul. 5, but is already welcoming the Predators back with open arms and unwashed hands. For California's sake, it's probably good timing that none of their NHL teams made this year's 24-team playoff.
The point with all typing all of these numbers is to make a single, concise point- no matter how much you want to believe this is over, none of us- professional athlete or not- are out of these incredibly dense woods yet. And to be honest, we're not even close to the finish line.
The current Return to Play structure will allocate individual hotel rooms for each team's 52 players and staffers. Room-to-room movements are prohibited... but fitness and meeting centers will not be off limits. Has anyone considered that COVID-19 doesn't care what room you're in when it enters your body? The rule is one team per floor, but they're not stopping you from using common spaces. How does that make any sense? The very least the NHL could do is to mandate full-face visors for every player during every game, yet they have not. Even coaches aren't required to wear masks while hurling commands from behind the bench. Players with families will be allowed to bring them inside "the bubble" as well- which not only will put young children at risk, but whomever those unmasked children come close to while inside the bubble.
Despite a steadily rising infection rate among the league's 396 players, the NHL marches on. In fact, the Return To Play timeline seems to just be getting tighter; the NHL's Monday press release is holding fast to an Aug. 1 start date for the qualifying rounds of the 2020 playoffs. Full-team training camps will commence on Jul. 13, then playoff teams will report to the playoff hub cities- Edmonton and Toronto- on Jul. 26. The league is promising extra-regular testing for players, coaches, and other present staff as a means to limit the inevitable collateral damage teams are bound to encounter during a global pandemic. Like the MLB and NBA, players are free to opt out of the schedule by Jul. 13 if they so choose.
And there- with each player's unfettered access to high-quality healthcare, daily testing, and ability to choose not to work yet still garner a paycheck- lies the biggest moral roadblock of every single professional sports leagues' plans to pick back up where they left off. According to the CDC, over 37 million COVID-19 tests have been administered in the U.S as of Jul. 6, which accounts for only nine percent of the entire country's population. Those 37 million tests also don't specify the number of tests repeated on the same person, so the total percentage of the U.S. population that has been tested for the virus is likely lower than nine.
Obviously, if sports are to resume their course, testing is an absolute necessity. But testing a single essential worker could be enough to prevent the creation of another viral epicenter. It could mean the difference between weathering the virus at home versus being hooked up to a ventilator at a hospital where even the nurses aren't allowed to go near you without full-body protection. It could mean the difference between a rapid response and a too-late tragedy.
It could mean the difference between life and death.
You simply shouldn't have to be a multimillionaire pro athlete to be able to get regular COVID-19 testing. At this moment in history, as a human race, we must reckon with our longing for entertainment in the form of sports as well as our general attitude of indifference towards our common man- whether we are in the midst of a pandemic or not. If we are more aggressive and deliberate with restarting sports than we are containing the spread of COVID-19, our priorities desperately need to be rechecked. It's one thing for NHL players to have a non-zero chance of infection while just skating among their own team in training camps. Once teams begin to play each other, however, there will be no actual means to control particle spreading unless every player dons head-to-toe PPE and is prohibited from making physical contact. A single check to the boards from an asymptomatic player would likely unleash a chain of infection that wipes out most of both teams' bench.
There will, at some point, be a safe time and place to restart the NHL season. Unfortunately, that time is not now. It probably won't even be this fall. More likely than not, we will have to wait until 2021 to have sports fully cleared to resume. As much as sports are missed in this country, we will not be able to safely enjoy them for a while. And we, as a collective fanbase, are just going to have to grow up and accept that.