COVID-19 surge starting to shut down some games. Here’s hoping we’ve learned the lesson

Detroit Free Press

The coach is quarantining. So is the goalie. So are an assistant coach and three other players.

For now, the Detroit Red Wings will keep playing — they were scheduled to host the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night. Though their game against the Avalanche Monday has been  postponed.

It’s just that head coach Jeff Blashill, goalie Alex Nedeljkovic and forward Filip Zadina weren’t allowed to be at Little Caesars Arena on Saturday.

This is something the sports world will have to get used to all over again as we head into the holidays and into winter.   

Every day — no, almost every hour — news of COVID-19 cases in sports breaks. Some 50 players in the NBA have tested positive in the last few weeks and at least that many in the NFL have.

You can’t turn on social media or a news site without seeing a headline about someone, somewhere, entering protocols.

The NFL moved three of its games this weekend hoping to give the affected teams a chance to get some of their players back, and on Saturday the league and its players agreed to new protocols. The NBA has pushed games back, too.

Meanwhile, in college basketball, games are getting canceled, leaving some teams looking for someone … anyone, to play. Loyola (Chicago) canceled its game against Duke on Saturday and UCLA did the same against North Carolina. (Duke and North Carolina found new opponents, though).

Officials shut down Seton Hall’s game against Iona because of COVID-19 protocols at Seton Hall, which also means the Pirates have to forfeit their Monday game against St. John’s — the loss will count in the Big East conference standings not against Seton Hall’s overall record.

That we are back here isn’t completely surprising. Public health folks warned against a winter surge a few months ago and hospitals in some areas have been overwhelmed for weeks.

Still, it’s jarring.

And eerily reminiscent of the surge that shut down the sports world in March of 2020. That it’s happening despite high vaccination rates within the sports leagues and within college basketball is even more unsettling.

Five NHL teams won’t play until at least Dec. 26 — the Avalanche, Florida Panthers, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators. It’s not hard to imagine that number growing.

So far, all of this is happening with little talk of removing fans from the equation, though the leagues themselves are adjusting safety measures and protocols. The NFL, for example, released a statement saying it would change things up to address the rise in cases and onset of the Omicron variant.

“All clubs will implement preventative measures that have proven effective,” it read, including: “masking regardless of vaccination status, remote or outdoor meetings, eliminating in-person meals, and no outside visitors while on team travel. We will continue to strongly encourage the booster shots as the most effective protection. Finally, and based on expert advice, we will adjust the return-to-participation requirements for those who have recovered from COVID-19.”

The league said it’s basing its changes on internal data and a “science-backed approach,” a phrase that most of us used to take at face value. Now so many of us are arm-chair scientists and researchers, as though we were evaluating the latest surge or variant in the way we second-guess play calling or substitution patterns.

The lack of agreement on what to do — among us civilians, not so much public health officials — leaves us in an awkward spot as case numbers spike once more. Pandemic fatigue has set in. No one wants to go back to full shutdowns and government mandates.

It’s why we haven’t heard governors or state legislators  talk publicly about closing arenas and stadiums to all but the teams and a small number of support staff.

Last week, the Lions played at Denver after practicing without seven players who were put in COVID-19 protocol the previous week. And that felt … normal? Part of life now? A few teams here and there losing a handful of players to practice or games?

That seemed manageable. And hopefully the latest surge still is.

Yet here we are a week later and suddenly it doesn’t feel normal at all. News of athletes and coaches headed to quarantine is breaking too rapidly. Too many games are getting moved or outright canceled.

And if it doesn’t feel normal after we’d gotten so much of our public life back the last six months, it does feel familiar. In that sense, we can lean on how our sports survived those early, dark days.

Stadiums and arenas work best stuffed with fans. For the viewing experience, for the playing experience. But we know games can go on without them.

We also know that the measures the NFL is taking, as stated above, work to slow the spread of COVID-19 and its variants, and that similar measures will work in the NBA and NHL.

For now, the vast majority of games in all three leagues — and in college basketball — remain on the schedule. The Lions expect to play today at Ford Field against the Arizona Cardinals. This after a week of trying to work in a lot of new faces in the context of the NFL’s new-old COVID-19 guidelines.

“We thought about every scenario, but I know that there’s a fine line,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “We got a lot of new faces that need looks and you’re going to fight that balance between do you have a roster to play a game, but also preparing them and making it fair for them to go in there and prepare properly to play a game.”

COVID and football don’t go together, he said.

You could say the same thing about COVID and any other part of life: they don’t go together. Yet here we are almost two years after the pandemic started, trying to keep the persistent virus out of our games, trying to keep everything from going dark.

More cancellations are likely on the way. More postponements, too.

This time, though, we have a better idea of what to do.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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