Can sports return in a nation with an ever-rising tide of COVID cases?

Can sports return in a nation with an ever-rising tide of COVID cases?

On tennis’ latest positive coronavirus test, the sport's next test and the bigger picture.

“Sports are the reward of a functioning society,” Sean Doolittle, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, said on Sunday. “And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve.”

For many U.S. sports fans, Doolittle’s words felt as true and important as anything else they may have heard over the July 4th weekend. To me, they symbolized a welcome shift in emphasis. When the coronavirus crisis began, we heard a lot about how we “needed” sports, as if athletes were essential workers who could be called upon to keep us distracted and entertained, and to help us through the pandemic. In reality, as Doolittle says, the process should be reversed: We need to get through the pandemic, or at least control the virus’ spread, before we can bring people together and have our sports again.

While Doolittle was referring to U.S. team sports, he could have been talking about tennis, too. For the second time in three weekends, a men’s event was marred by a positive coronavirus test among its players.

Three weeks ago, Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour welcomed fans back to the game in Belgrade and Zadar by throwing all COVID restrictions to the wind. By the end of the tour's second weekend, half a dozen people, including Djokovic himself, had the virus.

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This past weekend, the DraftKings All-American Team Cup came to Atlanta. Featuring the top eight American men’s players, it was the first sporting event in Georgia since the lockdowns began, and the first time fans had been allowed at a pro tennis event in the U.S. since February. Some precautions were in place this time. Seating was limited to 30 percent capacity, and there were no handshakes or hugs among the players.

“We have two great physicians who are well-renowned and well-respected and have been a part of our ATP event,” tournament director Eddie Gonzalez, who also runs the Truist Atlanta Open, told Front Office Sports last week. “They are helping make sure that we have the utmost COVID-19 protocol to be able to showcase for the world that tennis can be played with fans in a very safe and social-distanced environment.”

Yet one of the event’s players, Frances Tiafoe, tested positive after feeling ill while he was playing his opening match.

Tiafoe didn’t necessarily test positive for the virus because the event had fans. He tested positive because thousands of people across the U.S. are testing positive, and the virus isn’t under control in large sections of the country. Over the last two weeks, 38 states have seen their case counts rise. Average daily new cases in Georgia have doubled during that time. Florida, where Tiafoe spent the previous months training, is setting records for new cases each day. That spike has already been reflected in other U.S. sports. When college football players returned to campuses to practice last month, COVID came with them. One of the country’s preeminent programs, Clemson, reported 37 positive tests among its players. The curve hasn’t been flattening in the U.S.; it has been skyrocketing.

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Is this going to be the new normal in the States? According to recent reports, the federal government is hoping that Americans become numb to the idea that there will be thousands of new COVID cases each day, and the governor of Florida won’t shut down his state again because he says that it’s mostly young, low-risk people who are contracting the disease. So far, the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball are going ahead with their reopening plans—the NBA’s is scheduled to take place in Florida. And unlike the Adria Tour, which was canceled after Grigor Dimitrov tested positive, the Atlanta event continued after Tiafoe pulled out, with Chris Eubanks taking his place.

The next test for U.S. tennis will come July 12, when World TeamTennis begins its three-week season at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Like the DraftKings All-American Team Cup, WTT is planning to allow fans, capping attendance at 500 per day. As of now, facemasks will be encouraged but not required, and players will be tested before they leave home.

When WTT’s single-venue plan was announced in May, it seemed like an ideal solution; at the time, West Virginia had a low COVID rate. But over the last two weeks, cases have jumped by 30 percent in the state. A lot may ride on WTT’s ability to stage a three-week event safely, with spectators. So far, tennis has had its COVID success stories: Neither the Ultimate Tennis Showdown in France, nor the Credit One Bank Invitational in Charleston, S.C., reported positive tests. But neither allowed fans.

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The biggest questions for the game—the return of the tours, and viability of the US Open—are still ahead. Unlike team sports in the U.S., tennis brings an international perspective to the pandemic. The Open won’t allow fans, but will players from other nations feel safe coming here? When they return to the tour, should we expect them to take on the risk of testing positive? If so, how many positive tests per tournament will we tolerate for the chance to watch tennis again?

We can’t simply shut down society until a vaccine is developed, because that could take years. But there’s a difference between playing games in a country where COVID is under control, and one where it isn’t. Yes, we need sports—as an escape, as entertainment, as a way to connect us to our fellow fans. But sports shouldn’t be used to help normalize the idea that Americans can live with an ever-rising tide of coronavirus cases. At some point, hopefully soon, their return will signal a return to normality in the States; a reward, as Doolittle says, for taming the virus and creating a functioning society again. We’re not there yet.