The NBA and MLB show opposite reopening strategies — and one of them is already striking out. Here's what businesses and schools can learn from the great pro sports reboot.

  • Schools are set to reopen in a few weeks, and the way nonessential services like sports leagues and theme parks have reopened so far present contrasting approaches to reboots.
  • Baseball started up its season this week, and basketball will soon resume its incomplete season.
  • Major League Baseball chose to reopen in person, while the National Basketball Association and longtime partner Disney have created a controlled, monitored atmosphere, or a "bubble."
  • The baseball season is already in doubt after an outbreak was reported at one team. Basketball has reported infections but cut down on outbreaks with its bubble.
  • Schools aren't set up to open in bubbles, but that might be what they have to do. If they can't, it looks like families will do it themselves via the inequitable "learning pods."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Sports, however much we might love them, aren't an essential service. 

They aren't anywhere near as important as a school season that takes in about 50 million kids a year, providing not just education but socialization for kids ages K through 12th grade, as well as as a big chunk of child care for working parents overwhelmed on that front during the social distancing era. Athletics also don't nourish our economy like small business does.

But sports have started reopening, and along with some other nonessential services, like theme parks, they provide a model of how schools and companies might reopen, too. 

That's why Tuesday's news that essentially a whole team based in Florida has gotten infected with the coronavirus was bad news for the rest of the economy. Consider education: In the absence of a better obvious alternative, American public schools' default option is to open the same exact way that Major League Baseball just tried — and apparently failed — to do successfully.

Major League Baseball opened up in person just a week ago, launching an abbreviated season in all of its normal stadiums (except Toronto). There aren't any fans in the stands (in fact there are strange cardboard cutouts or computer-simulated avatars where fans would sit), but everything else is unchanged.  

After infections tore through the Miami Marlins, who are based in the current epicenter of America's outbreak of Florida, the team put its season on "pause" while it figures out what to do. The defending champion Washington Nationals, who were next up to visit Miami, immediately voted against making the trip. All of a sudden the season is in doubt, and it's not a stretch to imagine the same thing happening to public schools in just a few weeks.

The anatomy of a bubble

Not all in-person resumptions have gone badly.

The English Premier League just finished its soccer season in empty stadiums, much as baseball would like to do, without a hitch (unless you consider Liverpool's eerie title celebrations a hitch). Of course, that league is in the UK, not in the US, which has a much lower rate of overall infection at this point. In the US, Major League Soccer's bubble is going ok despite initial hiccups; the National Women's Soccer League just completed its bubble tournament Sunday. ("The American sports world now has a blueprint for running a successful bubble tournament during a pandemic," Caitlin Murray observed at Yahoo Sports.) 

Some other nonessential services reopening in the US have so far gone off smoothly. The National Basketball Association and Disney theme parks have chosen a "bubble" route, for lack of a better term. Given that the NBA struck a deal with longtime partner Disney to resume play entirely within Florida's Disney World, the dueling bubbles are actually in the same basic location.

Coronavirus bubbles entail strict limits on who enters, limits on movement internally, and safety measures such as temperature screenings to limit even the possibility of infection. To be clear, it's not a model that would be easy to replicate with kids entering school, given how decidedly un-bubbled everyday American lives are. 

So far, the Disney/NBA bubble is working. Disney workers have been terrified of going to work but no cases have been directly linked to a theme park yet. Some NBA players have tested positive — and others have visited off-bubble premises such as a strip club famous for its wings — but there's a strict quarantine policy before those players rejoin the bubble.

Everyone knows what has to happen here, even if they won't admit it: Real life can't resume for many more months. Wishing for the best isn't a plan, and if baseball is anything to go by, it looks like a recipe for disaster. In other words, welcome to bubbleworld.

What the bubble means for businesses and schools

The NBA's so far successful bubble — the regular games kick off in earnest on Friday — provides a model that would be more instructive for businesses over schools. The association's running of the bubble has been noteworthy for the strictness of its enforcement. For instance, reporters need a week's worth of negative tests, conducted daily, before they're let in, reported Marc Stein of The New York Times.

In the last two rounds of testing, the NBA recorded zero positive results. It's even been a positive for culture: athletes have commented on the sense of community the experience has brought on for the league over all. As soon as a player forgets to take a daily test — like Kristaps Porzingis or Nerlens Noel — they are placed into quarantine. 

Anthony Fauci, who threw out the first pitch for baseball, has seen enough to be convinced. He said in June that he thinks the National Football League may need a bubble for its season and repeated that this week in an interview with ABC. He also said he's worried about baseball's season finishing after the Marlins outbreak.

The bubble is expensive and the NBA is wealthy. While many tech companies, most notably Twitter and Facebook, have greenlit long-term work-from-home, a great number of companies are going to inevitably want to get people back in the office again.

The NBA bubble lessons are, in part, geographic: getting people into the same place, thoroughly testing and quarantining, can create a secure space, provided things are carefully enforced. You can imagine this being executed in a corporate campus setting, less so downtown Manhattan. You also need employees who are all-in for social distancing, as the players (at least those who opted to go down to Orlando) appear to be. Perhaps competing for a championship, or another high-stakes, relatively short-term, goal, could be motivating. 

What would an elementary or high school bubble look like? Or a college campus?

Public schools, of course, are for the most part rather underfunded compared to sports leagues or big business. 

The New York City school district's reopening plan is bubble-like in how it limits in-person interaction, with classes down from 30 to 12 and students attending class one to three times a week. But it doesn't control the flow of kids in and out as tightly as a true bubble.

At the college level, there are also limitations on how tight a bubble can be. Michael Spath, campus risk manager at Borough of Manhattan Community College, told Business Insider's Juliana Kaplan that he can require contract tracing with his own employees, but can't for students. "I've got people riding subways. I've got people living in high-density apartments, low to middle-income apartment buildings, and they're coming on my campus on a regular basis." In other words, he said, "I don't think it's safe."

There is a bubble available to students: the learning "pod" in which, as Insider's Nadine Jolie Courtney reported, families opt out of the school system and join forces to create small groups with local children. This seems almost inevitable at this point, but it's a class-based solution that would entrench and even deepen some of the worst inequalities in American education.

Perhaps that's why, well before coronavirus hit, we had a phrase for it: A bubble of privilege. 

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