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The NHL still has questions to answer about Phase 4 of their Return to Play plan

2020 NHL All-Star - Commissioner Gary Bettman Media Availability Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The NHL has spent the bulk of their pause actively coming up with ways to complete the 2019-20 season in a safe manner. Despite the NHL’s best efforts, their plans are still flawed and many of us still have questions we feel are important to think about in reference to safety of those working within the Secure Zones.

My co-writer, MrSwift, and I worked together to come up with questions we feel are important to answer before the start of Phase 4. Below we explain whether the NHL has answered the question already or if they need to take a deeper look at the situation. These are only a few of the many questions that came up in conversation.

If you would like to read more about the steps being taken for the NHL to return, carve out some time during your day to read the “NHL Return to Sport - Phase 3” and “NHL Return to Sport - Phase 4”.

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Are players who traveled from different airports and different flights going to be quarantined separately upon arrival to the hub cities? And are team’s going to take their private plane to the hub city?

Elaine: This question was answered by the league on page three of the “NHL Return to Sport - Phase 4”.

Travel Guidelines Table from Return to Sport - Phase 4

The fact there is no quarantine time upon landing for those taking a chartered team flight to the NHL Secure Zone city is wild to me. Unless the team has their own private airport they are taking off from or landing at, they should 100% have a quarantine period upon arrival in the secure zone. While the NHL can account for everyone on the plane including the pilot, they cannot account for anyone else they may come in contact with in or around the airport.

Speaking of not being able to account for anyone who isn’t associated with the NHL, there are a few travel related items which were not covered in the “Return to Sport” protocol. One of these is whether or not players and staff must wear masks on buses, on flights (both commercial and chartered), or in the airport. If members of the NHL are going to come in contact with anyone who is not going to be in the secure zone, wearinging a mask the moment they step outside of their house to begin travel is crucial to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Wearing a mask gives them an extra layer of protection in case they come in contact with someone who has the virus who may or may not be wearing a mask.

“Science News” has an interesting article about a newer study involving the importance of cloth masks in the quest for slowing the spread of viruses. You can read about that here.

While looking at the above chart, another question came to mind involving travel. Are those who are not allowed to fly on the chartered flight due to suspected exposure or showing symptoms related to COVID-19 being asked to travel via commercial airline instead? Are they required to go into quarantine before attempting to travel again? I searched for quite some time to find this answer and couldn’t find anything related to it. In my opinion, if there is suspicion that any player or member of staff have been exposed to COVID-19 or are showing symptoms, they need to be tested immediately and quarantined. Upon learning the results of the test, the NHL needs to have a serious heart to heart with the person who was being tested and the team they work for about whether or not it is worth having the player travel to the secure site. Especially if that person tests positive but is asymptomatic or seems to be recovering faster than the average person who is recovering from the virus. To be honest, if exposure is a question a few days before the team leaves for the secure zone, they shouldn’t be allowed to go for at the very least a month or even at all. Scientists are still studying the long term effects on the body for those who have the virus whether they are asymptomatic or symptomatic.

I will give props to the NHL for touching on the fact both Charter Airlines and Buses must be cleaned and disinfected with EPA regulated products prior to each use.

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Is it worth endangering the lives of players who are immunocompromised?

MrSwift: The NHL has several players who are immunocompromised and could be affected significantly by the proposed return to play agreement. While there are no members of the Columbus Blue Jackets who are, to public knowledge, immunocompromised, one player who is has received significant media attention, fairly or unfairly: Montreal Canadiens center Max Domi.

Max Domi is a restricted free agent this offseason (whenever that happens), and has arbitration rights. Domi posted 17-27-44 in 71 games this season while registering three game winning goals and the best CF% of his career. Domi also has type 1 diabetes and, according to Greg Wyshinsky of ESPN, is more understandably more concerned about his health as the league discussing resuming play than he is the Canadiens’ postseason fortunes:

“Everyone is affected by this in their own way. A lot of people have been struggling. A lot of people have suffered loss. It’s been a really tough time for everyone, and you have to be sensitive to that. You have to understand that this is very real. People have gotten sick from this. People have died from this. All you can really do is do your part, stay at home, stay safe and be respectful of any rules that were put in place,” he said

Those are valid concerns! The league is reportedly trying to rush through the regulations for its return to play agreement, the agreement on the hub cities (apparently Edmonton and Toronto, with Edmonton hosting the Stanley Cup Final), as well as a three year extension on the CBA agreement with cap numbers discussed and finalized. That is a lot to juggle and consider in the middle of a global pandemic with so many balls in the air that could collapse the return to play at any moment.

Could anyone blame Max Domi and the other immunocompromised players for opting out of the return to play, as apparently all players will have the opportunity to do?

Certainly there are some who will - ignorance in the face of science (seriously, wear your masks people) is all too common these days. But, with players from multiple teams testing positive (Tampa Bay shut down their facilities, Colorado and Ottawa reported positive tests, as have the Toronto Maple Leafs), and more unidentified teams reporting positives, there is room for concern.

Even as teams in other leagues enter their bubbles, positive tests continue to rise. FC Dallas is reporting an outbreak of at least ten players and staff and on Monday, July 6, Dallas withdrew from the MLS is Back tournament. The Columbus Crew had a player test positive after being in the bubble for days and spending time training and eating as a group. The virus is ubiquitous and does not care who you are - it will find you if you are not careful.

It is not worth risking the lives of the immunocompromised to try to get the NHL back. These are not just players - they’re children, friends, siblings, parents. It is not worth risking anyone’s life for sheer amusement during the pandemic. There are studies that show that even healthy people who catch the virus can be affected permanently, with lung scarring, damage, and permanent respiratory problems. Should fans be putting athletes in the position of risking their careers to attempt to rush sports back?

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Are arena staff and hotel workers going to be allowed stay in the bubble? Will they be tested every day?

MrSwift: The answer to this question depends on what arena staff you are discussing. According to the summary provided by Russo and Burnside, hotel staffers, perimeter security, hotel bartenders, food servers, banquet servers, ice crew members, arena food and beverage workers, hotel housekeeping staff, kitchen and food preparation staff, and transportation staff will be tested daily as per the league’s requirements. These employees will also receive daily temperature checks. These staffers can either be housed in a separate hotel, or return to their homes. They will not be required to stay in the bubble.

The personnel required to stay in the bubbles includes but is not limited to: the team traveling parties (including players and club personnel), on-ice officials, NHL and NHLPA staffers, NHL medical directors, testing staffers, social media team members, hockey ops, player safety, and medical staffers including gameday medical personnel such as dentists and sports medicine physicians.

This is important because it means people are entering and exiting the bubble daily. It is not a secure site with limited contact with the outside world. Everyone who enters or exits could start an outbreak in the bubble.

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If hotel staff or arena workers test positive for COVID-19 and have adverse reactions, will the league help pay their hospital bills or will they have to sign a clause preventing them from filing grievances against the NHL?

Elaine: This was not answered in the “NHL Return to Sport - Phase 4” protocol. You are asking arena and hotel staff to put their health at risk for a lengthy period of time for the sake of serving your organization. The staff at these venues chose to work there but didn’t choose to be a part of the secure zone which will play host to 12 teams worth of outsiders. While most NHL staff and players make a liveable or comfortable wage, it is likely most arena and hotel staff do not. Even with Universal Healthcare in Canada the financial burden of recovering from COVID-19 could set a person back financially for years. They also need to be protected from aggressive financial or legal repercussions if they accidentally expose a player or NHL staff member to COVID-19. Especially if unbeknownst to them they were exposed to the virus before entering the secure zone that day.

On the flip side of the coin, since arena and hotel staff can leave the secure zone on a daily basis, the NHL needs to protect itself and it’s players. If someone who works for the hotel or arena gets sick, there is no way for the NHL to know if it was because someone associated with the league passed it along or if someone outside the secure zone made the staff member sick.

These things need to be set in place to help prevent the league, players, and staff who live out of the secure zone from being in a legal battle for years to come.

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How do they plan on making sure the bubble stays a bubble? Will people who live outside of the bubble not be allowed to work at those hotels and restaurants?

Elaine: Basically, the bubble is not really a bubble. Nor is the secure zone actually a secure zone. There are too many opportunities for people to come in and out of the zone to deliver food or even work.

According to the return to play plan, there are multiple people who can live outside of the bubble.

From the Participant Groups Table in Return to Sport - Phase 4

Also covered on page 8. Individuals residing outside the phase 4 secure zone must refrain from participating in group activities of 10 or more people even if the city allows larger group gatherings. This is going to be such a hard one to monitor. Getting someone working in the secure zone on board with these rules shouldn’t be a big issue. However, you can’t account for how their family or roommates will handle the rules set before them.

One of the best things the NHL could have done was put their money where their mouth was and offer housing of some sort to those who work in the secure zone who live outside of the secure zone. Making it mandatory to live in the secure zone would be tough and unfair as there might be hotel and arena staff who are single parents, the main caretaker at their house, or even have a second job to survive. When faced with the option of free housing in the secure zone to help curtail possible spread, I’m sure there would be many who would bite at the opportunity to move in for a few months.

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How will the league handle a family emergency? Will the player have to quarantine themselves before leaving? Will they be allowed to return?

Elaine: Going into the secure zone means the possibility of being away from your family for multiple months. As 2020 has proven to all of us, life comes at you fast and hard sometimes. So, it is quite possible at least a handful of players will have to leave the secure zone at some point to tend to a family matter.

The NHL addresses a player having to leave due to emergency, or as they call it “extenuating circumstances”, on page 7 of the “Return to Sport - Phase 4” protocol under section C.1 “Leaving the Phase 4 Secure Zone.”.

“If individuals have extenuating circumstances (e.g. the birth of a child, an illness or death in the family, or to attend an important family event such as a wedding) and receive approval from his or her supervisor (or General Manager, in the case of a Player). Approval for leaving Phase 4 Secure Zone on account of extenuating circumstances shall not be unreasonably withheld.”

Nothing in here covers whether or not the player has to go through a quarantine period before they leave the secure zone. The last thing a player wants to do during an emergency is inadvertently give their family a virus they didn’t realize they caught while in the secure zone. Also, extenuating circumstances such as a birth of a child or illness/death of a family member should be an automatic leave of absence if the player or staff member wants to leave. There should be no discussion about if they can leave or not. The only discussion should be how they go about getting the player home as quickly and safe as possible.

On page 8 under section C.2, the NHL discusses returning to the secure zone.

For any individual who has left the Phase 4 Secure Zone in accordance with Section C(1) above, upon re-entry they will be required to return at least four consecutive negative PCR test results over a four day period, and will be required to quarantine in their individual hotel room until such testing requirements have been fulfilled. In certain circumstances, at the discretion of the NHL Event Medical Director, in consultation with the individual’s employer, or in the case of Club personnel or Players, the Club physician and the Club’s infectious disease expert, an individual returning to the Phase 4 Secure Zone may also be subject to a regimen of nasopharyngeal testing, a period of quarantine of up to fourteen days based on the individual’s activities outside the Phase 4 Secure Zone, including the nature and frequency of his potential exposure to infected persons, and upon an assessment of whether the individual himself poses a risk of infecting others. In cases where the individual who, while outside the Phase 4 Secure Zone, stayed for a sustained period of time in a high-risk environment and who poses a substantial risk of infecting others, the NHL Event Medical Director may determine that such individual’s access to the secure facility will be removed and/or his involvement with any aspect of Phase 4 will be terminated.

It appears the NHL will be laying the swift hammer of justice if people leaving the Secure Zone hotel don’t adhere to social distancing practices and place themselves in high-risk environments while they are away.

They also have the right idea with testing once they enter the secure zone again. Although, quarantining in their hotel room after being out of the secure zone for a lengthy time doesn’t make much sense if you are not requiring them to quarantine themselves before entering the secure zone after they land in the hub city. They likely will not be using a team chartered plane and will come in contact with many people during travel. The NHL needs to come up with a better option for quarantining someone who needs to re-enter the secure zone hotel.

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How will the league ensure the safety of players living in the hotels? Will there be extra security on site to prevent people being snuck into and out of the hotel?

Elaine: Let’s be honest here, some people are going to get restless. They are going to want to explore or be around people who are not involved with the game. They are asking players and staff ranging from 18-mid 50s/early 60s to stay in their hotel for the majority of what could be a three month span of time.

Members of the St. Louis Blues couldn’t stay away from the bar during Phase 2 and possibly caught COVID-19 during their excursion. Am I supposed to believe some players aren’t going to try to sneak out at some point for a night out on the town? They are still human and being cooped up in the secure zone hotel for 1-3 months can make a person go stir crazy.

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If a player tests positive, will there be a special quarantine hotel that only positive tests go? Will the whole team have to go into quarantine?

MrSwift: According to the NHL’s Return to Play document, this is the protocol that players and teams will be required to follow if a player tests positive for COVID-19 in the bubble:

In short: players who test positive will be quarantined until they receive medical clearance to exit isolation. Players who have had close contact with the positive player in the proceeding 48 hours (presumably teammates and opponents) will be monitored for symptoms for 14 days, but will not be required to isolate unless he tests positive or develops symptoms.

This seems as good a decision-making process as any, to be honest. If the league is forced to quarantine players in Phase 4, tracking teammates an opponents closely will be of paramount concern.

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How will Public Relations for the team and the league handle when a player tests positive?

MrSwift: Players and teams have been unwilling to go on record and confirm any positive tests, which is understandable in these circumstances. Testing positive for COVID-19 is an intensely personal medical situation, and respecting the players’ privacy during this time is essential. On July 6, the NHL announced that 23 players have tested positive since Phase 2 began, with an additional 12 players that the league is aware of. These positives do not include ten positive tests that occurred right as the season was paused, including players from the Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins, and Colorado Avalanche. The league is now no longer making public the teams with positive tests, or the identities of the players. This is the right call right now - players and staff involved will be aware of who the player(s) are and can take appropriate measures.

During the actual gameplay, however, this becomes more difficult. If, for a totally hypothetical example, Pierre-Luc Dubois plays in a game, sustains no injuries, but then misses the next game with an undisclosed injury, the first thought fans and media will have is that he has tested positive. Rumors will swirl, coaches and players will be asked about the absence. It may become more difficult to keep the identities secret and protect the privacy of individuals who test positive.

According to Michael Russo and Scott Burnside of The Athletic, the following protocols are in place for a positive test:

Once a positive test has been confirmed, that person will remain in isolation and not be allowed to exercise or take part in any team activities or business. Contact with doctors and others will be remote only.

If a player is confirmed to have COVID-19, he’ll be designated as unfit to play and will be classified as having sustained an illness as a result of his employment as a hockey player. He will be covered as such by the terms of the CBA unless it can be proven that the player contracted outside of the course of his employment as a hockey player.

Those seem as positive as any protocols can be during Phase 4, and works to keep the player safe. There are no guidelines for addressing players’ identities, but given the NHL’s actions thus far as well as examples set by other leagues, identities will be protected.

Elaine: Another thing to think about is what happens if someone slips up and spills the beans to a member of the media who would run an article without second thought of what the word privacy means to a player or staff member. Those who have tested positive should be able to reach out to their families to let them know before the media is given an inkling that anyone has tested positive for COVID-19. Just like injuries, it’s not really our business to know the inner workings of an athletes health.

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Are the hospitals and doctors in the possible hub cities prepared for the worst i.e. an outbreak that takes down an entire team or multiple teams?

Elaine: It is no secret that one of the reasons why many cities around the world enforced stay at home orders was for the sake of not overwhelming the medical system when an outbreak hits its peak. This is a question that has yet to be answered publicly. I’m sure (hope) this question was made when it came to selecting the cities hosting the “secure zone”. So, if one player is getting sick, it’s likely the whole team is getting sick. Now, it appears most cases among athletes have not ended with them having to receive treatment at the hospital. However, the NHL and the surrounding hospitals need to be prepared for an outbreak of any size. That means having enough beds for half of a team and their staff to having enough beds to accommodate 12 teams worth of staff and players.

This even extends beyond COVID-19 exposure. Can the hospitals nearby handle the influx of patients if the teams experience a rash of food poisoning or the stomach flu? Can they handle if God forbid there is an accident or even a fire in the hotel or arena that would require everyone there to receive medical treatment?

Hopefully, this was something that went into the thought process for choosing a city to host the secure zone sites.

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How many positive tests is considered too many to keep the season going?

MrSwift: Well, here’s the million dollar question, and the one the NHL and NHL Players Association seem to have punted on, at least publicly. We have already seen teams in other leagues forced to shut down because of positive tests. As mentioned, FC Dallas is out of the MLS tournament. Nashville SC is growing concerned due to five players testing positive, along with three more potential positives. The Sacramento Kings yesterday became the seventh NBA team to shut down practice facilities ahead of the planned travel to the Orlando bubble.

The NHL has announced publicly thus far that nearly six percent of players who have returned to Phase 2 practices have tested positive. If trends continue, or an outbreak occurs, will we see a team drop out of a playoff series? Given how the NHL playoffs work, a two week layoff for a team with an outbreak is not feasible.

There are provisions in the return to play agreement for both sides (the NHL and NHLPA) to open a dialogue if either believe the conditions would jeopardize the tournament; one of these conditions is an “uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19.” The document, critically, leaves out exactly what number of positives would constitute an uncontrolled outbreak. In the event that the two sides opened this dialogue, the two sides would discuss the conditions with medical directors and consultants, players, general managers, and infectious disease experts to determine the best course of action. The commissioner would then have the ability to postpone, move, or cancel games. If the NHLPA were to disagree, it could file for an expedited arbitration.

This is all well and good, but it leaves open to interpretation what constitutes an outbreak. Will the league force players to keep playing once the tournament is restarted even if a potential contender is forced to withdraw? Will the commissioner delay the tournament two weeks to quarantine an entire team during an outbreak? These are questions we cannot know the answer to, but we would like to see some outline of. The NHL does not have public language with what constitutes “too many positive tests” which is absolutely a concern with training camp scheduled to open in less than a week.

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Final thing about mental health:

Elaine: On page 25 under the section “P. Social Activities Inside and Outside of the Phase 4 Security Zone” they state

Recognizing the importance of mental health and psychological benefit of variation in activity, social excursions will be arranged both inside and outside the Phase 4 Secure Zone, provided that disinfecting distancing,use of face covering and personal hygiene measures can be maintained.

When I saw the words “Realizing the importance of mental health”, I was over the moon in excitement at the fact the NHL was finally going to address the importance of mental health in hockey. Per usual, I was wrong on that front.

For some reason, I thought the NHL was going to tell us how they were going to have a room dedicated for prayer, meditation, yoga, and silence. Or an area which would allow you to talk to a therapist or member of the clergy with social distancing rules in effect. For a moment, I thought the NHL was going to come to terms with the fact they need to help their players embrace a positive and healthy mindset by hosting speakers via Zoom meetings or Skype. Instead, the NHL decided it was more important to host “social excursions” outside of the secure zone. I believe social functions are very important to mental health. Many people hunger for human contact when they are stressed or in a high pressure situation. In the same token, there are also those who don’t thrive in social situations and need a chance to power down after a game. Yes, they have their rooms to go to when they need to be alone but sometimes you need to separate yourself from the situation completely so you can truly relax and power down. Plus, when things get stressful the option to work through your struggles with a trained professional or to offer them up in prayer could make all the difference in an athlete or staff member’s life during this weird and not normal time.

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In conclusion, the NHL put in a great amount of work into their return to play initiative. Based on the length of these documents and the conversations they’ve had with players and the NHLPA, it’s clear the NHL is, at the very least, trying to come up with a safe alternative to finishing the season. They’ve covered many of the questions and concerns we had during the weeks leading up to their decision. However, as you can see, there are still loose ends to be tied and other questions which must be answered. At the end of the day, the “secure zone” is really just an illusion to make players and fans “ok” with finishing the season. There is no way to make the zone 100% secure but there are ways to get it even closer than what they currently have set forth in their “Return to Sport” plan.