In what has likely been a reluctant race to be the first sports league to return to action in a post-coronavirus world, NASCAR has taken the lead.
The racing circuit announced Thursday that the plan is to restart its season, which halted on March 13 in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, on May 17 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. It will be the first major professional sporting event to return to action and a glaring litmus test for every other league that’s mulling its own return.
Among that group, the PGA Tour, which is currently set to resume its schedule on June 11 at the Charles Schwab Challenge, is sure to pay particular interest.
Similar to NASCAR, the Tour has been touted as an example of a sport with built-in social distancing, and during a recent conference call with circuit officials there was a high degree of confidence play could restart next month at Colonial.
NASCAR’s primary footprint will be its best advantage in blazing a trail back to competition. Like the first four Tour events, races will be run without fans and teams will be limited to 16 members including the driver, owner, spotter and crew chief. That adds up to 640 essential personnel not including league officials, media and the television broadcast crew.
Compared to the 288 Tour players and caddies (144-player field), an estimated 500 to 600 volunteers and a to-be-determined number of officials and media that will be needed to hold the first event at Colonial, the potential risk is exponentially higher for the Tour.
That difference is likely why NASCAR has deviated from the Tour’s plan to return. Last month the Tour stressed that any restart would be predicated on the availability of tests for the coronavirus. It’s a requirement that officials acknowledged currently isn’t available given the shortages of tests.
“I want to be perfectly clear that first and foremost, the situation at the moment with testing is that it's most critical across the healthcare world and in our communities, and so at this juncture, we are merely evaluating it in the sports world and certainly at the PGA Tour,” said Tyler Dennis, the Tour’s chief of operations. “Our understanding is that as it becomes more widely available, it would be appropriate to be able to use that to help us return.”
While Dennis went on to explain that the Tour’s plan would likely include testing before players arrived at tournament sites and throughout the week, NASCAR’s plan – which was developed with help from public health officials and medical experts – doesn’t include testing drivers or staff.
Instead, team members and officials will be “regularly evaluated by temperature and symptom checks.”
“Really, those [coronavirus] tests should be targeted for people most in need,” John Bobo, NASCAR’s vice president of racing operations, said in a statement.
The league’s decision not to test is particularly bold considering that on the same day NASCAR announced its return ESPN reported that the NBA estimates it will need around 15,000 coronavirus tests in order to safely begin playing games again. It was, after all, an NBA player who tested positive for coronavirus (Utah’s Rudy Gobert) who began a chain reaction of league shutdowns in March, so it stands to reason that the NBA would plan its return with an abundance of caution.
The Tour has wisely followed a similarly cautious approach based largely on the concept of widespread testing and aggressive plans to assure and encourage social distancing. The alternative would be devastating.
In a FAQ on its website, NASCAR explained the broad points of its plan to return to Darlington including extensive options for social distancing between crews and the addition of extra garages. One of the more chilling responses left only more questions.
What if a driver develops symptoms before the race and can’t participate? Will a backup driver be allowed, and what are the championship implications of that?
“We’ve worked with the race teams to update the rulebook provisions for medical waivers to account for potential missed races due to COVID-19 infection.”
It’s a crucial question the Tour is wrestling with at the moment. Under a scenario where play restarts next month, what would happen if a player tests positive for coronavirus after the third round? Is the player forced to withdraw? Is everyone that player has been in contact with forced to withdraw? Is play halted? Is the schedule halted?
NASCAR’s executive vice president Steve O’Donnell acknowledged in a statement that the league’s decision to return is a “huge responsibility” for his sport. O’Donnell actually undershot the obvious, the league’s return is a huge responsibility for all sports.