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NHL outbreak in the Valley highlights the risks for the Suns and Mercury

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After several Coyotes players as well as Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews tested positive for the virus, it feels like Phoenix isn’t safe for sport right now.

Vancouver Canucks v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Arizona and Florida look ready to ruin sports for all of us right now.

The first two states that okayed youth and pro sports are now the two suffering perhaps the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country — with dire consequences. No matter how wealthy or well-protected pro athletes are, the coronavirus is teaching us that no one is excluded from the risk of infection. As Arizona catapults toward what could be an ugly situation in hospitals unless the community and local leaders do their part to quell the spread, athletes are falling victim, too.

A staff member for the Arizona Coyotes tested positive last weekend, and centerman Brad Richardson said he came in direct contact with the individual. The biggest news, though, came when Steve Simmons reported that Toronto star and Scottsdale native Auston Matthews had come down with COVID-19 and was in isolation. Nearly a dozen NHL players have tested positive since the NHL began its “Phase Two” training.

Across town, testing will begin on Tuesday for Suns players who’ve traveled back to Phoenix to begin the ramp-up back to basketball. Players’ last day to arrive was Sunday, but the majority of the roster seems to have been in the Valley throughout the hiatus. Just as the virus did not avoid NHLers, it will not avoid the hoopers donning purple and orange.

Nevertheless, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reiterated what we all know deep down: The NBA is not going back on its plans.

“This, from what everybody I talk to right now, is too big to fail,” Windhorst said on SportsCenter. “They know that there’s going to be positive tests as they start entering the bubble with their teams in the next few days.”

So the league is expecting positive tests, as we’ve seen in basically every major sport across the country now from Matthews to Ezekiel Elliott to Nick Watney. And the league is pressing on anyway.

Still, we don’t know what the ceiling is for cases before teams or the league consider hitting pause again or shutting things down. The Suns aren’t going to jeopardize the whole operation prior to lift-off, especially while they’re still in Phoenix. There will, however, be someone within this organization who tests positive prior to the week of Independence Day, when teams begin traveling to Orlando. Transmission of the virus is too prevalent right now for it to be avoided, especially for those who remained in Arizona the whole time.

Players for both the Suns and Mercury have been at the Madhouse on McDowell the past few weeks, subject to strict physical-distancing rules and sanitation measures. They didn’t work at Gila River Arena for the Coyotes and Matthews (although it wasn’t apples to apples) — why should they be trusted at the Madhouse?

There is a bit of circularity when it comes to the conversation around “reopening,” whether in sport or broader society. When we talk about the NBA bubble, we’re talking about something that is an attempt to make the most of a bad situation. It is inherently unnecessary on its face, though of course the economics can’t be ignored. It’s easy to say that because this thing is circulating in Arizona so widely, then we should just charge out there and go for it.

As someone who, along with much of my family, has ventured out into the world for work during this time, I’m sympathetic to that line of thinking. It’s just that basketball is by no means an activity our society needs to function. It’s entertainment, albeit a form of entertainment wrapped up in a massive industry that does feed blue-collar folks around the country. Disney employees will certainly be happy to get their jobs back next month.

Yet the slew of positive tests for those hockey players in this stubborn state this week put much into perspective. Without the pressure to get back on the ice (or hardwood), these people would be able to mostly avoid risky contacts if they so chose. A great many of them would probably still be practicing even without the season on the horizon, but at least it wouldn’t be league-sanctioned social distancing rule-breaking.

For some, like Mikal Bridges (whose family is in Philadelphia) or Ricky Rubio (who usually spends offseasons in Spain, where La Liga is already off and running because the country got its act together), this would mean returning to places far safer than Arizona, able to spend time with loved ones and determine their own course of action. It would mean not having to go to Florida, a state that has made a mockery of a public health response every step of the way, from viral spring breakers to firing experts to hosting the WWE. It would mean having the dignity of safety at a time when it’s not guaranteed for anyone.

The NBA’s procedures seem pretty ironclad. They’ve been signed off on by epidemiologists and physicians and the players themselves (or will be soon). The Orlando set-up will be as safe as possible, but that could have been said about the NHL’s second phase of training. All players were supposed to be tested prior to returning to team facilities, plus consistent symptom checks and smaller groups than a usual practice.

If anything, this week has shown us (especially here in Arizona) that the virus makes no exceptions and can beat back against even the most aggressive, diligent efforts to keep it away. That’s the backdrop atop which — and in spite of which — sports are returning.