Inside the NBA Bubble: Why Everyone But the Players Have to Wear Proximity Sensors

After a slow, careful start to creating a space for the NBA to remain free of COVID-19, the experiment appears to be a success. We’ve seen minor bumps along the road, including a player being suspended for violations. But there have been zero player-to-player outbreaks inside the bubble so far.

That’s a major contrast to the situation in MLB. Entire teams are missing games for weeks. New teams from entirely different parts of the country are falling to the virus. Those results prove the NBA wasn’t being too careful with its Orlando bubble. However, there’s one area where NBA commissioner Adam Silver is notably lax.

Strict rules make the NBA bubble possible

First, let’s give the basics of the NBA bubble a once-over. NBA players who tested negative for COVID-19 began reporting to an NBA-only campus at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, as early as July 7th. Players and staff who enter the bubble are encouraged to stay inside it, with only family emergencies as an exception.

For players who have to re-enter, a 10-day quarantine and 48 hours of consecutive negative tests are required. If the player or staffer must exit their mandated quarantine, as Sporting News reports, the entire 10-day process resets immediately. There are no exceptions. (The playoff rules change has extended to up to four friends or family per player.)

There is also a hotline to report people seen violating the social distancing procedures. Those guidelines follow CDC rules: six feet apart when possible, with masks on. Dwight Howard was disciplined for declining to wear a mask once he was off the court. Obviously, as the dozens of games since the restart show, players do not social distance or wear masks during games.

The NBA’s bubble successful so far

The initial process involved 48 hours of negative tests for COVID-19 before players or staff could enter. This method was imperfect; two players tested positive after this, according to the NBA. That proved to be the end of any slip-ups, and no positive tests have arisen inside the bubble since.

The physical concept of the bubble, with few let in or out, is responsible for most of the success. But even if a case does manage to get into the space again, it’s unlikely to spread the way it has among MLB players.

Contact tracing methods, per this CNBC report, mean the NBA has access to a database of everyone an individual in the bubble might have interacted with. Quarantine policies would swiftly cover those involved, limiting spread.

Why NBA players don’t have to wear proximity sensors


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One of the more high-tech examples of how things work in the bubble is the use of proximity sensors. These KINEXON devices, per Forbes, have a light that turns red if it is within six feet of another unit. If proximity inside that distance sustains for longer than five seconds, a sound emits.

These devices are not, however, used for tracing. They’re simply a personal reminder for wearers, rather than a privacy intrusion. And notably, players are not compelled to wear them. The Forbes report explains this reasoning by pointing out that players spend most days either exercising or running scrimmages with each other.

The most stringent rules for non-players are meant to support the ability of the athletes to safely interact while violating the standard social distancing procedures most people follow in public. They have to operate as though they’re in an isolated setting, the way a family would behave inside their own home.