After months of uncertainty, the 2020 season of the Indian Premier League is finally ready to take off. Albeit, in a much different setting.
The IPL is scheduled to be held from September 19 to November 10 2020 in the UAE due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has till date affected close to 30 million people globally.
However, things have changed drastically with all matches being played in a bio bubble.
What is a bio-bubble?
As the term suggests, a bio-bubble is a secure sanitized area sealed from the outside world and only accessible by an approved set of people. The people themselves will have next to no physical contact with the outside world to minimize the risk of contracting the disease. Moreover, they will also travel from one bio-secure location to another as an isolated group.
Even before entering a bio-bubble, players and staff will need to undergo COVID-19 testing and self-isolation for a fixed period of time before entering the bubble. Only if they test negative during that period, will they be allowed to enter the bubble. Should they test positive, they'll have to go through the entire process all over again.
What do we know about the IPL's bio-bubble?
The BCCI and the IPL have not made their COVID-19 protocols public yet. However, it has said that stringent health and safety protocols have been put in place for the duration of the IPL. Upon landing in the UAE, the IPL conducted 1,988 RT-PCR tests between 20 and 28 August. Those tested included players, support staff, team management, BCCI staff, IPL operational team, hotel and ground transport staff. 13 people including two players tested positive following which they were isolated from the rest of the contingent.
How have bio-bubbles worked out so far?
The bio-bubble has been implemented in various sporting events to varying degrees of success.
The American basketball league NBA, the English Cricket Board and the Caribbean Premier League have so far been the most clinical in setting up a bio-bubble. The NBA has yet to return a positive test result for any of the 344 players since the season resumed. The same can be said about the England cricket team and the CPL which concluded on September 10.
The Premier League, US Open and Formula 1 have had hiccups along the way.
The NBA has rented out Walt Disney World in Orland, Florida to conduct the rest of the 2019-20 season. 22 teams, who were still in playoff contention, were brought to Disney World. According to ESPN, each team could bring 37 people including 17 players. Every member of the team had to self-isolate in their hotel rooms for two days until they get two negative COVID-19 tests.
Should someone test positive, they will be housed in a "Isolation Housing," which will be in a different location than their team hotel. Once at the isolation housing, they will be tested once again to rule out a false positive. If that test comes out positive, they will stay in the isolation housing until they are well again. Once out of the isolation housing, players will have to wait for two weeks before undergoing a cardiac screening.
The ECB has hosted three series' so far -- against West Indies, Pakistan and Australia. The matches have been played at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton and Old Trafford in Lancashire with both venues being selected for the availability of an on-site hotel and other amenities.
Inside the bubble, people can only access zones they are allowed to. So stringent are the protocols that opposition players won't mingle with each other until they are on the field of play. Speaking to the BBC, Lancashire Cricket's Operations Director Steve Davies elaborated on the bubble and said, "The bubble is like an island which has islands inside them that only people who are permitted to access them, can be there. There are health screening questionnaire that you need to fill out every day which is then analyzed by doctors. There are about 40 sanitizing machines and endless PPE kits. Players and officials have been very mature about the situation and have been well-behaved."
Unlike the NBA and cricket, the Premier League has been conducting all matches in the respective teams' home ground without fans. Unlike the NBA, Premier League players and officials will not stay at one large bio-secure bubble keeping in line with government legislation which mandate hotels to be for essential use only.
The Premier League has adopted the UK Government's Return to Training protocol which guides clubs and teams into getting elite sport back in safe conditions. In line with the protocols, players and officials have to undergo a mandatory daily screening. Furthermore, players and officials have to undergo tests twice a week. Should an individual test positive, they will be required to go into self-isolation but the whole team is not expected to be quarantined. They are expected to clear relevant check and report COVID-19 symptoms if any before going for a match.
Teams can travel by car, bus, plane or train in sterile environments. The Premier League has divided stadiums in to four zones: red - the pitch dressing room for players and officials; amber - the stadium stands; green - outside the stadium.
Home clubs are expected to sanitize the whole stadium before a match. Spitting and clearing noses on the pitch have been banned along with handshakes.
The FIA, the governing body of the Formula 1 has come up with an exhaustive set of protocols which will be in place for each race week. Teams will have to function with reduced number of personnel with the maximum being 80.
Team members will have to be tested every five days and will have to wear a mask at all times. Furthermore, teams will not be allowed to mix and interact with each other and have to be in a fixed social bubble. Driver and team briefings will be allowed to be held in the open or via teleconferencing programs.
The recently concluded US Open had in place a tiered system as part of their health and safety plan. Tier 1 consisted of 1000 people and included players and their guests, ATP and WTA staff and physios, designated USTA Tournament Operations staff, designated US Open Player Operations staff, tournament referees, Grand Slam supervisors, IDTM Officials.
People in tier 1 were tested twice within 48 hours of arrival to New York. Subsequent tests were conducted every four days thereafter. Tier 2 included broadcasters and others with limited player interaction while Tier 3 included support staff with even more limited exposure.
Apart from RT-PCR tests, people inside the bubble were expected to submit a daily temperature and fill out a health questionnaire affirming that they did not experience COVID-19 symptoms.
What amenities are there inside the bubble?
With players and officials having to stay inside the bubble for extended periods of time, leagues and boards have ensured that players have access to recreational facilities. Lancashire's Davies stressed on the importance of ensuring that the bubble doesn't feel like a prison, "Each person coming on to the site has gone through a training to explain what they are going to experience rather than just throwing them into it."
The Old Trafford bubble has converted it's 12 million 2000-people capacity facility called The Point into an entertainment zone with basketball courts and virtual golf courses set up for players.
The NBA set up similar recreation halls which feature video games, card tables, table tennis and other recreational activities. People inside the bubble will also be able to use pools, trails and golf courses.
Have players tested positive so far?
The NBA has seen none of the 344 players inside the Orlando bubble test positive so far. Similarly, nobody tested positive during England's series' against West Indies, Pakistan and Australia. While players tested positive before the tournament began, no one tested positive during the duration of the CPL season.
The US Open witnessed controversy after the women's top doubles pairing were withdrawn from the tournament after one of the pair had come in contact with a COVID-19 positive player. Top seeds Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos had to be withdrawn after Mladenovic had come in contact with French compatriot Benoit Paire, who tested positive the weekend before the tournament started.
The move was slammed by players and legends alike considering Mladenovic had already played her first round of singles and first round of doubles matches. Mladenovic was one of seven players who could have been exposed to COVID-19 by Benoit Paire.
The United State Tennis Association defended it's move citing government protocol. In a statement, the USTA said, "Public health officials of Nassau County, N.Y., have issued quarantine notices for all individuals who had prolonged close contact to a person who previously tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus. As the players are staying in Nassau County, the quarantine notices prevent any of these individuals from commuting to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City. The USTA is obligated to adhere to government guidance at the State, City and County level."