Manitoba’s CFL hub city far from perfect amid COVID-19 pandemic

Manitoba has tentatively been chosen to play host to a CFL hub city.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief medical health officer, went over aspects of the bubble concept in a press conference on Monday.

It was the first time details regarding the hub city model were formally publicized. Saskatchewan’s pitch fell short, but Winnipeg’s prairie rival also made a bid to serve as a CFL hub city on Monday.

Premier Brian Pallister committed $2.5 million as part of Manitoba’s proposal, which would be offset by an estimated $4.5 million in new tax revenue. Playing host to a CFL hub would also bring an estimated $45 million to businesses most affected by the health pandemic including restaurants and hotels.

Roussin stated that all players would be tested upon their arrival to Winnipeg. This is an obvious and necessary step required for the establishment of a virus-free ‘bubble’ that can house players for the length of the proposed season, which will last approximately 15 weeks.

The plan seems reasonable at face value but there are a number of reasons for concern.

Players won’t be tested for COVID-19 prior to arriving in Winnipeg, which is problematic. A substantial percentage of CFL players live in COVID-19 hotbeds like Florida, Arizona and Texas. Having dozens of them fly in — some of whom are likely to be infected — is a risk to Manitobans.

Roussin also stated that players would not be tested beyond the initial formation of the bubble unless they showed symptoms of COVID-19. This is a far-cry from the NFL where players have been fighting for daily testing regardless of whether or not symptoms are present.

A bubble is only effective if it remains firmly in place. Two weeks ago it was reported that any member of the Toronto Blue Jays caught outside of the ballpark or team hotel during training camp would be subject to a $750,000 fine. That’s a serious deterrent.

There were no specifics detailed in Manitoba’s plan to maintain the security of its bubble, which will be key if the league hopes to avoid outbreaks of the virus.

Any penalties that are eventually announced will be difficult to enforce due to the sheer size of the league. The CFL could be flying in as many as 800 players if the season goes ahead. For perspective, there are a little over 60 players in training with the Blue Jays.

Monitoring that many players around the clock would be an exceptional undertaking. Does the league have the resources to ensure that players don’t leave the bubble to take part in local nightlife? That’s a question that will need to be addressed.

The football junkie in me desperately wants the CFL to play in 2020 with Winnipeg serving as its hub city. Salvaging a season would be remarkable and I’m excited at the prospect of it taking place in my home province.

With that said, the flaws in this plan are glaring.

Manitoba has navigated the health pandemic well but it doesn’t take much for numbers to spike. The province went 13 days at the start of July without any new cases. 29 new cases have been reported in the week since, including 11 on Monday — the highest single-day total in three months.

“We are safe for people who choose to come here,” said Pallister on Monday. “We’re safe for Manitobans and we want to be the recipients of some good quality CFL entertainment as well if we restart our economy and help us as Canadian football fans to get a bit of our lives back.”

Contrary to Pallister’s belief, Manitoba is not safe. Seven people have died as a result of COVID-19 and many more have required hospitalization. Manitoba is one of the safest places on the continent, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.

The same is true about football. There are ways in which the game can be made safer — new equipment, strict rules, harsh punishments for rule breakers — but it will never be “safe.” It’s an inherently dangerous game.

Global health pandemics are dangerous, too. The province’s proposal has pitfalls; even if it didn’t, the health and safety of those it affects still wouldn’t be guaranteed.

This plan feels like a Hail Mary — it’s tantalizing, reckless and unlikely to succeed. The CFL has to consider it, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the league might be better off kneeling to begin preparations for 2021.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.