We Can’t Go Back to Normal Yet. The NBA Shows Why

Individuals can decide for themselves how cautious to be about Covid. But institutions face special pressures to maintain pandemic restrictions

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives the ball against Torrey Craig #3 of the Denver Nuggets during the second quarter in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 22, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
By Tyler Cowen
December 23, 2021 | 11:01 AM

Bloomberg Opinion — As omicron cases rise rapidly, there are urgent questions about how aggressively we should respond. At one extreme are reactions like that of the Netherlands, which has moved into full lockdown mode to blunt the variant’s spread. Another possibility, so far the default in many parts of the U.S., is simply to not do very much, whether out of pandemic fatigue or uncertainty over the best approach.

But the sudden surge in cases has given fresh impetus to those who believe the time has come to normalize Covid, treating it much as we would colds and the flu, and simply proceed with life. Proponents of this approach tend to believe that omicron cases are milder, a possible but not confirmed scenario.

I would like to consider why Covid liberalization — in essence making a decision to let the virus run its course without imposing major restrictions on daily activities — generally isn’t possible at the institutional level, even though I have some personal sympathies for this view.  (If you doubt that, know that I am writing this column from Patagonia, Argentina, not my basement.)

To illustrate the challenges, let’s consider the NBA, one of the boldest and most innovative actors during the Covid era. The league shocked America when it called a halt to the season on March 11, 2020, well ahead of the curve. That summer, the NBA staged playoffs in the bubble, using innovative Covid testing to keep participants safe. It wasn’t obvious in advance that this was going to work, but the league pulled it off. It can’t be said the NBA has no guts in matters Covid.


Yet if the NBA were to make a similarly bold move now and announce it would stop testing players and no longer sit out the ones with asymptomatic Covid infections, the situation quickly would prove untenable. That’s because the NBA, like most large organizations, is too intertwined with other institutions that would object.

For instance, television advertisers might worry their products were advertised during what many would see as a “Covid-irresponsible” event. Cities also are partners of NBA teams, and some might refuse to go along with this new arrangement, especially in states with multiple teams, such as California and New York, that have implemented aggressive policies to blunt Covid. At the very least, it would be difficult for the league to commit to a predictable schedule.

Public skepticism of a no-testing policy also would be hard to handle. Even if all the players remain healthy, coaches, aides and game referees usually are older, sometimes much older (Gregg Popovich, who coaches the San Antonio Spurs, is 72), and they would be more vulnerable. The players also would come in contact with older friends, relatives and business associates. There would be stories of those contacts catching Covid, and in some cases becoming sick. Perhaps the players weren’t at fault for transmitting the virus, but no one would know for sure. A pall of suspicion and bad publicity would fall upon the NBA.


I genuinely can see the case that the NBA ought to make the leap and return to normalcy, as most players and other employees might end up getting Covid anyway. Possible restrictions don’t seem to be buying much in terms of sustainable benefits, and life, after all, must go on. Still, if I were advising the NBA, I couldn’t bring myself to recommend a policy of normalization. There is simply no way to quickly coordinate the NBA and its affiliates on a new Covid stance. And if omicron did turn out to be as dangerous as delta, liberalization, correctly or not, would be seen as a huge mistake.

A similar logic holds for other large institutions, including colleges, Uber (masks still required) and the companies that have postponed return-to-office plans.

Many of my friends are angry and frustrated that the world can’t simply move on and treat Covid like any other illness. At the individual level, this will sometimes be possible, depending on your level of vulnerability and those you associate with. But to the extent some of our large organizations take the plunge and try to get back to normal, they may find they lose the public’s already-wobbly confidence. That in turn could make institutions even more averse to taking risk.

In the meantime, we need an urgent national mobilization on behalf of vaccine boosters and also cheap rapid tests, two areas where the Biden administration to date has been significantly sluggish.


Just as it is too late to stop omicron, it is too late to stop omicron closures, which themselves can be thought of as a kind of contagious virus. We are inheriting institutions that have battled Covid for almost two years now, and many of their motor responses are already built in.

If you wish to liberalize America, focus on how we can have a fresh new start after the forthcoming four to eight weeks of chaos are over.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”