Eric Walden: Not-quite NBA bubble life teeming with busy airports, COVID tests, Florida man and other scary things

A sign marking the entrance to ESPN's Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World is seen Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. It is the site of the NBA bubble, where the Jazz begin play Thursday. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Orlando, Fla. • As my wife pulled up to the curb at Terminal 2 at Salt Lake City International Airport on Monday morning to drop me off for my upcoming flight to Orlando, we were both struck by the fact that there were so few drop-offs taking place. None of the usual white-knuckled, in-and-out dance that typically occurs there was actually occurring.

“Are there really still that few people flying now?” we wondered.

It took all of an hour for me to be disabused of that notion.

The thoroughfare walkways soon were filled to bursting; the lines to the coffee shops jam-packed with caffeine-seekers giving no apparent thought to even an attempt at social distancing; and the waiting area at the gate was soon (over)populated with Disney World-bound families, only some of which were successful at convincing all their germ-laden progeny to keep their masks on. Then again, some of the parents couldn’t be bothered themselves, so …

It was at this point that a bit of doubt began to creep in: Should I be doing this? Should I really be willingly putting myself in proximity with so many people, then heading out to one of the country’s hottest COVID-19 hot spots, all in the name of covering some unprecedented basketball?

I can’t say my editors didn’t try to talk me out of it.

And it’s not like I was truly wavering in my commitment, but it is curious how thoughts that never concerned me before suddenly became front and center.

We were all herded onto the plane, back to front … and then sat there … and sat there. The pilots were coming from another flight, which had been delayed a bit by mechanical problems. And so we sat there … waiting … for 45ish minutes. Later, as we were on approach to Orlando, the pilot informed us that a mini-monsoon had hit the area, causing delays in landing, and that planes were stacked up from hell to breakfast. And so we sat there … circling … for another 45ish minutes.

Back in the good old days, I’ve taken 10ish-hour flights to London and Amsterdam and thought nothing of it. But SLC to MCO taking 5.5 hours instead of 4 had me eager to disembark and get on the ground, unoccupied middle seats or not.

Then again, perhaps that was not the most solid line of thinking either, considering the ground I’d be getting onto was Florida — you know, the place that recently overtook New York as the epicenter of the COVID-19 virus in the United States.

After getting to my hotel (the lobby a relative ghost town compared to what I’d gotten accustomed to in my two years of Jazz road trips), I went up to my room, plugged in and caught the remainder of the team’s final scrimmage against the Brooklyn Nets. After writing a story, getting unpacked, and finally giving myself some time to chill out and decompress, I figured I’d finally get around to eating and ordered some curbside takeout.

As I sat in the rental car, mask on, waiting for an employee to come out and hand off my order, it struck me just how full the parking lot was, in spite of midnight being way back in the rearview at this point. So I peered in through the restaurant windows and observed table after table of patrons inside. It looked like there were two empty tables on the far left side of the place where employees had tried to keep people spread out, but after there became enough demand to fill the joint, they stopped with the pretense and simply let in whoever and sat them wherever.

Less than half a day away from having to head to the Waldorf Astoria hotel to take a league-mandated COVID-19 test (one of at least two I’ll have to take this week to gain access to the arena where the Jazz will play), I had less than zero desire to go in and hang out amongst Florida Man and all his bros.

Speaking of the COVID test, I’ll concede I went in not knowing which would be worse — that or Florida’s legendarily awful humidity. Score a point for the mugginess.

I arrived in the swanky hotel ballroom where the testing was being done and provided some personal medical and contact information. I was pleased to discover the test awaiting me was not the deep-swab variety known to tickle your brain stem. Aside from the weirdness inherent to having some stranger in a full-body suit and a face shield rooting around your nostrils with a slightly elongated Q-tip, it wasn’t bad at all. After a voluntary follow-up saliva test (for scientific research!), I was told that I could pick up my game credentials on Wednesday at a different swanky hotel down the road, provided my test came back negative.

Fingers crossed, people. It’d really suck to go through all of this, then not only have to skip the games, but stay in Florida a couple extra weeks to self-isolate.

In the meantime, being as close as I was to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, I figured I’d drive that way and see how close I could get to the actual “bubble” where all the important people are staying. Not that close, it turns out.

After passing the landmark sign on the ground, an overhead electronic sign spanning the four-lane road appeared, warning, “PRIVATE EVENT. NO ACCESS.” A minute later, another signed loomed with the ominous words, “SECURITY CHECKPOINT AHEAD.” That seemed like a good time to turn around and head back to my own non-bubble hotel.

Which is where I’ll be spending the bulk of this trip. While I never lose sight of the fact that my road trips are business trips, and I’m there to go to morning shootarounds and pregame coaches’ media availabilities and locker room access, not to mention the games themselves, an obvious perk of the gig is that, on stops where you have an extra day, it’s fun to go around and rack up new experiences. This time, even though I had to fly in on a Monday for games on Thursday and Saturday (because the COVID tests were being given Tuesday), it’s simply too risky to be out and about beyond the barest of minimums. No “Stars Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” or “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” for me. Too peopley.

I’m certainly not complaining. I know many businesses have been decimated during this pandemic; I read the unemployment figures every week. It’s not lost on me how lucky I am that I’ve still got a job at all, let alone one I love so much.

I guess I’m just saying, Thursday can’t get here fast enough. Like all of you, I’m ready for basketball.