Can the N.F.L. Really Return to Normal This Fall?

The New York Times

May 11, 2020

Before the N.F.L. can begin the season as planned in September, it must first figure out how to safely open team facilities for training camps in mid-July.

Even as the coronavirus continued to ravage American communities, the N.F.L. last week released a full schedule of games that on the surface included no obvious backup plan in case the pandemic prevents the season from starting on Sept. 10.

But the odds that the league will be able to keep to its schedule are decreasing by the day. Before games can be played, teams must first open their offices and training facilities, which have been shut since mid-March, then hold training camps, which are to begin in mid-July.

To keep what they call “competitive equity,” league executives say teams can reopen their offices and training facilities only when it is safe for every team to do so. The N.F.L. is also requiring its teams, scattered across two dozen states, to follow local and state guidelines, including frequent testing and limits on the size of gatherings, to determine when it will be safe enough for coaches, staff and players to return.

Trying to forecast when that will be is difficult. State and local restrictions have been changing rapidly, and human behavior — how many people within a population will travel across state lines, for example — is hard to predict, epidemiologists said. Estimating how conditions will change in the two dozen states in which N.F.L. teams are based — and where the number of cases is rising and falling at different rates and at different times — is far more complex.
“The reality is when we look at the numbers there’s substantial uncertainty in the predictions,” said Gerardo Chowell, the chairman of the Department of Population Health Sciences at Georgia State’s School of Public Health in Atlanta. “Even looking six or eight weeks ahead is very difficult right now.”

To understand the hurdles in the way of the N.F.L.’s return, Chowell reviewed the number of infections since Jan. 21, when the first Covid-19 infection was reported in the United States, as compiled by The New York Times. The data, sorted by county, shows a wide variety of conditions, with the virus devastating big cities and small communities alike, largely disappearing in some places and refusing to leave others. New hot spots are emerging in places once considered safe.

Growth rate shows how frequently the number of cases has doubled over the previous seven days. The fastest rate color shows when cases are doubling in fewer than three days, while the slowest rate color shows when cases are doubling much more slowly, once every 30 days or longer. Data is from a New York Times database and is as of May 10, 2020. Charts are through May 9, 2020. *Data for Kansas City, Mo. is reported at the city level.

Bergen County, N.J., Philadelphia County and Wayne County, Mich., where the Giants, the Eagles and the Detroit Lions are based, are among the hardest hit areas, having seen a large number of cases over all and a high number of cases per capita. In Brown County, Wis., a smaller community that is home to the Green Bay Packers, cases doubled about every three days in early April but have since slowed. The rate of increase in cases in King County, Wash., home to the Seattle Seahawks, peaked in March and has been declining since.

These statistics, though, may understate the actual number of cases because available testing is limited. The number of cases is rising in some states that have loosened their stay-at-home restrictions. One model used by the Trump administration projected the number of daily deaths in the United States to reach about 3,000 by June 1, a 70 percent increase from current numbers, according to an internal document obtained by The New York Times. By most estimates, a vaccine against the Covid-19 virus is many months away.

Still, compared with other professional leagues, which shut down midseason, the N.F.L. has had time to prepare. While the N.B.A. scrambled to close, the N.F.L. forged ahead with free agency in March and its draft in April, albeit remotely. The league turned the release of its 2020 schedule into a three-hour, prime-time TV event.

Despite its resolve, the N.F.L. is starting to acknowledge that the virus may derail its plans to open the season on time and in front of fans. The league moved its international games back to the United States. Before announcing the new schedule, league and team officials contacted officials in their states to let them know that contingencies had been made in case games must be postponed or canceled. The Jets said they would not sell single-game tickets, which may reduce overcrowding at MetLife Stadium if games are played in front of fans. Tom Garfinkel, the president of the Miami Dolphins, unveiled plans to play games at Hard Rock Stadium in front of 15,000 fans, or about a quarter of capacity.

Last week, Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner, sent club executives guidelines for how to reopen their facilities gradually, at first to only staff and coaches. No more than 50 percent of employees can be in the building at once. Employees should work in shifts to minimize contact. Every club must create an infection response team, encourage continued telecommuting work policies and discourage nonessential travel.

“It is impossible to predict what the next few months will bring,” Goodell wrote. The league, he added, “will be prepared to address any contingencies as they arise.”

Next would be plans for the return of players to the facilities. The league is working with infectious disease physicians from Duke and other experts, and speaking with the N.F.L. Players Association about how and when they can return.

“We have to proceed with a tremendous amount of caution,” DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the union, told reporters two weeks ago. Making predictions is difficult “because there are so many variables we would have to control for and so many variables we don’t know.”

Smith declined to quantify the comfort of players in regard to returning to team facilities. But some players said they were nervous they could be infected.

“I think for us it doesn’t make any sense to play games unless it’s completely, 100 percent safe for us to go out there,” Kareem Jackson, a 10-year veteran who plays for the Denver Broncos, told reporters. “If there’s any threat of us being able to contract Covid in any way and spread it to our families or anybody else, it just doesn’t make sense.”

It is impossible to eliminate the risk of infection if players congregate. But there are ways to reduce the risk of infection by sequestering, testing and other steps. Teams could isolate players and coaches, even from their families, inside closed facilities. Or players and staff could return to their homes at night and be encouraged to stay in.

Playing in stadiums without fans is no guarantee against the risk of infection, either, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship found out Saturday, when it canceled a bout after a fighter and two of his cornermen tested positive for the virus.

“It’s difficult for me to imagine what the league and, broadly, leagues do when one or two of their key personnel or players have tested positive,” Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who has said it will be many months before fans fill stadiums in his state, told reporters last week. “Do they quarantine the rest of the team? If an offensive lineman is practicing with a defensive lineman, and they have tested positive, what happens to the rest of the line? What happens to the game coming up the next weekend?”

Even if teams are sequestered, injured players may need to go to a hospital, which are hotbeds for the infection. Players acquired in a trade or through free agency may need to be quarantined before joining their new team. Extra steps will be needed to protect teams traveling to away games. The number of cases is expected to spike in the fall and winter, in the heart of the N.F.L. season.

“Boundaries are artificial, and a virus doesn’t care about city, state borders,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University who focuses on sports. “The real test will be when training camp starts. But I don’t know what the country is going to look like then.”

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