NFL New Normal, Part 1: What's next for Saints players and fans amid reopening?

The NFL has begun to lay out plans for football operations to re-open on May 19th. Many have applauded the re-opening, but fans are still concerned about the Coronavirus pandemic.
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COVID-19 has reminded us America loves football. The NFL has begun to lay out plans for football operations to re-open on May 19th. Many have applauded the re-opening, but fans are still concerned about the Coronavirus pandemic. Better yet, are the stadiums ready for football games this Fall. Has Roger Goodell and the NFL prepared and able to execute a plan outlining the safety precautions for football administrators, staff, coaches, players, and fans? If so, then at what cost? 

There are NFL fans expressing concern for their overall safety and health if stadiums were to re-open at the start of the regular season. After review of the NFL memo and press conferences, it appears the league has put together an exhaustive plan to protect themselves, the staff, and players, but what about the fans? Where are the parameters and guidelines to safeguard the fan? 

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admits there are many unknowns:

“It is impossible to project what the next few months will bring,” NFL commissioner wrote to 32 teams in the NFL on Wednesday. Goodell’s admission and memo are a reminder that the schedule comes with one massive footnote—that the COVID-19 pandemic and its difficulties may force the league to postpone the start of the season or cancel parts of it. Goodell echoed that in his statement released on Thursday evening.

“The release of the NFL schedule is something our fans eagerly expect every year, as they look forward with hope and optimism to the season ahead.  In preparation to play the season as scheduled, we will continue to make our decisions based on the latest medical and public health advice, in compliance with government regulations, and with safety, protocols to protect the health of our fans, players, club and league personnel, and our communities.”  

“We will be prepared to make adjustments as necessary, as we have during this off-season in safely and efficiently conducting key activities such as free agency, the virtual off-season program, and the 2020 NFL Draft.”

Saints Coach Sean Payton had COVID-19

Here’s what we know. In Roger Goodell's May 15th memorandum to football executives and presidents, "club may re-open their facilities on May 19, 2020, if they are "permitted" to do so under governing state and local regulations, are in compliance with any additional public health requirements in their jurisdiction..." The Saints will re-open based on Governor Bell Edwards, or the Jefferson Parish Council mandates for re-opening business in Louisiana and Metairie, respectively. Governor Edwards and City of New Orleans Mayor Cantrell consider this to be "Phase One." This initial phase will commence for the Saints on May 19th as per NFL guidelines.

The league has been gathering information over the last few weeks. It has remained in constant contact with NFLPA Medical Director Dr. Thom Mayer and officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They have relied on NFLPA’s experts at the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network (DICON) to gather information about COVID-19 to aid in moving forward with the season in the safest way possible. Here are a few actions that the NFL will implement to mitigate risks for NFL players, club staff, and fans:

What are the Protocols for reopening facilities?

Protocols were established for the gradual reopening of team facilities which have been closed since March because of the coronavirus pandemic.  The league plans to implement the first phase of reopening facilities by May 15 according to his memo to all 32 teams.  A virtual league meeting with the league owners is planned for May 19 to discuss the approach for moving forward.    According to Goodell, “The first group of employees allowed back into facilities would include only 50% of non-player staff and up to 75 per day. The only players returning would be those who were already rehabilitating injuries prior to the facility closures.”

The league is working with the NFL Players Association to complete the details with players expected to return in the second phase.  It is not yet clear whether they would allow the players to practice on the field.

Saints Practice Facility

Upon reopening facilities, teams must adhere to guidelines as outlined by Goodell:

  • Receive consent from state and local governments.
  • Acquire enough cleaning and other supplies.
  • Create an infection-response team that includes doctors and team athletic trainers. 
  • Designate an infection control officer (ICO) to be the first point of contact for any employee who displays coronavirus symptoms.
  • Provide coronavirus safety and hygiene training to all employees who will return to the facility.

Additional requirements are face coverings and physical distancing of at least 6 feet for all employees; gloves are “highly recommended” and the ICO will provide information on coronavirus testing “for suspected new cases.”

What Criteria Should Be Used to Allow Return to Full Activities If a Player, Athletic Trainer, Team Physician, or Other Personnel has a Positive Test for COVID-19?

At present, individuals with confirmed COVID-19 can return to work three days after resolution of all signs and symptoms (without antipyretic medications) AND after a minimum of 7 days have passed since the onset of symptoms has passed. Individuals who test positive but remain entirely asymptomatic can return to work activities seven days after the initial positive test.

If a Player, Athletic Trainer, Team Physician, or Other Personnel Are Placed on Home Quarantine for A Known Exposure to COVID-19? 

Individuals who are under home quarantine orders due to direct (primary) exposure to an individual with COVID-19 may return to regular activities after 14 days.

Data from https://www.playsmartplaysafe.com/

“We will continue to monitor developments, consult with leading experts, and be prepared to make any changes necessary as circumstances warrant.  Over the course of my medical career, I have seen several public health crises sweep the globe. COVID-19 is unique, but medical and public health experts are working tirelessly to understand and implement what needs to be done to get us through this latest crisis. By heeding the advice of trusted health organizations, we can all be part of the solution.  Optimism has always been a trademark of American society. We will persevere, conquer this pandemic, and come out the other side better and stronger.  Take care of each other, stay positive, and stay safe.”   

Dr. Allen Sills, NFL Chief Medical Officer

What about the Fans and Stadium Employees?

Are the players returning in August for training camps or sooner? Will fans be allowed to attend the training camp sessions? Can the media cover the teams at training camp in the locker rooms and meeting areas?  

Based on an informal survey by NOLA.com, 64% of Saints fans will attend games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Many will take the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus without a proven vaccine. But, the NFL does not have protocols to protect over 60,000 fans in football arenas. When will the NFL release statements on the safety precautions and procedures for fans and stadium personnel?

We will explore the case for the fans and employees in our second part of this series.