Welcome to football in the age of coronavirus.
While the NFL has been able to adjust many of its offseason elements around the restrictions set in place to contain the pandemic, including virtual versions of everything from the draft to player meetings to league votes on rule changes, the playing of the actual sport cannot occur over computer screens and Zoom calls.
As teams prepare for the start of their training camps in late July, and the eventual planned start of the season in September, the league has issued a set of guidelines that will be implemented to make that return to the sport as safe as possible.
The NFL sent a lengthy memo to its 32 clubs on Monday outlining protocols and procedures for the eventual return of players to team facilities. Among the many new rules and requirements agreed upon by the NFL and NFLPA are a three-tiered system for personnel and their access to parts of each building, the implementation of an Infection Disease Emergency Response (IDER) Plan by each team on how to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19, and social distancing requirements that will require a redesign of everything from weight rooms to meeting rooms to locker rooms to cafeterias.
“We should expect that these protocols will change as medical and scientific knowledge of the disease continues to grow,” wrote commissioner Roger Goodell in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by Newsday. “But we believe, along with the NFLPA, that these protocols offer a sound basis for bringing players back into the facilities and moving forward with our planning for the 2020 season.”
Despite being mentioned in the memo, the NFLPA told its members on Monday that the protocols were dispersed without the union’s approval and reiterated that no agreements have been made to allow the safe return of the vast majority of players. NFLPA president JC Tretter tweeted that players should be “wary of any updates or information about returning to work from the league or your team.”
The memo does not address protocols relating to testing and treatment of anyone who tests positive or shows symptoms, nor does it set rules for team travel. Those protocols are being developed and will be disclosed at a later date.
“All of the protocols reflect input of a separate task force on medical ethics to ensure that we are properly respecting community and individual interests in the context of continuing NFL operations,” the memo states.
NFL facilities were closed to players and most other team employees beginning in mid-March and have begun opening to small groups over the past two weeks. Players are still not permitted at the facility except for rehabilitation of injuries. Head coaches were allowed to return to their offices on Monday. Joe Judge of the Giants continues to work from his home as the Giants slowly bring their facility back, a process that began last week.
Most players and coaches will only return to team facilities for the start of training camp in late July. At that point, they will be walking into a world of PPEs, directional signs and markings on the floor to demonstrate safe distances.
“While these protocols have been carefully developed and are based on the most current information from leading experts, no set of protocols can eliminate the risk of contracting COVID-19, nor ensure that the disease itself will be mild,” the memo states.
Employees in Tier 1 will include players and necessary personnel such as coaches and trainers. Teams can designate only 60 employees other than players for this level. Tier 2 will consist of 20 other employees who can conduct their jobs while maintaining required social distancing such as general managers, football operations personnel and video staffs. The memo “strongly encourages” players and employees in Tiers 1 and 2 to “practice virtual isolation whenever possible to minimize risk of infection.”
All players and employees who have access to the restricted areas must undergo daily screening and testing prior to entering the facility.
Tier 3, limited to 45 employees, will include those who do not require close contact with players or personnel from Tiers 1 and 2.
Masks must be worn at all times inside the facilities. As for the geography of those facilities, locker rooms must be reconfigured to allow for six feet of distance between players, weight rooms are limited to 15 players at a time and are recommended to be moved outdoors or to better ventilated areas, and teams are urged to hold virtual meetings rather than in-person groupings as often as possible. Everything from the players’ shoulder pads and mouthpieces to the field turf itself will require a daily disinfection.
With Bob Glauber