How the NFL plans to keep players safe during the coronavirus pandemic

Published: Jul. 27, 2020 at 3:35 PM CDT
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(CNN) - The NFL and its players have a made deal on coronavirus protections just in time for the opening of training camp this week for all 32 teams.

An NFL training facility where the Atlanta Falcons train has essentially been a ghost town since March but will soon be filled with players again.

“I think people are trying to be really thoughtful about this and I think people do look at risk and risk mitigation in different ways,” NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills said. “But I feel like it’s the right thing to do, to try to learn to live with this virus.”

Sills said the challenge is finding ways to do that safely.

The last NFL game was the 2020 Super Bowl on Feb. 2.

Just two days earlier, the United States had declared a public health emergency because of coronavirus.

CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta said that since then, “millions of people have become infected” and “more than 140,000 have died” in the U.S.

He said the NFL’s goal of bringing back “some sense of normalcy” by kicking off football season is “seemingly impossible.”

For fans who choose to attend games this season, some of the changes will look very familiar.

The NFL recently confirmed that all fans will be required to wear masks. There will also be increased sanitizing and social distancing everywhere, including treatment rooms, weight rooms, mealtime and even on the field.

At the training facility where the Atlanta Falcons train, there are three regulation-size football fields. Sills said each individual and even small groups will have “a lot of space to work with.”

There are also proximity tracking devices that will alert players or staff when they are too close to one other. The device also collects data, making contact tracing easier if someone does become infected with coronavirus.

Unlike the NBA bubble that has isolated the entire league in Orlando, the NFL has what they call an “ecosystem.”

Everyone will still live in their own homes. They will be with their own families and travel with their teams for games.

“If they’re around each other each day, they’re going to share risk. They also share responsibility to each other, which means that they’re each making good choices when they’re away from the facility,” Sills said.

Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons, said the players have “the same anxiousness that you would have.”

“They’re relying on us and they’re relying on the union to make sure that all the protocols we do, everything that we can do is done at the highest level that we can,” McKay said.

DeMaurice Smith is the executive director of the NFL Players Association, the union representing players on the field.

“Everything that we do is going to have an impact on families at home and it’s going to have an impact on first responders, community service and other people in in the community and to believe otherwise is sheer fantasy,” he said.

There have been intense negotiations between the union and the league about how to play in the age of COVID-19 and Smith said, “about 70% of NFL players could be considered vulnerable themselves or at increased risk.”

“What we’ve done is tracked the CDC risk guidelines, made decisions on which ones put our players at high risk and players can rely on those risk factors to make decisions about whether they’re going to play or not,” he said.

Sills said that because “we still do not know a lot of the basics” about COVID-19, each individual has to make “the best decision for themselves.”

The league and the union have agreed to test every player daily for the first two weeks of training camp, eventually moving to an every other day schedule once the team reaches a 5% positivity rate and maintains it.

Gupta said that testing plan will use about 18,000 tests on players alone.

When asked if their testing plan could have an impact on the availability of more widespread general testing, Sills said that the NFL went with “a company that was outside of a market that would have a national platform.”

“That company has given us their assurance that any work that they do for healthcare applications, meaning for hospitals, for emergency rooms, things of that nature, that’s a whole separate business for them that will remain their number one priority,” he said.

McKay says that seeing other sports leagues continuing with their season made him realize that the NFL could do the same.

“We can do this and in a really safe way ... I think for us, we got the message that people wanted football. That’s not the reason to play ... but if we can do it in a way that is as safe as it possibly can be, then we should and we will and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.

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