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As NFL begins opening team facilities, future of 2020 regular season remains murky

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2020 NFL Draft - Round 1 Photo by NFL via Getty Images

The NFL has announced a plan to begin a phased approach to opening team facilities, effective Tuesday, May 19th. This is the first step of what will likely be a gradual process for teams to conduct off-season work and prepare for the 2020 regular season.

There are numerous restrictions to address concerns about franchises gaining competitive advantage, as state protocols vary. To start, coaching staffs and players will not be returning to team facilities on Tuesday and no specific time table has been announced on when they might return. The only exceptions to that rule are players who are working their way back from injury and strength and conditioning coaches, who can help facilitate player rehabilitation.

Otherwise, no more than 50 percent of team staffs can be at the team facility — with a maximum of 75 employees. Teams must also promptly report anyone testing positive for COVID-19. One could assume that a positive COVID-19 test in team facilities may result in heavier restrictions.

While NFL teams have been conducting off-season activities remotely, in place of traditional summer programs, it is difficult to project how management and treatment of COVID-19 will develop. Ideally, teams could conduct full training camp schedules and prepare for the preseason. Ideally, the Steelers and Cowboys will meet in Canton, Ohio on August 6th to kick things off.

At this point, doctors and epidemiologists don’t seem to be confident this will happen on schedule. Local journalist Phil B. Wilson, who writes for Sports Illustrated, interviewed infectious disease doctor Mark Bochan, MD, Ph.D., who has been dealing with infectious diseases for two decades on the Northside of Indianapolis.

Dr. Bochan said:

I’m telling fans not to get their hopes up, just like I’m telling everybody who wants to see a concert. There’s a nice, little roll-out plan and everybody is supposed to be business-as-usual by July. That’s assuming that we’ve got a handle on this thing.

Right now, it’s a little too early to make those calls. Based on what I’m seeing over the last 60 days, we’re still going to be dealing with this well into the summer. There will be enough worry that it probably will delay at least an on-time start.

The concern that has been discussed heavily over the last couple of months is that social distancing is an afterthought in a packed stadium. At a time when people in Indiana have been expressly forbidden to gather in groups of greater than 10, it’s strange to think about 60,000 people coming together to sit in seating that is engineered to pack in fans as close as possible, so they can eat hot dogs and drink draft beer served by an army of volunteers who are likewise crammed into small spaces. Those same fans will return to their seats and jump up and down and hollering and cheering all over the people in front of them.

Regarding effective testing and a possible vaccine, Dr. Bochan continued:

Fact is, it definitely ain’t happening by September. We’re still going to have active cases. We’re still seeing a lot right now. The issue with this virus is that it’s transmitted in droplets. So anybody within six feet of you with a cough puts you at risk. I personally would say that risk probably isn’t worth a football game.

You’re probably looking at a year from now, there’s no way we’re going to have any data before a year. And no matter what you hear, it’s unlikely there’s a vaccine coming out at the end of the year. And if there is, it’s going to be in its first set-up trial, which means we’ll have no idea if it works or not.

Some players are also chomping at the bit the get back to football, with some prepared to sign waivers that will protect the NFL from liability if returning to practice or games leads to the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Bochan isn’t convinced that even a players only return to action is wise, under the current circumstances.

There’s a reason the social number is six feet because you can actually launch a droplet three and a half feet and you aren’t playing a game six feet away.

If anything is certain at this point, it is that there is still much work to be done in the medical community to get COVID-19 under wraps. Health care professionals are reporting that the testing process that is currently available is either ineffective or takes too long. There have been no reliable reports that an effective vaccine has been developed. Dr. Bochan and other medical professionals have expressed doubts that this process will be resolved quickly.

In short, if anything is certain, it’s that the fate of the 2020 NFL season is still uncertain.