NFL 2020: The COVID Conundrum

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There is only one thing that anybody knows about how the current coronavirus pandemic will affect the upcoming NFL season: that nobody knows how this will play out. With so many variables at play, the league is effectively in “wait and see” mode (although some coaches have speculated, as Joe Johnson mentioned on our sister site last night) in readying potential workarounds which may never see the light of day, all while remaining committed to playing the 2020 season.

This week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), provided insight on the measures which would need to be taken to play a football season. By some accounts, this outlook is optimistic. There is a pathway to have a normal football season this fall! By others, it’s a reminder of how far away we are from achieving the necessary measures to play.

In his interview with Peter King on Football Morning in America, Fauci emphasized the drastic amount of testing which would need to be done by teams for a season to play out. While testing frequency would be subject to change, if the assumption is twice-weekly tests for all players, coaches, and key staff, the league would require roughly 200,000 tests. If that were ramped up to daily testing, that’s 700,000 tests. While this quantity of tests would be difficult, if not impossible, to source for the league today, the hope is that production capacity would meet this demand later this summer.

Fauci also elaborated on how important it would be to contain the virus from spreading between players and the drastic impact on the league if even just a couple of players on a team were to test positive for the virus. Given a scenario by King in which four players on a team were to test positive, Fauci responded:

You got a problem there. You know why? Because it is likely that if four of them are positive and they’ve been hanging around together, that the other ones that are negative are really positive. So I mean, if you have one outlier [just one positive test], I think you might get away. But once you wind up having a situation where it looks like it’s spread within a team, you got a real problem. You gotta shut it down.”

The effects of a two week team quarantine would be disastrous for the league, and it would need to quickly coordinate rescheduling efforts and establish how potentially cancelled games would count toward team records. This is why frequent player testing would be so important – a player testing negative one day may very well test positive the next, and the quicker a team isolates that player from the rest, the more likely it will avoid a locker room outbreak.

Regardless, playing games by using frequent player testing to contain viral transmission may not be an option for some teams. The NFL has teams in 22 states across the US, and each state can have varying restrictions on sports activity.

This is further complicated by local jurisdictions potentially also having authority over team sports reopening. For example, Los Angeles County has announced this week that it will remain shut down throughout July. In the event that these restrictions are further extended into the NFL season, the L.A. Rams and L.A. Chargers would not be able to play home games or even practice together in the county.

This week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis proposed to temporarily relocate to Florida any NFL team which is restricted by their state or local regulations. Florida, the home of 3 NFL teams, certainly has the capacity to temporarily host more. However, at this point both the mechanics and feasibility of temporary relocation are unknown.

The determination on whether or not to ultimately play out the 2020 NFL season, and if so in what capacity, will obviously have large far reaching effects on the league. Right now we just have to wait and see.