NFL COVID rules, explained: Everything to know about coronavirus and football in 2020

This should be interesting. The NFL is starting its 2020 season on time and planning to play a complete schedule amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so is by far the biggest challenge the league has faced since the coronavirus outbreak reached the United States in late February and shut down live sports globally in early March.

The NFL is not playing its 2020 season with a bubble concept like those the NBA and the NHL have used so successfuly, so COVID-19 infections among team and league personnel are all but inevitable over the next five-plus months. That’s the bad news.

The good news, based on early coronavirus testing results through August, is the NFL has managed to keep the number of positive tests relatively low. Which is remarkable given the massive number of people required to operate 32 NFL teams. It’s a good sign for the viability season as long as players, coaches and everybody else involved can keep following the health and safety protocols established by the NFL, the NFL Players Association, teams and local governments/health experts.

Those health and safety protocols are understandable expansive and detailed. The NFL has done everything it can to protect the almighty dollar a complete season produces even though the money flow will be initially interrupted by the lack of fans in most stadiums.

Below is everything you need to know about those protocols, plus more details about how the NFL is handling positive COVID-19 tests, schedule changes that have taken place and more as the league begins its 2020 season amid a global pandemic.

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NFL player COVID-19 cases

The NFL on Sept. 1 announced its latest COVID-19 monitoring testing results, which covered the week of Aug. 21-29. The league announced four confirmed positive tests among players and six confirmed positives among other personnel.

Those numbers came from 58,621 tests administered to a total of 8,739 players and team personnel league-wide. More specifically, 23,279 tests were administered to 2,747 players, and 35,342 tests were administered to 5,992 personnel.

The NFL implemented a special reserve list called “Reserve/COVID-19” in 2020 for players who have to be removed from the active roster because of the coronavirus. But just because a player is put on the list does not mean he tested positive for the virus.

The COVID-19 list includes both players who have tested positive and those who have come in close contact with somebody who has tested positive. An agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA established that teams are not allowed to publicly announce a player’s medical status, just that he has been placed on the list.

Players who are put on the list because they tested positive must follow the return protocols listed below. Those who are put on the list because they tested negative but were determined to be in close contact with an infected person must follow the following return protocols:

Because positive coronavirus test results among NFL players are all but inevitable, it’s reasonable to anticipate more players missing games than usual in 2020. So the league agreed to expand practice squad rosters to 16 players, including six veterans (unlimited number of accrued seasons) rather than two, for this season.

The NFL also established new practice squad rules that account for potential COVID-19 outbreaks on active rosters. If a practice squad player is elevated to the active roster because his team was given roster exemptions “due to confirmed or suspected cases of a contagious disease among its players,” then the player won’t be required to sign an active player contract. He will automatically revert to the practice squad after the game without going through waivers.

NFL COVID-19 testing: What happens when a player tests positive?

Daily COVID-19 testing has been in place since the start of NFL training camps for people in two groups — Tier 1 (“players and essential football personnel whose job function requires direct access to players for more than 10 minutes at a time on a regular basis”) and Tier 2 (“other essential personnel who may need to be in close proximity to players and other Tier 1 individuals and who may need to access restricted areas periodically”).

The daily COVID-19 testing for those two groups will continue into the regular season, except on game days, according to ESPN. Other team employees are tested weekly.

BioReference Laboratories, the same company the NBA uses, handles all testing for the NFL. (Which has been good for the league with the exception of one hiccup.) Each team has its own testing site at its facility, and there are two types of tests: a PCR test for COVID-19 (nasal swab) and an antibody test (blood sample).

All NFL team facilities also are equipped for daily symptom screening and temperature checks for everyone who enters.

All NFL players who test positive for COVID-19 go through the same protocols. First, they are immediately isolated. They are forbidden to access team facilities and are not allowed to have any direct contact with fellow players or team personnel. They immediately are placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list (more on that below).

In the event a player develops symptoms for the first time while inside the team facility, he must go through the following protocols:

As for when players can return to the team, it depends. Below is the NFL’s wording on its rules for players returning from COVID-19 cases.

Following a positive test, if the player is asymptomatic, he can return once:

Following a positive test, if the player demonstrates symptoms, he can return when:

In either case, a player who tests positive must be cleared by his team’s head physician before returning.

Additionally, all players who have tested positive and recovered (or who have tested positive for antibodies) will undergo additional cardiac screening.

Below are the NFL’s protocols for cardiac screening:

The NFL also has implemented contact tracing. Conducted by a third party called IQVIA, the contact tracing is implemented after an infected player receives a positive test result in an effort to identify people who came in close contact with that person. Kinexon Proximity Recording player tracking devices are being used to identify in-game close contacts, and the devices must be worn during all team activities.

Teams have been instructed to notify health authorities of positive tests as required by applicable local regulations or laws.

In order to account for the possibility of false positive tests. Initial positive tests are followed by two more tests (a nasal swab and a point-of-care test). While those who initially test positive must still isolate while awaiting their backup test results, they can be cleared on the same day if both backup tests immediately come back negative.

NFL schedule changes for 2020

The NFL was fortunate that the COVID-19 outbreak reached the United States during its offseason. The league was able to proceed with spring tent poles like free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft, albeit virtually, because no on-field action was necessary.

So the only substantive schedule change the NFL has implemented as a result of the pandemic was the training camp schedule extension and, related to that, the cancellation of all 2020 preseason games.

The primary reason the players pushed for an extended training camp schedule was their desire to implement a longer acclimation period to get their bodies into football shape. With preseason games on the schedule, though, that extra training camp time would not have been possible.

So the two sides agreed to open training camps on the same date as originally planned (July 28) but with a schedule that featured more time for on-field workouts prior to the beginning of full-contact practices on Aug. 17.

The NFL thus far has made just one tweak to the 2020 regular-season schedule. In May, right before it released the complete schedule, the league announced that all games would be scheduled to play in the United States “under consistent protocols focused on the well-being of players, personnel and fans.” The moved relocated all London and Mexico City games on the schedule.

While the specific matchups and dates for the NFL’s 2020 international games had not been set, the Jaguars were slated to host two London games at Wembly Stadium. The Dolphins and Falcons were to host one London game each, presumably both at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The Cardinals were to host a game in Mexico City.

NFL fans in the stands, crowd noise in 2020

As of the Monday prior to Week 1, just six of the 32 NFL teams were planning to host fans at a significantly reduced capacity. All others had announced they will at least open the season without fans in their stadiums, hoping to eventually invite them back.

Yet all NFL stadiums will still feature crowd noise during games.

NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent confirmed to reporters on a recent conference call that the league will pipe artificial crowd noise into stadiums. At the time, the league’s competition committee was still finalizing details on decibel levels for the sound.

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A few NFL head coaches have expressed frustration with the fact that some teams will be able to host fans in the stands and others won’t, but the league does not see an issue.

“We do not believe it’s a competitive advantage,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently claimed. “We discussed it very early on with our competition committee and with our clubs. We do not see that. We obviously have varying capacity across the league. And from our standpoint, we want to invite our fans in if we can do it safely and we can do it with the full support of local officials.”

Added NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills: “It’s not surprising that there are regional variabilities, because obviously there are differences in the state of the pandemic and the state of the infection as you move across the country,. So the fact that there’s not one-size-fits-all approach shouldn’t be surprising given the medical situations across the league.”

Below is the breakdown of the teams that will host fans in the stands to start the season and those that will not.

NFL COVID-19 rules & protocols

Player fines

According to ESPN, NFL players in early July that they could be fined for conduct detrimental to the team “if they are found to have engaged in ‘reckless’ behavior away from the team facility.” (No such fines have been announced by the NFL or teams.) Per USA Today, below are the forbidden high-risk activities:

— Attending an indoor night club with a crowd of more than 10 people and without wearing a mask.

— Attending an indoor bar with more than 10 people (other than to pick up a to-go order) without wearing a mask.

— Attending an indoor music/concert/entrainment event.

— Attending housing gatherings with more than 15 people in attendance and without wearing a mask.

— Attending professional sporting events (other than their own games) without wearing a mask and sitting in a protected area such as a suite or an owner’s box.

— Attending any gathering or event that violates local and state restrictions. 

A memo issued to players in early August and obtained by USA Today detailed the fines players can be hit with for COVID-19 protocols violations. Refusing to take a COVID-19 tests carries a maximum fine of $5,000.

Refusing to wear a mask comes with “a progressive scale that includes a max fine of $14,650 for repeated offenses,” and refusing to wear contact tracing devices or not adhering to social distancing guidelines also carries a maximum fine of $14,650 for repeat offenders.

There are no known cases of players being punished for violations of COVID protocols except one. Seahawks rookie cornerback Kemah Siverand was cut because he was caught trying to sneak a woman into his room at the team hotel. He even tried to disguise the woman in a Seahawks hoodie to make her look like a player.

The NFL’s early July memo stated that all hotel accommodations for players during camp must comply with NFL-NFLPA Team Travel Protocol, which states: “Room visits are permitted only by members of the Traveling Party.”

Masks

Masks are required for all team and league personnel, players included, while they are traveling to and from games. They also are required inside all team facilities with the exception of practices and workouts.

During games, all coaches and staff members in the bench area are required to wear masks. As for the players, it depends.

According to ESPN, the NFL made “a strong recommendation” but did not issue a league-wide requirement for players on the sidelines to wear masks during games. However, everybody on the sidelines of games at the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium and the Bills’ stadium must wear masks, players included, because of local regulations.

NFL Referees Association executive director Scott Green told NFL Media that on-field officials will wear masks and gloves during games.

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Travel

After originally allowing teams to include up to 110 people as part of their traveling parties, the NFL reportedly told teams they will not be allowed to bring more than 70 staff members, including coaches and other essential gameday personnel, in addition to players. 

Team travel is restricted to just two groups of people — Tier 1 (“players and essential football personnel whose job function requires direct access to players for more than 10 minutes at a time on a regular basis”) and Tier 2 (“other essential personnel who may need to be in close proximity to players and other Tier 1 individuals and who may need to access restricted areas periodically”).

Physical distancing protocols while traveling will be mandated wherever possible, including separate hotel rooms, buses limited to no more than 50 percent capacity and at least one open seat between airplane passengers. Below are more of the NFL’s rules for travel:

— No use of public or private transportation on the road to or in other cities

— Not permitted to leave the hotel to eat or otherwise use restaurants that are open to the public (room service or contactless delivery is permitted)

— No room visits by anyone other than team members of the traveling party

— No use of shared hotel facilities (pool, fitness center) unless it is limited to use by the traveling party and has been disinfected

According to ESPN, teams will not be allowed to travel on the day of games despite requests to do so. Also per ESPN, the NFL has a deal with a charter airline to fly individuals home separately in case somebody shows COVID-19 symptoms or tests positive for the virus while on the road.

Team facilities

Before players could report to team facilities for training camps, all 32 teams were required to submit an Infectious Disease Emergency Response (IDER) plan outlining their protocols for mitigating the risk of COVID-19. All 32 plans were reviewed and approved by the NFL, the NFLPA and infectious disease experts.

In addition to team-specific rules, the NFL and NFLPA have agreed to a set of health and safety protocols that teams are required to follow at their facilities. Below are those protocols:

— Clubs must establish physical distancing protocols to allow players and staff to maintain six feet between one another when inside the facility. Clubs must maintain physical distancing, if necessary, by rearranging or removing furniture and reconfiguring locker rooms to allow for six feet of space between each player.

— Strength and conditioning workouts must be limited to no more than 15 players or staff or scheduled to allow adequate distancing.

— All players and staff must wear approved masks at all times inside the facility, unless a mask cannot be worn if it interferes with specific athletic activities.

— Strength and conditioning coaches must wear masks while supervising workouts.

— Meetings must be conducted virtually when possible. If not possible, efforts must be made to hold meetings outdoors while maintaining proper distance and wearing masks.

— Clubs must have at least a two-week supply of all personal protective equipment (PPE) and hygiene materials on hand at all times.

Coin toss

A random protocol, but according to ESPN, teams were told they can send only one person to the opening coin toss for each game this season. And all who participate in the coin toss will be required to wear masks.

NFL player opt-outs for 2020

NFL players were given a choice to make before Aug. 6. If they wanted to opt out of the 2020 season because of the threat of COVID-19 and still earn some salary, they were free to do so. This was the agreement the NFL and the NFLPA reached in late July (though there were some kinks to work out regarding the specifics of the rules).

The contracts for all players who opted out of the 2020 season will toll to 2021. Those who opted out for medical reasons because they qualified as high risk regarding the virus received a $350,000 stipend (not a salary advance) for the season, and those who opted out voluntarily received a $150,000 salary advance for the season. (Undrafted rookies who opted out voluntarily were not eligible to earn the $150,000 stipend.)

Players who opted out for medical reasons will earn an accrued season towards free agency, but those who opted out voluntarily will not.

Below is the complete, team-by-team list of players who opted out of the 2020 NFL season before Aug. 6.

Arizona Cardinals

Atlanta Falcons

(No players)

Baltimore Ravens

Buffalo Bills

Carolina Panthers

Cincinnati Bengals

Chicago Bears

Cleveland Browns

Dallas Cowboys

Denver Broncos

Detroit Lions

Green Bay Packers

Houston Texans

Indianapolis Colts

Kansas City Chiefs

Las Vegas Raiders

Los Angeles Chargers

(No players)

Los Angeles Rams

Jacksonville Jaguars

Miami Dolphins

Minnesota Vikings

New England Patriots

New Orleans Saints

New York Giants

New York Jets

Philadelphia Eagles

San Francisco 49ers

Seattle Seahawks

Pittsburgh Steelers

(No players)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tennessee Titans

Washington Football Team

Free agents

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