As the NFL was finalizing its plans for the 2020 season amid last month’s coronavirus pandemic, epidemiologist Zachary Binney advocated a stern strategy for anyone who would listen. The league, Binney said, would need 32 separate “market bubbles” to keep its essential staff healthy during COVID-19 spikes this fall and winter.
The NFL and the NFL Players Association chose differently, of course. And already, his decision to give players and coaches access to local communities has generated new scrutiny after the Miami Marlins in baseball experienced a large team outbreak less than a week earlier in the MLB season. NFL medical officer Allen Sills said Monday that the league plan amounts to a “virtual soccer bubble,” but its essential structure, strict rules on the team’s facilities and stadiums, with guidelines against the behavior of High risk in the community makes the NFL’s defenses fundamentally similar to those that have already broken down in baseball.
“If you’re from the NFL and you’re looking at what happened to the Marlins,” said Binney, “you should expect something like this to happen to you, unless you can change course, re-enter negotiations with the [NFL Players Association] and negotiate something like that bubble in the domestic market. “
Such a dramatic change, as players are reporting to training camp, seems unlikely. Binney acknowledged that “it would be incredibly difficult,” and during an interview with ESPN, Sills avoided direct answers to multiple questions about the possibility of a bubble concept at this stage. Saying that “all options remain on the table,” Sills emphasized that the current NFL plan is geared toward identifying infections early to prevent the spread rather than trying to seal the virus entirely.
In fact, a market bubble would require each team to host hundreds of employees – players, coaches, medical officials, and other employees – all day, every day for at least five months. It would also require intricate planning to accommodate gaming officials, many of whom have other jobs during the week, and others that are essential for traveling and playing at stadiums across the country. In theory, a market bubble would prevent everyone from coming into contact with the virus. In practice, the league and its players finally decided that it was undesirable and unrealistic in the structure of a 16-game season.
“All the ideas were on the table for discussion,” said Sills, “and I think we landed at the place where everyone felt most comfortable in terms of balanced security against the pragmatic aspects.”
Early returns from the NBA, WNBA, and professional soccer indicate that bubbles work. The Marlins’ experience has exposed the flaws of anything less than that. Can the NFL avoid the same essential flaw and get through training camp, let alone a 16-game season and a full postseason, without a major flare? Binney, an assistant professor of theory and quantitative methods at Oxford College of Emory University, has his doubts.
“I have great respect for Dr. Sills and all the work he and all his colleagues in the league have put into trying to come up with the best plan they can under the circumstances,” Binney said. “But with that said, if you’re going to call the NFL plan a ‘virtual football bubble,’ then you should call the MLB plan a ‘virtual baseball bubble.’ [The NFL] I would have to expect the Dolphins to experience a different outcome than the Marlins, when I think, if anything, I think it will be more difficult for the Dolphins due to the large number of people who will have to behave and not engage in risky behaviors, as well as additional close contact in soccer that doesn’t exist in baseball. “
The NFL has sent teams hundreds of pages of memos with instructions to modernize their team’s facilities, limit in-person meetings and even remove showers to ensure social distancing in the shower room. Players are required to produce three negative COVID-19 tests over four days before setting foot in the team’s facilities for training camp, and then testing them daily for at least two weeks. When players leave the facilities, they will be governed by rules, subject to fines or possibly suspensions, which prohibit activities such as visiting nightclubs with more than 15 people or joining a religious service attended by more than 25% of the capacity of the place.
Those rules constitute the NFL’s definition of a “virtual football bubble” because, Sills said, “everyone in our team environment shares the same risk. [and] the same responsibility to each other. “
But even if most people follow the guidelines, Binney said, it would only take a few mistakes to put an entire team at risk.
“I think you can think of it as an NFL defense,” he said. “If you have nine boys who stick to the show and two boys who are self-employed, the opposing offense will have no difficulty scoring a touchdown. I think the analogy continues. You really need everyone on the same page and pulling in the same direction. “
In the absence of a sealed bubble, the NFL and NFLPA worked to guarantee test results within 24 hours of BioReference Laboratories, the same test firm used by the NBA and the WNBA. They also installed a technology-based contact tracking program to help the next steps after a positive test result. Their joint coronavirus team hired Kinexon, a company that produces tracking devices, for an order from the league for proximity recording devices that accurately measure physical distance, according to NFL chief information officer Michelle McKenna. .
All team employees and some members of the media will be required to use the devices while on the perimeter of the team premises. Proximity data will be uploaded to IQVIA, a company that manages all of the NFL’s health and safety information, and can be accessed by each team’s infection control officer (ICO) in minutes.
Using the data, the ICO can identify anyone who was within 6 feet of the infected person for at least 15 minutes during the previous 48 hours. Policy requires that the team “notify those individuals of their possible exposure and likely need for quarantine or isolation pending the results of the tests,” but the ICO has some leeway to exclude those who were, for example , less than 6 feet from each other but on opposite sides of a wall.
The devices are also equipped to give people an audio or video warning that they are 6 feet from someone, providing real-time education about proper social and physical distancing. Teams will receive data reports that can help identify trouble spots on their premises where people congregate constantly.
“In some ways, this also becomes a social distance feedback device,” Sills said. “This feedback could be even more important than contact tracking because it gives us an opportunity to do something proactively that may reduce our chances of infection.”
However, the devices will be removed when the user leaves the premises of the computer. And during everyday parts of this summer, fall, and winter, team employees will be on hand to prevent a virus that runs rampant in parts of the United States. For the NFL to function for the next five months, its entire ecosystem will have to behave very differently than the country as a whole.
The plan probably would have been enough if the infection rate was lower across the country, Binney said. Sills has said the NFL hopes to set an example for the country on how to “mitigate risk and coexist with this virus.” Without a bubble, unrealistic as it is, Binney said those efforts could be futile.
“I’m not saying it would be easy,” he said. “It would be incredibly difficult. But this is the position in which our country’s response to the virus has put us. It did not have to be this way, neither so difficult nor dangerous, but it is. And there is nothing you can do about that reality, unfortunately. “