So this happened:
Before anyone gets too excited and/or horrified, the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Jacksonville Jaguars have all said they’re going to continue to operate at 20-25% capacity for the time being. This was just Gov. Ron DeSantis making clear that he lifted all restrictions on outdoor sporting events two weeks ago, when he also prohibited local governments from enforcing tougher restrictions or even fining people for not wearing masks. (If you’re wondering how that’s working out, virus rates in Florida haven’t surged so far, staying fairly level — though still high — but then, it generally takes more than two weeks for a surge to take hold, and also when you’re dealing mostly with stochastic spread via superspreader events, there is a lot of randomness involved as to whether and when a surge kicks in.)
So, props to the NFL for not immediately opening the fan floodgates in Florida, sure. But that’s hardly an indicator of a league that is concerned with safety above else. As we’ve seen this week — and as Barry Petchesky adeptly recounted yesterday at Defector — the league is currently dealing with a cascade of outbreaks on teams that has now caused a couple of games to be postponed, and could end up with even more. And, writes Petchesky, it was all totally predictable:
We don’t know a lot about COVID-19, but we know a few things about sports. We know bubbles, deployed by the NBA and NHL, and by MLB for its postseason, can work. We know that not-bubbling, like MLB tried for its abbreviated regular season, doesn’t work, at least not if your goal is to avoid having to cancel or postpone games. We know the NFL, due to the sheer size of its rosters and the massive logistical undertaking that staging a football game requires, probably can’t enter a bubble. We also know that it can’t afford to postpone many more games before a backlog pushes the Super Bowl into June.
That caveat re: MLB’s non-bubble is important: If the goal of “let’s let baseball teams all play in the home stadiums while still seeing their families and going to the grocery store and whatnot” was to keep anyone from getting infected, yeah, it was a disaster. But if the goal was to find a way to limp through a season with lots of postponements and makeup doubleheaders because players weren’t willing to be separated from their families for three months — the NBA and NHL were already up to playoff season, so their bubbles didn’t have to last as long — then it worked exactly as planned.
The NFL, of course, can’t stage doubleheaders, and can’t easily reschedule too many games without adding additional weeks to the season. And with 64-player rosters (48 active, 16 on a practice squad), plus a sport that involved a lot more contact than baseball (though we’re still not clear whether that’s the main risk or it’s just gathering indoors in clubhouses that mostly spreads the coronavirus), that’s a lot more dice being rolled every week than for other sports, so it’s absolutely no surprise that we’re seeing outbreaks.
Unlike MLB, though, which after some initial stumbles realized that you need to quarantine entire teams for a week or more after each new case turns up, the NFL seems to be charging ahead on a policy of Well, hopefully nobody else caught it. After New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive on Friday, Sunday’s scheduled game between the Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs was delayed — all the way to Monday night. But it can take four or more days for an infected person to test positive, while they become infectious in as little as 48 hours. So even if Patriots players all tested negative before their Monday night game, someone on the team could easily have still been incubating the virus, and spreading it to their teammates. Which may in fact have happened.
The NFL has already been heavily invested in hygiene theater, touting its disinfecting drones and temperature checks for fans, even though neither does much at all to protect anyone from Covid. (All evidence is that the virus doesn’t spread much via surfaces, and while most people with Covid symptoms run a fever, nearly half of infected people don’t have any symptoms.) Hygiene theater is based on the idea that the easier something is to do, the more one should focus on it; the decision to hold the Pats-Chiefs game on Monday after just a 24-hour delay seems to have been the inverse: If it’s too hard to do, let’s decide it doesn’t matter.
Unfortunately, in a sport where doing much of anything to combat the spread of the coronavirus among players is really hard, that’s a recipe for, if not necessarily disaster, a whole lot of extremely risky behavior. And the NFL has another decision coming up that is going to be equally hard, if only for economic reasons: The Super Bowl is scheduled to be held on February 7 in Tampa, and DeSantis has now said that it’s okay by him if they sell out the place, and that would be worth tens of millions of dollars to the league. Even if the image of a packed Super Bowl that turns into another biological bomb may give league planners second thoughts, you know that somewhere in the league offices they’re wondering: Could we get away with 30% capacity? 40%? What if we have disinfecting drones hovering over every fan? How close can we get to the precipice of a superspreader event without going over?
And that appears to be the NFL’s policy, really: Keep inching up to the limits of what’s considered safe, see who gets sick, then inch up a little further if it’s not too embarrassing a number. As I’ve noted before, this makes for a very useful experiment about how many fans can be in one place outdoors before disaster strikes — if the NFL really wanted to do it right, it should dictate that some teams allow more fans and others allow fewer, to see what the threshold is for sparking outbreaks — but it’s an experiment with human lives, which when conducted without the humans involved knowing the risks and consenting to them is generally considered a crime against humanity. But then, playing with human lives is pretty much the NFL’s jam, so why quit now while you’re massively ahead?