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What the NFL’s new protocols for safely returning players to facilities mean for the Patriots

Related: Patriots won’t fully return to Gillette Stadium until the start of training camp

New England Patriots Practice Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has sent a memo to the league’s 32 franchises informing them about the process of safely returning players to team facilities. The 11-page document includes guidelines for physical distancing and hygiene, different types of facility access, handling of equipment, and plenty more information. The memo also mentioned that all teams should immediately start to make arrangements to comply with the guidelines once players do return at a yet to be specified date.

Goodell’s memo opens as follows (via Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer):

We have worked closely with the NFLPA and outside medical experts to develop protocols that will facilitate a safe return to practice and play for NFL players and football staffs. These protocols are based on work done by a series of joint NFL-NFLPA task forces, which have brought together our own medical advisors, led by Dr. Sills, representatives of almost every member club, outside medical experts, including from the CDC, Duke University Infection Control Network (DICON) and other major universities, and NFLPA medical team.

The protocols presented by the league are just the latest step in the reopening process after the Coronavirus forced team facilities to effectively be shut down in late March. Previously, the NFL already allowed a certain number of staffers to return to work if they are allowed to do so under local and state regulations as well, and also permitted coaches to come back to work — something the New England Patriots’ staff, for example, will not take advantage of before the beginning of training camp later this summer.

Speaking of the Patriots, Goodell’s memo contains plenty of information for how they will have to adjust in the coming weeks, and with training camp on the horizon. Let’s therefore go through the document to find out how it impacts New England.

Emergency response plan

Prior to NFL players returning to NFL Club facilities to engage in permissible football activities, NFL Clubs will each be required to develop an Infectious Disease Emergency Response (“IDER”) Plan that sets forth the Club’s plan for containing an outbreak of disease (in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic). The NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) will provide two model baseline IDER Plans for Club use: (1) for use for any activities in which fewer than twenty (20) player report to Club facilities at any one time; and (2) for use when Club facilities reopen for groups of players larger than twenty (20) at one time.

As this excerpt from the memo shows, the Patriots and the rest of the league’s clubs will have to come up with a response plan in case one of the team’s players or staff members gets diagnosed with Covid-19. This is effectively a continuation of the league’s previous mandate that franchises would have to create emergency teams within their organizations to deal with all issues related to the pandemic and how to potentially contain its spread.

Facility access

Access to Restricted Areas [...] in Club facilities will be limited to a defined group of essential personnel. Based on their roles and job responsibilities, essential football personnel will be assigned a “Tier” that will determine to which areas of Club facilities individuals will have access, as well as when and for what purpose.

One of the major parts of the memo is the league’s plan to limit potential exposure by restricting some parts of the facilities based on tiers. Those areas, according to the NFL will include the practice and stadium fields and sidelines, locker and training rooms, medical examination areas, and player’s quarters such as meeting and weight rooms. The three separate tiers have been defined as follows:

  • Tier 1: Players and necessary personnel who must have direct access to players. This group includes players, coaches, athletic trainers, team physicians, as well as the conditioning and equipment staffs. The maximum number permitted by the league to be designated Tier 1 is rostered players plus 60.
  • Tier 2: Non-playing personnel who need to be in close contact with players and other Tier 1 personnel. This group includes club facility staff, additional coaches, trainers, physicians and equipment managers, general managers, ownership representatives, and employees of the football operations/administration departments as well as communications/PR staff, and video and security personnel. The maximum number permitted by the league to be designated Tier 2 is 20.
  • Tier 3: Individuals who perform essential facility, stadium or event services but do ont require close contact with Tier 1. This group includes operational personnel, in-house media, field managers, transportation providers and additional personnel not assigned to any restricted areas. The maximum number permitted by the league to be designated Tier 3 is 45.

Only the first two tiers will have access to the restricted areas. Likewise, the Patriots will have to create separate entrance to Gillette Stadium to divide Tiers 1 and 2 from Tier 3 personnel. Furthermore, they will have to designate the appropriate portions of their facility accordingly. All players and other personnel who have access to those restricted areas will also have to undergo daily screening and testing prior to entering the facility.

Physical distancing

The NFL announced five guidelines that will need to be followed:

  • Players and/or staff will need to be able to maintain six feet of distance from one another when inside the facility.
  • Physical distancing must be promoted by rearranging or removing furniture, or using distance markers, signs or one-way traffic through corridors.
  • Clubs must reconfigure locker rooms to permit six feet of space between each player where possible.
  • Strength and conditioning workouts must be limited to small groups of on more than 15 players.
  • Meetings must be conducted virtually if possible. In-person meetings, meanwhile, must be held outdoors while adhering to distancing and face-protection guidelines.

The third point listed is the most significant from the Patriots’ perspective, because they will need to get creative to fit all 90 offseason players in their locker rooms. New England could, for example, use the visitors locker room and the old New England Revolution locker room to create additional space during training camp. That said, such a solution would be somewhat difficult during preseason.

When it comes to virtual meetings, the Patriots already have experience: the entire draft and offseason was held online, and the team will reportedly continue to work remotely until the start of training camp.

Facility cleaning

Prior to opening facilities for players, they must be closed for all personnel for a 48-hour period to permit a comprehensive disinfection by a professional service. Once open, teams most ensure that common areas, weight rooms and player meeting rooms need to be cleaned regularly. So-called “high-touch” surfaces, for example, must be cleaned three times per day. Other areas must be cleaned before and after every use.

Equipment cleaning

The NFL differentiates between equipment — from players’ personal items to field equipment, towels and hydration devices, and player equipment. Cleaning the latter is described as follows in the memo:

Helmets, shoulder pads and other daily use specific hard surface equipment must be cleaned after each practice or game using EPA list N disinfectants. Mouthpieces must be sanitized post practice with either appropriate UV light treatment or acceptable solution such as “Defense Solution.” Player gloves and uniforms must be washed daily. Clubs must use disinfectant detergent in all laundry cycles.

As is the case with facility cleaning, everything touched by players must be disinfected regularly before and after use to limit any possibility of transmitting Covid-19.

Food services

The NFL also announced that clubs must establish a process to safely distribute meals, dietary supplements and medicines to Tier 1 individuals, while meal room access must be limited under the restriction rules outlined above. As is the case with other rooms used heavily, it must be cleaned on a regular basis while comply with the distancing guidelines established by the league.

Personal protection and hygiene

All players and staff must wear masks (surgical or cloth) at all times when inside the facility (unless a mask cannot be worn by players due to interference with performance of athletic activities). Surgical masks must be replaced daily or more frequently if visibly soiled. Cloth masks must be laundered daily (with disinfectants), and/or staff and athletes must be provided with sufficient supply of cloth masks so that they may rotate masks every three days. Clubs are responsible for obtaining an adequate supply of surgical and cloth masks.

As can be seen, the Patriots’ personnel — both players and other — will have to wear masks while inside the Gillette Stadium facility. The exception is players undergoing athletic activities, such as practice or workouts, if masks hinder them in any way. The league also announced that players must maintain physical distance for the duration of said activity. Furthermore, the team will have to provide hand sanitizer and other hygiene materials to its employees.