Dr. Anthony Fauci told Peter King of NBC Sports that there are too many unknowns to know if the 2020 NFL season will be able to go forward as normal, and that much of what the league looks like will depend on how America responds to a likely second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the fall and winter.
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the leading members of the White House task force on the coronavirus, said that “the virus will make the decision for us” when it comes to the NFL’s return.
Risk to Fans, Players Depends on State of Pandemic
According to Fauci, it’s likely that even in the best-case scenario, we won’t see full stadiums for NFL games this fall.
“I think it’s feasible that negative testing players could play to an empty stadium,” Fauci told King. “Also, if the virus is so low that even in the general community the risk is low, then I could see filling a third of the stadium or half the stadium so people could be six feet apart. I mean, that’s something that is again feasible, depending on the level of infection. I keep going back to that: It’s going to depend.”
One of the biggest concerns about NFL play would be transmission between players. While Fauci clarified that sweat can’t transmit COVID-19 from one person to another, there are other reasons to think that a football game would be a high-risk environment.
“This is a respiratory virus, so it’s going to be spread by shedding virus,” Fauci told King. “If people are in such close contact as football players are on every single play, then that’s the perfect setup for spreading. I would think that if there is an infected football player on the field – a middle linebacker, a tackle, whoever it is it – as soon as they hit the next guy, the chances are that they will be shedding virus all over that person.”
Fauci: Outbreak Among Teammates Would Be ‘A Problem’
Fauci suggested that if individual players tested positive before games, teams could isolate those players and still play games. However, if several players on the same team tested positive, the team may not be able to take the field.
“You’ve got a problem there,” Fauci responded to a King hypothetical about four players testing positive. “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 … 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.”
Much of what Fauci recommends for a successful NFL relaunch is dependent on the widespread availability of rapid testing. That tracks with statements made by NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills in early April.
“As long as we’re still in a place where, when a single individual tests positive for the virus, that you have to quarantine every single person who was in contact with them in any shape, form or fashion, then I don’t think you can begin to think about reopening a team sport,” Sills told NFL.com at the time. “Because we’re going to have positive cases for a very long time.”