Anthony Fauci thinks there is no way the NFL season could begin soon amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, the league has about four months to go before kickoff, at which point the federal government’s top infectious-disease expert thinks it is at least “feasible” that fans could see professional football get underway as planned.
Those fans would most likely be watching from afar come September, though, and not sitting in the stands, Fauci noted in comments published Monday by NBCSports.com. There is a chance NFL stadiums might have a third or even half of their seats occupied, but attendees would still need to engage in appropriate social distancing.
None of that will be possible, though, unless testing for the coronavirus increases and helps to sharply bring down the rate of infection, said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. Widespread preventive protocols will be all the more important, he said, in the event the pandemic re-intensifies in the autumn and/or winter.
“Even if the virus goes down dramatically in June and July and August, as the virus starts returning in the fall it would be, in my mind, shame on us if we don’t have in place all of the mechanisms to prevent it from blowing up again,” Fauci said. “In other words, enough testing to test everybody that needs to be tested. Enough testing so that when someone gets infected, you could immediately do contact tracing and isolation to prevent the infection from going to a couple of infections to hundreds of infections. That’s how you control an outbreak.”
“If you fast-forward, and it is now September. The season starts. I say you can’t have a season – it’s impossible,” he added. “There’s too much infection out there. It doesn’t matter what you do. But I would hope that by the time you get to September it’s not going to be the way it is right now.”
At a White House news conference Monday, President Donald Trump said that the United States is up to about 300,000 coronavirus tests per day and that the number is set to rise “substantially.” Antigen testing, for which the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization Friday, is a new approach that holds the promise of checking “millions of people” for possible infection by the end of August, Fauci said.
That is when the NFL would be holding training camps in preparation for the scheduled start of its regular season Sept. 10. The league has scrapped in-person offseason practices but followed April’s draft by releasing a full schedule last week. The schedule does appear to allow for the possibility that the NFL might truncate its season from 16 to 14 or even 12 games.
“The plan is to move forward as normal to play a full season, a full schedule, until the medical community tells us otherwise,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said last week. “And that’s been our approach from Day 1. . . . Let’s just make sure we’re responsible, we’re doing proper planning.”
Fauci said the NFL should expect to test players on both the night before and the morning of games. In that scenario, he suggested one player testing positive might not be enough to cancel a game, because it could be an “outlier” result. However, if four players – a relatively low number on a 55-man roster – test positive, that could indicate 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 got to shut it down,” he added, suggesting the entire team should go into quarantine for two weeks.
Such a development would cause major problems for the NFL, but Fauci offered some hope for football fans fearful of a complete cancellation of the 2020 season.
“I think it’s feasible that negative-testing players could play to an empty stadium,” he said. “Is it guaranteed? No way. . . . 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 getting back to that: It’s going to depend.”