The NFL will prohibit mandatory local bubbles during the postseason, according to a memo sent Tuesday to clubs, but will continue allowing teams to house players in a hotel on a voluntary basis.
The decision represented an expected outcome after months of public discussion about the effectiveness of the league’s COVID-19 protocols and the severe impact that a delayed postseason game would have on the television schedules and stadium. The league’s infection rates dropped significantly this month after the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to place each team in “intensive protocols” that limit in-person meetings and require higher levels of mask use, and ultimately both parties decided that the existing protocols were a safer choice.
Multiple professional sports leagues successfully used a bubble format early in the pandemic, housing all team personnel in shared living quarters and requiring multiple negative tests before anyone could enter the environment. But Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, has been an outspoken opponent of that approach for the NFL.
The size of NFL teams make it a much bigger logistical problem, but Sills has also said that the chance for a team outbreak was probably higher in a bubble if an infection punctured it with all players and coaches under one roof. The NFL and NFLPA also grew concerned about the mental health implications of isolating their personnel for weeks or even a month during the holiday season.
“This decision is based upon an analysis of the frequency of positive cases in the league compared to the risk of significant spread among players and staff gathered for an extensive period of time at one hotel,” the memo read.
Some teams have been offering voluntary hotel accommodations during the season for players and coaches who are concerned they could be infected by family members or other people they live with. In the postseason, players and coaches who do stay at a team-sponsored hotel will be required to wear electronic tracking devices. The league’s finance committee also signed off on funding for each team to use two charter planes during the postseason, increasing physical distancing flexibility.
Meanwhile, the memo also:
• Mandated that daily testing continue for seven days after the completion of a team’s season.
• Clarified that players who are cleared on game day from isolation protocols will be eligible to participate.
• Changed return-to-play protocols for asymptomatic individuals, who will no longer be allowed to return after two consecutive negative tests and instead must wait a full 10 days after the positive specimen was passed while also getting clearance from a physician.