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Fans in NFL stands? Experts tell the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast that would be “irresponsible”

Dr. Zach Binney, Dr. Jill Weatherhead offer insight into how a season might successfully proceed

New York Jets v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The NFL is forging ahead with its intent to open training camps as scheduled on July 28. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, spoke Thursday about what it will take for the NFL to navigate the season alongside the COVID-19 pandemic.

We delved even deeper into that unpleasant but necessary topic on Thursday’s ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast. I was joined by two experts. Dr. Zach Binney is an epidemiologist who studies sports injury patterns at Oxford College of Emory University. Dr. Jill Weatherhead is an assistant professor of adult and pediatric infectious diseases at the Baylor College of Medicine.

Give the full show a listen. It’s well worth your time as we all try to understand what is happening with this virus.

Below, I have summarized in Q&A format the most important things we discussed and the most important points Dr. Binney and Dr. Weatherford made. Even if you read through these I would encourage you to take the time to listen to the full show as it includes even more detail.

Are we kidding ourselves that the NFL can have a normal season or somewhat normal season?

Binney: “I don’t think there’s going to be anything normal about this season for any sport, the NFL included. I’m still somewhat optimistic that they can, with the enormous resources that the NFL has, put together a plan that’s going to be workable to start the season on time and hopefully finish it. But, with the level of disease that we have in the U.S. right now that’s going to be really, really difficult.

“The plan is going to have to be very strict, and a lot stricter than what we see in many other parts of the world.”

Weatherhead: “I think one thing we have to start thinking about as a country and come to the realization altogether is that we’re not going back to normal. This is going back to a new normal where we’re going to have to make changes in how we’re conducting our lives. That’s universal. That includes work, that includes schools, and that especially includes sports and activities that we like to do for leisure.

“There can’t be a normal season. There can be a new normal where we make adjustments or the NFL makes adjustments to provide a situation that is safe and that provides that entertainment that everybody wants and needs. … It can’t be done the way it has in the past. It has to be adjusted to provide a safe environment not only for the players and the staffs, but for the communities.”

Is the plan the NFL has put forth actually workable?

Binney: “I don’t think we have the details we need to judge the NFL’s plan yet. They’ve put out guidance documents on how to reopen facilities and how many people should be there at a time and whether you should be wearing masks and hygiene practices and all of that.

“What’s really going to be important and which we haven’t seen yet is going to be how much testing they plan to do, how frequent that is and if they’re going to do any kind of sequestering of players to limit contact between people in the league and people outside of the league. Particularly in markets where there’s rampant viral spread.”

Binney added that some cities will need a “home market bubble” with a couple of hotels and keep teams in a limited area

“Create this closed loop between where players are living and the stadium, and that’s going to be really psychologically difficult and a huge social and logistical and economic burden but I think it might be the only way that you can play in markets where the outbreak is exploding.”

Weatherhead: “From multiple sports we’re seeing those protocols being published. They’re very detailed, they’re very comprehensive and it’s appreciated they’re taking the time to think through the issue. From a professional sports standpoint because they have the resources these things are possible, but it goes beyond these protocols. These are community members that are going to be interacting with other individuals, so it’s not just healthy athletes that are coming together to have sports. They are going back out into the community, they are traveling to other communities. It’s critical that the NFL understand the interactions that these players and staff and coaches, everybody who’s involved, their role in our greater transmission dynamics in our communities.” …

“It goes well beyond just the players and the coaches that these protocols are trying to keep safe, which are appreciated that they’re putting in that effort and it’s feasible from the professional standpoint because they have those resources available. But it goes beyond that and we have to start thinking about the bigger priorities, thinking about how this affects everybody and when do we want this to be over.”

Binney: “You cannot be creating a situation that is a threat to public health. That is an even greater priority.”

How will the NJ/NY/CT travel restrictions impact the Giants or other NFL teams with players coming from out of state for training camps? Should there be exceptions for them?

Weatherhead: “That’s an important point. Also, remember that’s going to evolve over the rest of the summer and the fall …. Those restrictions are constantly going to be evolving. There has to be plans in place to mitigate that, and I don’t think it’s appropriate that certain people would be outside of those obligations and regulations. That football players and staff wouldn’t have to adhere to that same standard that the rest of the general public needs to adhere to. And that’s in order to keep communities safe again, so that has to be our priority moving forward. How do we keep communities safe? If we’re telling people they can’t travel then athletes should not be able to travel, either.”

Binney: “I can see some justification for that [travel exceptions]. We should not be issuing exceptions because you’re in MLB or because you’re in the NFL, but I could see an argument if everybody is being tested every day or every other day and you can create a reasonable expectation that you are not bringing anyone with the virus from those rampant areas into areas like New York or New Jersey who rightly want to protect what they’ve worked so hard to do in terms of reducing the amount of virus that they have.”

Binney again returned to the “home market bubble” concept.

“The theory with establishing home market bubbles would be you’ve got hotels and the team facilities and the stadium and those are the only three places you go.”

Weatherhead: “There is a chance that this could work, but it has to be that bubble feel where it’s preventing any interaction with the community if there’s going to be travel involved.” …

“We all want sports to come back. I think professional sports have the best chance, but that has to be done very, very carefully and again not having any interaction with the community.”

What is the acceptable risk? The acceptable number of cases on a given team before it is shut down?

Weatherhead: “What I can say as a physician and as a scientist is if there’s any risk to the community at all it has to shut down. Any risk of introducing more virus into a community it’s done. It’s a non-starter.”

Binney: “We have to think about a couple of things in terms of how many cases is too many. One is epidemiologists love to think is what we call counter factuals. What happens if the NFL re-starts vs. what would have happened if they didn’t restart?”

“Are they creating a higher-risk environment for players and staff or the public health? How do you determine whether you’ve created a higher-risk environment?”

Binney talked about creating a baseline positive test percentage based off the number of players and staff who test positive when everyone arrives for training camp. He used 5 percent positive tests as his example.

“Then you would say OK as long as every two weeks 4 percent of our players and staff are testing positive then arguably we have created a safer environment, or at least an environment that is not creating higher risk than these players and staff were experiencing in their daily lives in the community before they came back.

“The second thing you have to worry about are outbreaks. If I see three or four cases on a team in rapid succession, like in the space of a few days I’m shutting that team down because you’ve got the potential for an outbreak and those three or four could turn into 20.

“If I see those kinds of clusters on multiple teams that’s where I get to the point of maybe we should shut the whole league down for a couple of weeks.” …

“There’s no way to choose just one number and say that’s our line for a go, no-go decision.”

When will fans be able to fill stadiums again? Will the idea of partial capacity in stadiums work?

Weatherhead: “Generally I don’t think there is an ethical way to have everybody come back and do normal activities, including fans in stadiums, until there is a vaccine available and until there are therapeutic options available. It is very dangerous to bring large groups of people who are yelling and screaming in close contact with each other both in the stadium and coming in and leaving the stadium. It is a recipe for a major outbreak to occur until there are interventions available including therapeutic interventions including vaccinations available it’s not responsible to do that.

“I also think we’re coming up with all of these plans and contingencies of how we can get fans in the stadium and there are communities out there that are really suffering right now. It’s difficult to hear arguments of getting fans into stadiums when our hospital systems are overflowing and people are dying and getting very sick from this disease. I am in full support of leagues getting together and coming up with plans, but I think the first step is get the players playing, let’s see how things go, let’s see where this pandemic goes before we start bringing the community members into the stadium and putting them at risk.

“If we want sports to get going again we have to start without fans and eventually once things get under control, because this virus is completely out of control right now, maybe we can start having those discussions. At this point I think it would be irresponsible to bring fans into stadiums.”

Binney: “I don’t care for it. Zero fans. Zero fans until we have a vaccine and I’ll tell you why. Every step that we take back towards normality has a risk and a benefit associated with it. We never shut grocery stores, right? That’s because going to a grocery store has risk, but the benefits outweigh that. I get food.

“When you talk about bringing sports back without I really think there’s a good case to be made for real benefits — economic, psychological, helps the public see that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Gives you something you can do at home that’s safe, right? Watch the game on TV. That’s great! Do as much of that as you want. You’ve got my full excuse and pardon to do as much of that as you want when we get sports back on TV.

“When you start talking about fans you lose me. Without fans I think you can generate a plan where the risk is below the benefit for sports without fans. When you start talking about fans you’re adding a whole lot of risk, including to the public, and all you’re getting is financial benefit for the league. I don’t care for it. It’s not worth it to me.”

Binney finished up by speaking about the idea of personal choice and personal responsibility.

“With infectious diseases your personal choices aren’t just your personal choices ... There have to be some activities that we recognize are very high risk and we simply need to not have those until we have a vaccine. Those would be stadiums with fans, concerts, incur conventions of any kind. These are the lowest-hanging fruit, the lowest hanging pieces, the easiest things that we can do to keep COVID-19 under control. … We need to have a rational conversation about what’s low and medium risk and we can allow to come back, and what’s high and super-high risk that we just cannot have. I think sports with fans is one of those high-risk things.

“I can’t imagine having any plan that is reasonably safe that allows fans.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I have closed comments for this post. After the stupidity and name-calling that took place in the Dr. Fauci post (where comments have also now been closed and many deleted) we are not going there again.]