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What Packers can expect trying to play football during a pandemic

Jim Owczarski   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - Lining up outside of Lambeau Field in masks awaiting their COVID-19 testing Tuesday, the Green Bay Packers officially entered the new normal of sports in America.

Nasal swabs. Quarantines. Off-field movement tracking. Divided locker rooms and mandated social distancing inside player- and staff-only areas.

The NFL will be the last of the major American professional sports leagues to resume play in 2020, and as the coronavirus pandemic still rages across the country, players around the league will begin to adjust to an unprecedented work environment.

And a work environment they hope is as safe as possible.

“I would hope so,” Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark told “You’re talking the NFL. We should have the best of the best doing everything. I would hope that they find a way to put their minds together and find out a plan for us to play football and be safe doing it.”

The NFL, the players association and health experts outlined a general health plan released July 3. The Packers then had to create a separate infectious disease emergency response (IDER) plan that the union had to approve before testing could begin.

In that initial plan, the league decided to take the following measures to create a safe working environment:

  • Establish physical distancing protocols to allow players and/or staff to maintain six feet of distance from one another when inside the facility.
  • Promote physical distancing by rearranging or removing furniture and/or using markers to assure spacing, modifying the use of common areas … and using cones or tape to establish one-way traffic in hallways and common corridors where possible.
  • Reconfigure lockers to allow six feet of space between players, either by using every other locker or adding more lockers. If impossible, the team must add plexiglass dividers between then or add temporary lockers outdoors under tents.
  • Showers can be used, but players must be at least six feet apart. To help manage that, teams were asked to consider shutting off shower heads. After each shower it has to be disinfected with hospital grade EPA List N disinfectants.
  • The steam room and/or saunas are off limits, but cold tubs and hydrotherapy pools can be used as long as proper distancing occurs during and disinfection occurs after.
  • Strength and conditioning groups must include no more than 15 players and have staggered appointments with strength staff. Also, the Packers had to move current (or bring in new) weight equipment outdoors or to a better-ventilated area, along with providing personalized equipment for players. Tools like ropes, bands, foam rollers and other items that are absorbent must be provided to individuals and not shared.
  • This individual use includes towels and hydration bottles used on the field.
  • Strength staff must wear masks and players must be provided one but will not be required to wear it during their workouts.
  • Virtual meetings are still preferred, and if in-person meetings must occur the NFL prefers they be held outdoors with face coverings and proper distancing.
  • Masks must be worn by all coaches and players when inside the facilities, unless a player is working out.

“I’m concerned about COVID,” Clark said. “I don’t want to get sick or anything. But I do miss football. I do miss playing ball. I would say just not even being able to go to OTAs and all that kind of stuff, it kind of threw me off of my plan in the offseason. I miss football and this is my love and everything, but I do want to still be safe, and be able to know that I’m safe playing this game. I don’t want to come home, get my girlfriend sick. My mom might come to the house and get my mom sick. I don’t want any of that stuff happening. I just think they’ve got to find a way to keep not only us but our families safe in the best way. I know if they were out here playing the game they’d want to do the same thing for themselves.”

By being the last of the major pro sports to open during the pandemic, the NFL and its players do have guidelines to follow – and some hard lessons to learn – from their peers, even if they’re operating in somewhat different spheres.

The PGA Tour was the first sport to open up play with the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas from June 11-14. The tour resumed play without fans and restricted access in and around the player areas such as clubhouse, dining, workout and practice areas, but in its early stops caddies and players tested positive, resulting in players having to miss tournaments or play by themselves before the rest of the field.

“I think the first week or two people were treating it maybe a little bit loose and a few caddies were out at restaurants or a bar here or there and a few guys got it,” PGA Tour player advisory council member Kevin Streelman told “All of a sudden it was like, 'wow, this is a real thing.' So, everyone kind of locked down. I would say by the third week at Hartford (June 25-28), everyone was really smart about it.

“We know that if we get a bunch of positive tests there’s a chance that all this could stop, so we’re taking it very, very seriously. We’re wearing masks everywhere. When we’re at airports we’re trying to stay to ourselves. We’re just trying to lock down as much as we can. We don’t go out to eat. We’re getting takeout food or cook out. The primary importance is keeping the show rolling and putting out a great product. I think the product has been incredible every week. The caliber of golf has been very high. It’s just a serious thing that we’re dealing with, but we are dealing with it and we’re living with it and pushing through it.”

The NBA (Orlando), WNBA (Bradenton, Florida), NHL (Toronto, Edmonton) and Major League Soccer (Orlando) are all participating in some form of a centralized “bubble.”

“The NBA did a tremendous job just organizing everything,” Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova said. “Everybody’s safe.

“We knew when we got in this environment we would feel safe and not overthinking some things. Obviously, you know it’s a lot of stuff around the country, a lot of stuff involved. But we’re here and we know we’ll feel safe as far as our health. It’s basically the organization did a tremendous job.”

Major League Baseball is operating perhaps the most like the NFL with more players and staff to account for, along with scheduled travel taking place. After their nearly 20-day ramp-up, the sport only made it a few days into its truncated season before the Miami Marlins experienced an outbreak in its clubhouse with 13 members of the team testing positive. It resulted in the cancellation of several games.

“There were always layers to starting the season,” Brewers pitcher Josh Lindblom said. “You get through summer camp and summer camp was, quote, unquote, easy; you're around the same people, you're going to and from your house. So you aren't really exposed to a lot of people. But once you get outside of that little bubble that was created, there's a whole other layer that you've got to get through. You're exposed to new people, you're traveling to new cities.”

Baseball players are also operating under some of the same restrictions as football players regarding individualized items and making sure to socially distance from one another when not on the field.

“It is concerning but I think just being vigilant, with all of the protocols ... because once a season starts, it's easy to not socially distance and not wear your mask,” Lindblom said. "I think about, you know, I wasn't wearing my mask in the clubhouse at times. I wasn't wearing (it) in the stands. So then you think about if I am positive, who I've exposed. Just something as simple in our game yesterday when they forgot the rosin bag. But you forget your rosin bag in the bullpen, and somebody throws a rosin bag to one person, they throw it to the next person, left fielder gets it, throws it to the shortstop, then the pitcher gets it. And something as simple as that can spread it and you don't even realize it."

While the NFL will monitor its players' off-field activities and discipline can be levied for engaging in “high-risk” behaviors, football players will not be in a bubble and they will be traveling under the protocols set forth by the league and guidance of Packers health officials.

“You just have to do the best you can to keep everybody safe,” Lindblom said. “You’re going to mess up, you’re going to make mistakes. You can do everything right and still contract COVID. So, I don’t think there’s any shame or guilt if you do test positive. It’s just doing the right things, trying to do them to the best of your ability. Nobody wants to sit in a room all day long. This morning, I got up and went out and got a coffee. I wore my mask, used hand sanitizer. I washed my hands. So, taking the proper precautions is what’s important.”

Streelman agreed, noting how the PGA Tour is keeping its positive test rate at about 1% or less.

“For the first week, I was much more lax about the virus and masks and the distancing than I am now,” he admitted. “(But) I’ve been out to see. I’ve seen Dallas. I’ve seen Hilton Head. I’ve seen Hartford. The tour saw Detroit. I went back to Arizona, which is a hot spot. I’ve seen Columbus. I’ve seen what’s going on and I really feel the masks, they help. Being smart about keeping a little bit away, it helps. We just gotta push through this together and we’ll get through it.

“We just have to be smart about it. It’s not a time to get political, it’s not a time to get just silly about it. It’s time to care for each other and try and push through this together as a community.”

For now, the Packers will be charged with staying safe for one another in their own community. After that? The first regular-season game in Minneapolis remains scheduled for Sept. 13 at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“They’re smart enough and they’ve got some of the best people in the world doing the best job,” Clark said. “So they should be able to figure out something we can do.”

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