The NFL had a clear message for fans in Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season: “WELCOME BACK.”
The words were painted out of bounds between the 5-yard line and 15-yard line at field level as spectators filled stadiums across the country for the start of the new season. It was the first time the league greeted full crowds since Super Bowl 54 in Miami on Feb. 2, 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic kept fans away from 12 NFL stadiums all together during the 2020 season and limited crowds for the rest of the league. There are no longer restrictions on how many people can be let into games, but there are still other policies in place for players, staff and fans in light of a surge in the Delta variant.
Here is what you need to know about the NFL and teams’ COVID-19 policies for the 2021 season:
Are NFL players required to be vaccinated?
There is no vaccine mandate for NFL players, but the league has created strict guidelines surrounding the coronavirus.
The league sent a memo in July that said if a game cannot be played due to an outbreak among unvaccinated players and cannot be rescheduled during the season, the team with the outbreak will be credited with a loss in a forfeit. On top of that, no players -- from either team -- will be paid for the canceled game. The team with the outbreak will then have to cover financial losses and be subject to possible discipline from the league.
As part of that same memo, the NFL spelled out rules for when players and staff can return to the team after a positive test. Vaccinated people who test positive and are asymptomatic can return after two negative tests a full day apart. Non-vaccinated persons who test positive, on the other hand, require a 10-day isolation, which is the same ruling from the league in 2020.
Vaccination status also has an effect on free agents, who must wait five days before they can join a new team, while vaccinated players are allowed to join immediately. A five-day stretch is almost the full time between games for NFL teams during the season, so the waiting period creates another obstacle for free agents, as well as the teams.
All games went on as scheduled in Week 1, but there are still 17 more weeks in the regular season as part of the NFL’s first 18-week slate.
Do NFL stadiums require proof of vaccination?
Only a handful of NFL teams require proof of vaccination for entry into their stadiums.
The Buffalo Bills will now be requiring proof of vaccination for all spectators over the age of 12 at Highmark Stadium. The Bills initially had a vaccine mandate in place during the spring, but it was rescinded in June due to a low caseload in Erie County. The vaccination requirement was reinstated on Tuesday after reports of casual mask enforcement during the Bills’ season-opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
The Seattle Seahawks announced its policy for Lumen Field on Sept. 7, mandating proof of vaccination or a negative test result taken within 72 hours of kickoff. Seattle will host the Tennessee Titans for their home opener on Sunday after playing the entire 2020 season without 12s in the stands.
The New Orleans Saints have a more lenient vaccine policy. The team is requiring proof of a single vaccination dose, even if it was administered on the day of the game, for entry into its stadium. The Saints played their “home” opener in Jacksonville against the Green Bay Packers as New Orleans recovers from Hurricane Ida. The team is expected to play at the Caesars Superdome for the first time this season on Oct. 3 against the New York Giants.
The Las Vegas Raiders announced in August that fans would need to show proof of vaccination to attend games at Allegiant Stadium, but there was no mask rule. The team finally played in front of fans for a regular season game in their new stadium on Monday night and earned a thrilling, overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens.
While the other 28 teams have not implemented a vaccine mandate, many have varying mask policies. The New England Patriots, for instance, asked that unvaccinated spectators wear masks at Gillette Stadium on Sunday for their Week 1 game against the Miami Dolphins. For the Kansas City Chiefs, masks were only required in club suites at Arrowhead Stadium when the team welcomed the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
How many NFL players have tested positive for COVID-19?
There were not any COVID outbreaks that altered the Week 1 schedule, but there have been a few notable situations that came up in the preseason and early going of the regular season.
Cam Newton was forced to spend five days away from the Patriots after a “misunderstanding” about COVID tests conducted away from team facilities. Newton was cut from the team days after New England’s final preseason game against the Giants, and the quarterback has since said he felt “bamboozled” by the required absence.
The Saints are in the midst of a COVID outbreak among their offensive coaching staff. The team had eight total cases: six offensive coaches, one nutritionist and one player. Wide receiver Michael Thomas, who is currently on the physically unable to perform list, was also placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday. The team does not believe the outbreak will affect its upcoming game against the Carolina Panthers, with one team source telling ESPN’s Adam Schefter, “We’ll be just fine.”
Dallas Cowboys center Zack Martin was one of the only noteworthy names to miss a Week 1 game because he did not produce two negative tests ahead of the team’s NFL Kickoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday. The Pro Bowl offensive lineman was taken off the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday.