The Bears feel like they have the best COVID-19 mitigation setup in the NFL at Halas Hall. After listening to head athletic trainer/infection control officer Andre Tucker explain the whole deal over a Zoom call Wednesday, it’s easy to see why.
There’s a multi-step process personnel must go through just to gain (touchless, of course) entry to Halas Hall. Once inside, all Tier 1 and Tier 2 personnel will be required to tracking devices that not only encourage social distancing, but can be used for contact tracing if someone tests positive for the novel coronavirus. The locker room now expands into the player lounge, shower heads are turned off, meeting room capacity is slashed. Players won’t lift by position group in an effort to avoid an outbreak that wipes out, say, the entire offensive line.
Masks, of course, are required.
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The Bears’ plan is so detailed and so well thought out that Tucker, general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy used the word “bubble” to describe their setup in Lake Forest this year. It’s not a true bubble, of course, since players will not be confined to a specific hotel or area when they’re not at the facility. But through the measures taken at Halas Hall and constant education of players and their families, the Bears feel confident in their ability to minimize COVID-19’s impact on their 2020 season.
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And yet, all it’ll take is one selfish, irresponsible decision – a decision that wouldn’t have been selfish or irresponsible a year ago – for those plans to come crashing down.
The Miami Marlins’ season is paused and the Orlando Pride dropped out of the NWSL’s Challenge Cup due to COVID-19 outbreaks. In both instances, there’ve been rumblings about players getting “careless” – as in, hitting the bars.
All it takes to shut down an American professional sports team is one player engaging in a high-risk activity while COVID-19 rages across our country. The only way the NFL will pull off its 2020 season without major disruptions is if everybody – players, coaches, essential staff – assumes a high level of personal responsibility.
So the Bears’ massive prevention and mitigation undertaking just might be only as good as the people participating in it when training camp begins.
“The most at-risk I think we are is when everybody leaves Halas Hall at the end of day,” Pace said. “It’s not just the players – it’s the staff, everybody. So, I think that goes back to educating our players and staff to don’t make selfish decisions when you leave here. You owe it to your counterparts and you owe it to your teammates to make the right decisions as we go through this season.”
This season probably isn’t going to be very fun for players away from team facilities. In the absence of a “bubble” setup – which the NBA, NHL and MLS seem to be pulling off successfully, and the Bears do not truly have – NFL players will have to severely limit their interactions with anyone outside their immediate family and their team’s Tier 1 and Tier 2 personnel.
Attending or hosting a house party with friends/family (specifically, more than 15 people) could get a player fined under the NFL-NFLPA’s proposed agreement. The same goes for attending an indoor religious service that’s filled to more than 25 percent capacity. Bars and nightclubs – unless you're only picking up some transcendent lemon pepper wings – are out the question.
So yeah, not much fun, right? Players will be expected to wake up, go to the facility, go home and stay home until they do it all over again the next day.
Said Tucker: “I think I'm going to continue to educate and tell everyone — not just the players, right — take a deep breath and ask yourself, the situation you're putting yourself in, is the risk worth the reward and trust your gut. If you're hesitant about it, don't do it."
The impact of one poor decision will extend beyond Halas Hall, too. Some players have newborn children. Others live with high-risk family members. Otherwise healthy adults can still contract a serious case of COVID-19, which has killed at least 175,000 in the United States.
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And if a player feels like he’s invincible, he just might be the reason why an outbreak rips through Halas Hall, even with all these impressive plans and protocols in place. The best, most important thing the Bears can do in 2020 is follow a strict set of guidelines to avoid the kind of COVID-19 outbreak that’s befallen the Marlins.
From there, they can start worrying about actually winning football games.
“We understand no one can eliminate all risk,” Pace said. “It’s about mitigating the risk and we feel like we’re doing that. Now on top of that, it’s about continuing to educate our players and staff in how their actions away from the facility affect all of us. We can have the best measures in place here at Halas, but it’s also the responsibility of every one of us to take the proper actions away from the facility to ensure we’re protecting each other.
“Obviously it’s not going to feel normal,” he added, “because it isn’t normal.”