TAMPA, Fla. — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Monday that even with COVID-19 vaccines now being distributed to hospitals nationwide, NFL players and personnel will not be jumping the lines for vaccination before Super Bowl LV, which is scheduled for Feb. 7, 2021.
He also emphasized that with the event still 55 days away, the league needs to be prepared to “adapt and evolve” with regard to the coronavirus, which has affected 16.5 million people in the United States and claimed more than 300,000 lives in the country.
“That’s obviously being done at higher levels and given priority to obviously healthcare workers, first responders and those that are in the riskiest state. We don’t fall into those categories, so we don’t anticipate that and we’re not planning for that.”
There has been no determination made as to stadium capacity, which has been 25% at Raymond James Stadium since Week 6 this season, the maximum allowed under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which is roughly 16,000 fans.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave Florida stadiums clearance to open at full capacity as part of the state’s Phase 3 reopening plan in October — and has come under criticism in some circles for his aggressive reopening strategies — but NFL teams have not risen above the 25% threshold. Goodell said DeSantis has not pushed for higher numbers in the seats.
“We’re going to try to bring in as many fans as we can safely do into Raymond James Stadium,” Goodell said. “I’m not sure there is a specific number that we are confident saying, ‘This is what it will be,’ but obviously our focus will be on keeping them safe, whoever’s in.”
“The governor’s been very supportive of the Super Bowl,” said Goodell, who had met with DeSantis before last year’s Super Bowl in Miami. “He’s been very supportive of that, but he also understands the importance of doing it safely and responsibly. They have been very supportive and we appreciate that.”
The league is also confident in its ability to host the event despite the state of Florida’s high number of COVID-19 cases. The White House Coronavirus Task Report released a report last week stating that Florida was in the “red zone” with more than a 10.1% positivity rate, the 33rd-highest rate in the country. Hillsborough County, which is where Tampa is located, is faring better and is in the “orange zone,” with positivity rates between 8.0% and 10%.
When asked what the NFL can do to ensure that this event doesn’t contribute to further spread of the virus, such as encouraging fans to congregate in large groups as has typically been the case in Super Bowl host cities, Goodell pointed to the league’s track record this season as reason for his optimism.
“We as a league have less than 1% positivity, and we have worked hard, obviously, with the players’ association, with our medical experts to take the necessary steps to not be part of the problem but actually be part of the solution and try to do things in a way that are responsible and safe, not just for our personnel but also the communities in which we’re operating in,” Goodell said. “We also want to make sure that we’re sending the right messages and sending the right messages of doing things safely, taking the proper precautions across our communities — social distancing and PPE (personal protective equipment), how we’re all operating and coming together at different times.”
Overall, Goodell said he was encouraged by what he saw in Tampa and what he’s seen throughout the league, with no reported outbreaks stemming from fans attending games.
“We felt incredibly safe yesterday in the stadium,” said Goodell, who sat with his family in the stands for about a quarter and a half. “We have been able to have fans in half of our stadiums this year, and we’ve been able to do that successfully and safely for our fans, and you can see the enjoyment they have. It will be different, and we’ll have to make sure that we’re taking precautions and we’ll use our platform to make sure people are doing things safely.”
Goodell acknowledged that the pandemic could prompt the league to push for later arrivals for the two Super Bowl teams, rather than them spending a full week in Tampa, as has been the case in the past. But that decision won’t be made until the event gets closer. Opening night, when players meet with the media — and which in recent years has become a prime-time event — will be held virtually. The NFL Honors red-carpet event will also shift to more of a focus on television.
“A number of things will inevitably be different,” said NFL executive vice president Peter O’Reilly. “But different isn’t always worse, and we think we can innovate and adapt and create a really powerful Super Bowl week that culminates in a really unifying game day on Sunday.”
There also hasn’t been any sort of push to award Tampa another Super Bowl, given that its businesses and tourism won’t get the same type of boost or promotion they’d receive in a non-pandemic year. But Goodell, who spent Monday meeting with local business and community leaders, pointed out the high number of Super Bowls the city has already hosted (Super Bowl LV will be the city’s fifth time hosting the event), saying he believes team owners will be mindful of its ability to put on such a large-scale event, something few thought would be possible outside the confines of a bubble in the pandemic.
“One of the things that we learned from our experience this year, going all the way back to the start of free agency, the offseason and the draft, is that we have to be prepared to adapt and to evolve,” Goodell said. “Our protocols have been adapted and have evolved over the course of the season. We continue to look at that and we will continue to look at this over the next 55 days.
“Clearly, we’ve taken the necessary steps to minimize risk for our personnel in our communities and we’ll continue to do that. But we will not make projections about what the current environment will be 55 days from now. We will adjust and we will evolve as the data becomes clearer and public health officials and others in the community give us the best guidance.”