Amid NFL’s return, stadium capacities vary

AP Photo | A masked fan waits for the start of an Oct. 14 UEFA Nations League soccer match.

Katia Faroun & Carissa Haslam | The Duquesne Duke

Oct. 29, 2020

Week 1 of football season consisted of cardboard cutout fans and artificial crowd noise. Week 7, on the other hand, brought real fans and fines to NFL teams.

After a long period of uncertainty about the 2020 football season, the NFL agreed upon a set of rules and regulations allowing for the return of the beloved national sport. Fans celebrated the return of NFL football, even with the addition of some new undesirable changes — like fan-free stadiums.

The NFL’s updated regulations explain how the league should handle COVID-19 procedures at the start of the season. Its procedures require daily testing of all NFL personnel, including players, coaches, staff and administration; a “Reserve/COVID-19” list for players who tested positive or were exposed or at high risk of being exposed to someone who tested positive; and specific requirements for players who show symptoms or test positive.

Since there are no nationwide COVID-19 regulations, the specifics vary greatly from state to state and team to team. Teams are responsible for abiding by the NFL’s general regulations, but also have the liberty to create their own COVID-19 policies that are in accordance with their respective state’s guidelines.

Some of the greatest variation exists among stadium spectator limitations. While only a couple NFL teams allowed fans during Week 1, the number of stadiums hosting fans has grown exponentially over the weeks. Only the New York Jets, Las Vegas Raiders, New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams did not host any fans during Week 7 games.

The Washington Football Team, which had initially claimed to not be allowing fans for the entirety of the season, is expected to allow spectators starting Nov. 8 for its divisional game against the New York Giants. The decision comes a week after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced that outdoor sporting events are allowed to open at 10% capacity.

Early in October, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced the end of attendance restrictions for all sporting events in Florida. Under the state’s updated policy, Florida’s three NFL teams — the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins — could host their games with stadiums at full capacity. However, each of the teams have opted to keep their modified stadium capacities in place.

Following DeSantis’ announcement, Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel expressed the franchise’s commitment to keeping their fans and players safe, citing concern over the growing positivity rates in Florida. Florida case numbers have been steadily increasing in recent days, and the state has recorded the 5th highest number of cumulative COVID-19 deaths nationwide.

The Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, both Texas teams, currently allow the highest number of spectators in their stadiums. The Cowboys, who hosted approximately 25,000 fans during their Week 5 game at AT&T Stadium, allowed fans at 25% capacity from the very start of the season. The Texans announced at the end of September that NRG Stadium will allow fans up to 20% of the stadium’s capacity. For its Week 5 game, the stadium held approximately 12,000 fans.

Both stadiums require spectators to sit in designated socially-distant “pods,” or groups of shared ticket holders, wear masks when not eating or drinking and use mobile-only tickets. However, photos and videos of recent Cowboys games show that while these rules are in place, many fans are failing to follow the stadium’s COVID-19 protocols by not wearing masks.

Currently, Texas has reported over 900,000 total COVID-19 cases and is tied with California as the two states with the highest reported cases in the country, according to NBC News. If Texas were its own country, it would rank ninth in the world for total number of cases — even more than Mexico, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 dashboard. Harris and Dallas counties — which include Houston and Dallas — rank highest for COVID-19 cases across the state, and the state has seen a 16% increase in positive cases in the past two weeks.

Multiple players from both Texas teams tested positive for the virus over the summer, but no players from either team have tested positive since the start of the regular season.

The Tennessee Titans experienced a notable outbreak a few weeks into the season, leading to the postponement of two regular season games. Since Sept. 24, 23 players and team personnel have tested positive for the virus — many during the first week of October. The NFL launched an investigation into the cause of the outbreak, and after completing it earlier this week, fined the team $350,000. The investigation found that the Titans organization failed to clearly communicate COVID-19 workout protocols and that various players and personnel failed to adhere to mask-wearing policies while inside facilities.

Some teams, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, only allow season-ticket holders to enter the stadium. Others that welcome fans do so at reduced numbers, or continue to prohibit live spectators indefinitely, such as the Green Bay Packers.

Currently, the Las Vegas Raiders are the only NFL team that is not allowing fans to attend home games for the entire season. The team’s new Allegiant Stadium was set to begin its inaugural season by hosting fans in the Raiders’ Week 2 game against the New Orleans Saints.

While the NFL seems to be slowly restoring its games to a “normal” permissible by CDC guidelines, certainty remains out of reach. Each week brings new changes and updates to NFL regulations and each team’s unique protocols. It could be that overnight, stadiums will become once again empty, save for the pre-recorded cheers and flat faces of cardboard fans.