The NFL and NFL Players Association have agreed to suspend all Covid-19 protocols, effective immediately, returning teams and players to pre-pandemic operations for the first time since March 2020. The NFL, which is not in season, is the first of the major professional sports leagues in the United States to end their coronavirus policies.
Players and team personnel will no longer be required to wear masks inside facilities, adhere to social distancing measures, or restrict access to team buildings based on vaccination or professional function, according to a memo sent to the 32 teams on Thursday, although each team will have to comply with local ordinances governing mask mandates.
Teams are expected to provide an area where PCR tests can be run onsite for anyone who self-reports coronavirus symptoms, but there will be no mandatory test cadence. Those who test positive will be required to self-isolate for five days, in accordance with current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The memo cited “encouraging trends” in the prevalence and severity of Covid-19 cases, evolving CDC guidance, and changes to state laws as reasons for the change.
The number of new cases and hospitalizations have fallen sharply from the national peak in January. The NFL said in the memo it would work with the players’ union and medical experts to verify whether the protocols should be reimposed in whole or in part.
Zachary Binney, a sports epidemiologist at Oxford College at Emory University in Georgia, said the league’s decision was largely in line with revised CDC guidelines, although he added that federal agency guidelines still supported the use of indoor masks in high-risk areas.
A PGA Tour spokesperson said the Tour will return next week for pre-pandemic access to facilities, including the locker room, dining room and fitness room. The tour halted testing last summer for players and caddies unless they were symptomatic, but had still restricted access for other staff and visitors to mostly indoor facilities used by players. The NBA and NHL are among the leagues that relaxed, but did not eliminate, their protocols in January.
The NFL saw an increase in cases during the rise of the Omicron variant in the United States, with more than 1,200 positive tests recorded among players and staff from December 12 to January 8. But the league reported no positive tests between the Divisional Round playoffs and the Super Bowl. In the final weeks of the 2021 season, the league dropped testing of asymptomatic players, regardless of their vaccination status.
Nearly 95% of players and nearly 100% of team personnel have been vaccinated, according to the NFL. The league in December required all team personnel who were in close contact with players to receive a booster shot. Last month, the league said only around 10% of players had been boosted, but that number may have increased since the end of the season.