The NFL and NFLPA extended their protocols and regulations for testing at team facilities several times this summer and, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, plan to talk this week regarding how to handle bye weeks. The contact tracing and testing measures have worked better than anyone could have ever anticipated, with the NFL having no new confirmed positive tests for players or coaches through the first two weeks. However, the policies in place do not currently extend all season. The NFL and NFLPA opted in early September to extend the measure in place regarding non-game day testing through the rest of the month, but those measures in essence come into question early next month.
There is currently no plan on what players and team employees will be allowed to do during their bye weeks, and it is already the topic of substantial in-season discussions both at the league office and within the NFLPA. The union has an executive committee meeting set for this week, and the league has been caucusing owners and coming up with plans for how in-season testing and tracing should continue.
The first set of bye weeks come in Week 5, with the Lions and Packers both off that week. In Week 6, the Raiders, Patriots, Saints and Seahawks are off. Currently, there are no regulations or stipulations as to what team employees could do during the bye. Often players and team staff have trips planned and players would have several days off away from the facility to do as they wish. There is some support within the NFLPA and the NFL that having mandatory daily testing at the team facility during the bye week is the best possible scenario to avoid any outbreaks and attempt to maintain the level of result seen to this point. But that must be bargained and will be the focus of NFL and NFLPA activity this week, sources said.
"The bye week is absolutely crucial," said one NFL source.
"This is the next big step for both sides," said another source involved in the process. "We worked out how to handle opening the buildings, and how to get through camp and how to handle practices and then, eventually, how to handle travel. But this is another huge step in terms of how we handle the pandemic and try to mitigate risk as best we can."
One NFLPA source said: "To this point we have done a great job of working together (NFL and NFLPA) and following the data. We didn't want to project what the scenario could be like two or three months down the road. We've been focused on following the data and the science every two-to-three weeks and I expect we will meet with them soon, maybe by midweek, to discuss what we do next."
All sides agree that the protocols have worked beyond anyone's expectations to this point, but the bye weeks provide different challenges, and navigating them while mitigating risks is crucial to the success of a full season. At least two teams are on the bye each week from Week 5-13, and in Week 8 and Week 11 six teams are on the bye; that's roughly 20 percent of the league's rosters who would be allowed to travel freely and not be subject to daily testing and at-work testing unless current protocols are extended.
Dr. Allen Sills, chief medical officer of the NFL, has told me on several occasions that the NFL's testing facilities could withstand the load of daily testing at all NFL facilities for the entire season, and that the league's budget would allow for that as well.