It's the NFL's turn to welcome crowds amid COVID, and the concerns that come with doing so

The last time we saw professional football played in earnest, about 22,000 fans — including 7,500 vaccinated health care workers — watched Super Bowl LV from the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. They were surrounded by some 30,000 cutouts, all part of the COVID protocols of the time.

Thursday the NFL is back, with its regular-season opener in the same stadium. Tom Brady and his Super Bowl champion Buccaneers will host the Dallas Cowboys.

This time the place will be packed. No cardboard fans. No mandatory masks. No proof of vaccination.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. This the NFL joining the new normal of sports; living with the pandemic.

Since last spring, there have been full stands for baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, golf and the UFC, not to mention concerts, clubs, restaurants, planes, buses and well pretty much everything else at this point, inside and out.

Yet, last week, scenes of college football fans cheering and screaming and singing shoulder-to-shoulder across the country elicited a reaction.

“I don’t think it’s smart,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to multiple presidents, told CNN. “Outdoors is always better than indoors, but when you have such a congregate setting of people close together, first, you should be vaccinated. And when you do have congregate settings, particularly indoors, you should be wearing a mask.”

Fauci has spent his life studying infectious diseases, so his opinion should be respected. And he certainly wasn’t alone in the sentiment.

“Will College Football Games Become Covid-19 Coronavirus Superspreader Events?” Forbes asked in a story.

If college football sparked concern, then it stands to reason the NFL, which is even more popular although its stadiums are smaller, will do the same this weekend. The league has staged three weeks of preseason games, but Thursday is when even the non-football obsessed tune in.

Why football and not the other sports? Who knows? What was the difference between fans filling a baseball park in Chicago, let alone a basketball arena in Manhattan, and a football stadium in Iowa City, Iowa?

Fans will be back in NFL stadiums this fall, starting in Tampa on Thursday. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Fans will be back in NFL stadiums this fall, starting in Tampa on Thursday. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Maybe it’s football’s cultural significance. Or maybe it’s huge, passionate crowds essentially participating in the event — jumping around in Wisconsin, dancing amid "California Love" in Pasadena, welcoming the entrance of Sandman in Virginia.

For the NFL, it’s full steam ahead, a return to normalcy even if no one knows how long it will last. Three teams — New Orleans, Las Vegas and Seattle — are already requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours to enter their stadiums. More may follow, especially in places with permanent or retractable roofs, even if those are very large, ventilated structures.

My expertise on the subject is essentially limited to being one of the millions of Americans who attended a college game as a fan last week, in my case at the University of Michigan.

The announced crowd at Michigan Stadium was 109,295. The real number was smaller, maybe 95,000. Either way, a lot of people.

While pictures from the Big House gave the impression of everyone stacked on top of each other, in reality it felt very different. No matter how many tens of thousands were there, a single fan was still in close proximity, even within 6 feet, of just the few seated around them. At least some were from their own family, or party.

And again, it was all outdoors. Masks were suggested when hitting the bathrooms — probably a good idea in the best of times — and concessions were limited to the concourse (no vendors walking the stands). The least spaced-out place was the ticket gate, which will seemingly be an even bigger issue anywhere they are attempting the tedious process of checking testing or vaccination status.

Other than that, it was a perfectly normal day in Ann Arbor. And gloriously so. Watching a game from the stands felt at least as safe as 100 other daily activities.

Like on most college campuses, vaccination rates are extraordinarily high — Michigan requires it of its students. While no vaccine is perfect, it’s still very effective at preventing serious symptoms. It’s not like the school is cavalier about this. Its president, Dr. Mark Schlissel, is, himself, an immunologist.

Sure, a total lockdown is always the best prevention, but those can’t go on forever. At least some of the unvaccinated — and there will be plenty at NFL games — probably weren’t going to watch in isolation if the stadium was empty.

They’d have gone to bars or had friends over to watch. Is it better to have the approximately 17,000 U of M students who attended in small dorms or apartments … or a massive open-aired bowl?

Fauci and others may cringe and fret over the impact. That’s their job. They warn because constant warning is necessary, like a nervous parent telling a teen driver to be careful. They know danger lurks. The kid has to be able to drive the car though.

Football is seizing its chance to do what other sports, other industries, other walks of life have done. Manage its way through COVID, including with roaring crowds and sprawling tailgates. Now it's the NFL’s turn.

So get ready for Chiefs Kingdom and Bills Mafia, get ready for the Lambeau Leap and the Dawg Pound, get ready for Terrible Towels and “J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets.”

And Thursday, if/when Brady leads the Bucs to a touchdown, get ready for the team’s end zone pirate ship to shoot off its cannons, just like last season.

Only this time with a full house to appreciate it.