The NFL has begun preparations for football to return, starting with the practice facilities.
As teams prepare for the start of training camp in July, and the start of the season in September, the league has issued guidelines that will be implemented to make that return as safe as possible.
The NFL sent a nine-page memo to the 32 clubs Sunday night outlining protocols and procedures for the eventual return of players to team facilities. Among the new protocols and requirements agreed upon by the NFL and NFLPA are a three-tiered system for personnel and their access to parts of each building, the implementation of an Infectious Disease Emergency Response Plan, and social distancing requirements that will likely force changes around each building to locker rooms, dining rooms, weight rooms and meeting spaces.
The Detroit Lions began opening up their practice facility in Allen Park on Wednesday to certain staff under guidelines set up by the NFL, state and local authorities, and two separate committees the organization has established – an Infection Response Team (mainly medical based topics) and a Return to Work Committee (building related topics). The latter is headed by Kevin Anderson, chief of staff/head coach administration for the Lions. Assistant athletic trainer Matt Barnes leads the IRT team. Barnes is also employed by Henry Ford Health system, and those connections to the health community locally have been a huge help for the Lions in securing proper safety equipment.
"This is a soft opening, for sure," Anderson told detroitlions.com in a Zoom call Wednesday. "The purpose of this first group, which internally we refer to as Group A, is really designed for people who can't work from home physically. If you can work from home successfully like we have been as a team, we're recommending that.
"Our equipment team and our field crew, their workflow simply requires them to be present in the building. Our equipment staff has been itching to get back in the building. They have pallets upon pallets backed up on the loading docks of equipment and Nike gear that is going to take them several weeks just to organize and unpack and disinfect and label to get lockers ready. That crew is a great example, plus our field crew, of two groups that physically can't work from home, and that's the true purpose for this first group returning to the training facility."
Among some of the things the Lions have done to prepare for the building opening in Allen Park are:
- 45 additional wall hand sanitizer stations
- 42 touchless soap dispensers in restrooms
- Touchless faucets throughout the building
- Purell hand sanitizer in every office
- Welcome back kits in every office of those returning that includes: One 16 oz hand sanitizer, one two oz hand sanitizer, three-ply medical masks, one canister of disinfectant wipes and one box of 100 gloves
- Touchless refrigerator coolers
- A full-facility Clorox 360 Electrostatic Spray down has occurred eight times
- There's been full carpet cleaning
- A new air filtration system is coming
The Group A employees that returned to Allen Park this week are subject to temperature checks upon arrival at their designated entry to the building. They also have to fill out information using an app that tracks movements and frequency to the building. PPE's will be required, and staff will work on restricted time schedules with restricted access to some areas of the building.
It should be noted that some facility staff, along with the Lions' security staff, worked regular schedules during the pandemic and did so in a safe and professional manner.
Some of the bigger challenges facing the organization as they get the practice facility ready for players and coaches to return in July are expanding the dinning and meeting areas to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
"The dinning operation sticks out to me, for sure," Anderson said. "We've been having a lot of meetings just with our food service provider, our nutritionist and our medical team about how we are going to safely serve our athletes.
"We're still going to be playing football and our players train hard so we have to be able to properly fuel and then re-fuel after these sessions. Doing it safely is going to require a lot of extra space. We're looking at expanding our kitchens. We're looking at portable kitchens outdoors. We're looking to add tents to our building so we have more space to eat."
Anderson said another issue that's been in the forefront of his mind is being able to have normal film meetings. Anderson said the team is getting creative about new spaces within the building that are bigger so they can utilize them as team meeting and film spaces for some of the position groups that have more players.
"We may need to get creative and utilize our draft room or utilize our indoor field," Anderson said. "We're going to need to adjust everyone. I think when our players return in training camp, their usual home bases will all be different based on having to have proper amount of space and ventilation to have these meetings."
Anderson said days will be very structured when the players return in terms of when players lift because there's a maximum number allowed in the weight room, when players receive treatment, and when they eat, shower and use their lockers. It's going to be very regimented.
Players are still not permitted at the facility except for those rehabilitating injuries. Coaches were allowed to return to the building this week. Most Lions players and coaches will return to team facilities for the start of training camp in July.
The three-tiered system the NFL outlined in its memo consists of Tier 1 employees, who will include players and essential football personnel such as coaches and trainers. Teams can designate only 60 employees other than players for this level. Tier 2 will consist of 20 other employees who can conduct their jobs while maintaining social distancing such as general managers, football operations personnel, ownership representatives and video personnel. Tier 3, which is limited to 45 employees, will include those who perform essential facility, stadium or event services, but do not require close contact with players or personnel from Tiers 1 and 2.
There will be separate entrances to the building for the different Tiers and daily screenings and tests are expected.
There's obviously still a lot of work to be done by Anderson and the other Lions employees working on the Infection Response Team and Return to Work Committee to get the building ready for the return of football, but the first steps are taking place, with more to come.
Slowly but surely, football is beginning to return.