FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are offering season-ticket holders at an elevated risk of COVID-19 infection the chance to skip the 2020 season entirely and still hold on to their seats for the next year.
The policy appears to be the most generous -- or perhaps cautious -- yet announced by an NFL team in response to the coronavirus pandemic, going beyond the league's blanket offer of a full refund for games not played and allowing fans to opt out in advance "if because of age or an underlying health condition (they) are in a population the CDC has identified as being at higher risk of illness from COVID-19."
"By completing this agreement now, your seat location will be protected for the 2021 season," the Patriots said in an email to season ticket holders this week. A copy of the email was obtained by The Associated Press.
Typically, fans who cancel their season tickets lose the chance to buy those seats in future years and are replaced by someone on a waiting list, if there is one. The Patriots, who have won six Super Bowls since 2001, have a wait list with tens of thousands of names, many of whom have waited a decade or more for the chance to buy tickets.
Patriots spokesperson Stacey James would not elaborate on the policy, saying the team would let the letter speak for itself.
Other teams contacted by the AP said they had not arrived at a similar policy, with some noting that the timeline and path of the disease is unpredictable. Many extended their payment deadlines because of the economic fallout of the pandemic; the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs say on their website that they "would be happy to assist you and discuss arrangements for your season tickets" if fans are having trouble paying for them because of COVID-19.
But even teams that have struggled to fill their stadiums might not be as worried as usual about selling tickets in 2020. Most sports that have returned to play in the U.S. and elsewhere have done so without fans or with restricted capacity, including NASCAR and the PGA Tour.
The NHL and NBA are making plans to sequester their teams in a "bubble" or limited number of hubs and play in empty arenas to minimize the chance of an infection seeping into their leagues. Major League Baseball, which was in the middle of spring training but had not begun its regular season when the country went into isolation in March, is mired in a labor battle over the conditions -- and finances -- of a return.
The NFL was in its offseason when the shutdown occurred, and it has not had to make any major changes to its schedule yet. The league typically opens training camps in July, with exhibition games in August and the regular season starting in September; it announced its full 2020 schedule in May, as usual.
"We remain optimistic for the return of football and we are preparing to play each home game as scheduled in front of our Season Ticket Members this fall," the Patriots wrote their season-ticket holders. "We will do so in full compliance with the NFL and all government regulations and will rely on the advice of medical and public health professionals to maintain the safety of our fans, players, and personnel."
According to the Reopening Massachusetts plan issued by Gov. Charlie Baker, the Patriots will not be able to play at home in front of fans until the state reaches Phase 4, which would require a COVID-19 vaccine or treatments. Experts say it will take a year to 18 months, at a minimum, to develop a vaccine.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top epidemiologist, told CNN this week that the NFL will need to take extreme precautions to be able to return at all.
"Unless players are essentially in a bubble -- insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day -- it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall," he said. "If there is a second wave ... football may not happen this year."