NFL owners agreed Wednesday to relax COVID-19 protocols almost entirely for fully vaccinated players and staff, an additional incentive to seek shots before training camp opens this summer. The NFL Players Association also signed off on the new policy.
The league has told staff members that it expects them to get vaccinated unless they have an approved religious or medical exemption. But player participation is voluntary, per agreement with the NFLPA. Speaking after a two-day virtual league meeting, commissioner Roger Goodell said that 30 of the 32 teams have reported vaccination rates of more than 90% among the Tier 1 and Tier 2 staff groups that work among their football operations. The other two teams are over 85%, Goodell said.
Goodell did not specify rates for players but made a point to say that they will be safer if they are vaccinated.
"We know for a fact that that is the one step that everyone can take that makes them safer, not just for themselves but for their families and others that they may be in contact with," Goodell said. "We'll continue to provide whatever education that we can about vaccinations themselves with medical experts as well as others to try to help people make their personal decisions in the best possible way for their safety as well as the people around them."
Moving forward, players and staff who are fully vaccinated will not be subject to daily testing. They will have no mask requirements, will not have to quarantine if they are exposed to a COVID-19 positive person and won't have travel restrictions. They will be allowed to eat in the team cafeteria, won't be subject to weight room capacity limits, can use the team sauna and can interact with vaccinated friends and family during travel.
Those who are not fully vaccinated, however, will not receive those perks. They must still test daily, wear a mask at team facilities, follow social distancing procedures and quarantine after exposure. They will have restrictions when they travel, will be subject to capacity limits in the weight room, won't be able to use the sauna and will be prohibited from interacting with vaccinated friends and family during travel.
NFL players have begun returning to team facilities for voluntary offseason workouts, in many cases on modified schedules negotiated between coaches and player representatives to the NFLPA. The leaguewide positivity rate since the end of the 2020 season is 0.04%, Goodell said. That rate in 2020 was about 0.08%.
On Tuesday, teams learned that they will be permitted to host fans when training camps open in late July, subject to state and local guidelines. In addition, all but two teams have now received approval from state and local governments to open their stadiums at full capacity when games resume. The league expects similar outcomes for the other two teams, the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.
In other news Wednesday, owners:
• Approved a rule that expands the area where blocks below the waist are prohibited. They may now occur only within a newly created "tight end box," defined as within 2 yards of the traditional tackle position and 5 yards on either side of the line of scrimmage. Blocking, or taking on blocks, below the waist outside of that area will carry a 15-yard penalty.
While seemingly obscure, the change will force a significant alteration in blocking techniques for players who pull or are otherwise on the move outside of the tight end box. The same goes for defenders, who won't be able to "cut down" bigger offensive players as they approach outside the box. It could also prove difficult for officials, who will be required to envision the artificial boundaries of the area.
• Agreed to set initial training camp roster limits at 90. There will be three sets of cutdowns, one after each of the three preseason games, as follows:
Aug. 17: 85-man roster limit
Aug. 24: 80-man roster limit
Aug. 31: 53-man roster limit
• Set the 2022 salary cap ceiling at $208.2 million, in agreement with the NFLPA. The final number will be determined next spring, based on 2021 league revenues, and could fall below the ceiling. If the CBA calculation calls for a higher number, the difference will be used to pay off $17 million in player benefits that were canceled as a result of the COVID-19 amendments the league and union agreed to last July, according to ESPN NFL Insider Dan Graziano.