The Browns reduced the locker room capacity from 90 players to 40 and installed Plexiglas dividers that go from the ceiling almost to the floor. The weight room will house the rest of the roster, with the dumbbells, benches and machines relocated to the field house, which has better ventilation.
Testing, contact tracing and mask wearing have become part of the daily routine.
The Browns have made numerous and significant changes to team headquarters and their common practices as the NFL remains determined to play a full season during the coronavirus pandemic. The team’s chief medical officers acknowledge they can only do so much.
“We all understand the uncertainty of the virus,” senior vice president of player health and development Joe Sheehan said Wednesday on a Zoom call with reporters. “There is no way to completely eliminate the risk. Our focus is to make it as safe as possible. We feel really good about the plan.”
The players have only started to return to Browns headquarters in Berea after an offseason that was held entirely virtually. Many steps and six weeks remain before the start of the NFL season — the Browns open Sept. 13 in Baltimore — but head team physician Dr. James Voos is trying to stay hopeful the season will be played.
“We certainly want to remain cautiously optimistic,” he said. “There are no guarantees in how this virus is going to behave. What we do want to do is assure that we have set up the safest environment possible for the players.
“We feel like we have positioned ourselves using the best available treatments and best available evidence we have to keep our players safe.”
Berea is looking a little bit different this year for #BrownsCamp
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) July 29, 2020
Voos called players reporting to training camp from across the country the “most critical time” and “highest risk” because of the incubation period of the virus, which is why players across the league will be tested every day for at least the first two weeks. He labeled the situation with the virus a “very fluid process” that will be monitored every day.
Browns rookies and quarterbacks began the process of players returning to the team facility Friday, as they were then tested three times in four days. If they tested negative all three times, they were allowed inside the building Monday for physicals and equipment fitting.
The veterans began their testing Tuesday.
When players are back in the building and eventually on the field together — full-team practices are allowed to begin Aug. 12 — the work to ensure a season will only be getting started.
The organization has “invested heavily” in contact tracing technology, Voos said, so if a player tests positive it can identify those who’ve been in close proximity for an extended period of time and take precautions. But the players won’t wear the devices outside of the facility, so they, along with coaches, staff and their families, will be counted on to make safe and responsible decisions on their own time.
“There is no doubt that this is going to be a challenge, right?” Sheehan said. “We are ultimately all in this together, and everyone really has to understand that every decision they make both inside the building and outside the building should be done in an attempt to mitigate the risk of the spread of the virus. We all kind of share that collective responsibility to our success, and we are all kind of looking forward to really working together to ensure we do that.”
Test results are expected back within 24 hours, and Voos said they’re all being done on site and aren’t drawing from the pool available to the public.
Third-year running back Dontrell Hilliard and undrafted rookie defensive back Jovante Moffatt were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Sunday. The category is designated for a player who tests positive or has been quarantined after having been in close contact with an infected person or persons. The NFL-NFL Players Association agreement doesn’t permit teams to say if the player tested positive or is in quarantine.
Voos said timelines will vary for when a player who tested positive can return to the team. He must test negative, be free of symptoms and undergo cardiac and other evaluations to make sure he and the team are safe.
If a player tests positive during the season, he’ll be removed from the facility and safely quarantined. The contact tracing will be used to see if anyone came into sustained close contact, and if so, a quarantine for those people will be considered.
The slow ramp-up to practice comes at a time when Major League Baseball has seen an outbreak of COVID-19 among the Miami Marlins that has endangered the season after less than a week. The Marlins’ season was suspended through Sunday after a total of 15 players tested positive.
“What’s happening with the Marlins is really a great example of the challenge we have lying ahead of us,” Sheehan said. “It is going to be up to all of us to really work together to implement the protocols that we have instituted and put in place to give us the best chance to be successful this fall.”
Like MLB, and unlike the NBA and MLS, the NFL isn’t operating inside a bubble. The number of players, coaches and staff involved would make it more difficult, but the lack of a bubble increases the chances for infection and spread.
So does the nature of the sport. The virus is a contact virus, and football might be the ultimate contact sport.
“There is no doubt this is not a 100 percent risk-free sport, and no sport is 100 percent risk-free,” Voos said. “We want to rely on all of the other tools around us to ensure that they are safe.”
He referenced a mouth shield that would fit on the helmet.
“These types of environments really spawn innovation, and as our equipment continues to evolve, we want to utilize that equipment as much as we possibly can, as well, to provide that extra layer of protection, if at all possible,” Voos said.