Since the Minnesota Vikings upgraded from Winter Park to TCO Performance Center, they’ve been quick to show off their latest technological advancements designed to give the organization a competitive advantage. It’s no surprise, then, that they are seemingly ahead of the curve when it comes to COVID-19 prevention with training camp around the corner, as demonstrated to local reporters on a Monday Zoom presentation.
There are, however, some critical questions that remain unanswered as the league squabbles with the NFLPA over official protocols.
As of Monday afternoon, the Vikings are planning on bringing rookies to the team facility on Thursday, July 23 with veterans to follow on Tuesday, July 28. Meanwhile, players across the league have been pleading with NFL leadership via a coordinated Twitter campaign to establish clear safety measures.
Since January, all I’ve wanted to do is get back on the field and play the game I love, but I also want to protect my family and my teammates. #WeWantToPlay but health and safety has to come first let’s not play things by ear, let’s be certain.
— kirkcousins8 (@KirkCousins8) July 19, 2020
While the Vikings have taken a strong initiative to create a safe workplace, athletic trainer Eric Sugarman, the team’s designated infection control officer, says positive tests are “unavoidable” amidst the national pandemic. Yet the Vikings are not able to definitively say how often players will be tested, how they would handle a player that tests positive or how a positive test would impact the participation of those that have been exposed. Those policies will likely be mandated by the league.
“Our whole goal throughout the league is to make it as safe as possible for everyone,” Sugarman told reporters during a Q&A session. “What everyone has to remember is they talk about the players, and the players are essential to playing football, but I think about myself and my family. I think about my wife and my two kids that I go home to each and every day as well. And we all have to think along those lines. We have a different, more impactful responsibility to make sure we do the right thing and to keep this virus outside of this building to the best of our ability.
“Personally I have confidence that we can do it. We have taken every step to make this building as safe as possible, and I’m hopeful we can make this work.”
The organization’s preventative measures are quite impressive indeed. As detailed in a feature Monday morning from NBC’s Peter King and repeated to the local press, the Vikings have set up a testing trailer in their parking lot where players will undergo two-minute screenings that will likely return results in one to two days. Then they’ll take a questionnaire to determine whether they have COVID-like symptoms or risk factors, which is followed by a temperature scan.
That’s all before getting past the entryway.
The Vikings have reduced the capacity of meeting rooms and the locker room to ensure social distancing. Employees will be given strict Tier 1, 2 or 3 access that dictates with whom they are permitted to interact. Private physical exam stations have been set up behind the indoor practice field. All employees will be wearing a tracker that alerts them if they are about to come with 10 feet of an unauthorized person. And mask-wearing is not optional.
Within the walls of TCO Performance Center there will scarcely be a room that doesn’t contain social distancing reminders, warnings for those who won’t have clearance to enter or a hand sanitization station.
But once on the practice field, the game of football has to played, which introduces more randomness and greater uncertainty. From an equipment standpoint, players will have the option of wearing a helmet with an extended visor designed by Oakley. Water bottles and towels won’t be shared on the sideline. But what of the colliding, yelling and sweating that makes football, well, football?
“We’ve had a coaches’ staff meeting probably once a week and talked about COVID updates,” said Sugarman. “I know the coaches have met virtually really since the season ended and talk about things like this. Thankfully, I’m not in those meetings. Other than giving the proper advice on what’s right and what’s wrong and how to minimize our risk, I do know that certainly has to be thought, that anytime you have the opportunity to decrease contact and do your absolute best to minimize risk, you have to do it.”
Sugarman wouldn’t confirm whether any positive tests have been reported within the organization to this point, but the Vikings will know better what they’re dealing with later in the week as players report to camp and receive their initial exams. But without a league-sanctioned policy that dictates how to handle positive tests or the cadence of testing in general, it will be hard for teams to proceed with confidence.
Nonetheless, the Vikings have approached their COVID-19 planning as a component of their preparation, hoping to create a competitive advantage that perhaps compensates for their lack of on-field practice this spring and summer.
“This virus is not political. It doesn’t care about your political affiliation,” said Sugarman. “It doesn’t care about the color of your skin. It doesn’t care about what religion you are. It doesn’t know, so it’s not biased. We have to get everyone to understand it is an absolute competitive advantage in the NFL in 2020 to adhere to these protocols, to take heed of all the warnings. … The team that does it the best clearly has an advantage because they will be healthier in theory, and obviously we know healthy teams tend to win more.”