Sugarman wore a natty Viking-logoed black mask to start the tour in this three-year-old football palace, and he made it clear immediately that there will be no mask-related politics inside this building this year.
“You are required to wear a face covering inside this building all day,” he said. Then, sternly: “Without exception.”
He won’t be alone in his enforcement. Here, and with every team, there will be three additional “COVID Protocol Coordinators,” to enforce rules, manage flow around the building and coordinate the tracing and tracking of people. (More about that in a moment.)
• First stop: the four testing bays. In training camp, the 100 club employees who come into daily contact with players—coaches, trainers, staff, service employees, team media people—and 80 players will enter the trailer and undergo the COVID-19 test. Not the deep “brain-scraper,” but the mid-nasal test that’s not as intrusive. I’m hearing the league is leaning toward compromising with the union and ordering daily tests, at least for a substantial period of time this summer.
There’s one entry for all 180 essential personnel, called Tier 1 and Tier 2 employees and players. (Others who work in the building will use another entry and be shielded for entering any part of the building where any of the 180 can go.) Next: Enter, and sanitize the hands at one of the automatic sanitizing stations. CLEAN HANDS ARE SAFE HANDS, the machine reminds you.
Then it’s temperature screening at the thermal-scanner tablet with camera on top. With mask on—the device won’t work unless half the face is covered—you step about 18 inches from the camera and center your face so it focuses on you.
I did it. The device took three seconds to read me. I’m good: 97.9.
“Temperature detected is normal,” the voice in the tablet said.
• Entry: Call up the TeamWorks app on your phone, enter your temperature and answer the 10 health questions. If you’re good, the smart phone shows a big green check mark.
“You’re approved to enter TCOPC today,” the screen below the checkmark says.
A COVID Protocol Coordinator will give each player, plus all Tier 1 and Tier 2 employees, something called a proximity tracking device when they enter. That will track the movements of every player and employee throughout the day, in the building and on the field—even in the huddle. This, of course, will allow tracers, if someone tests positive for COVID-19, to figure out which player or employee has been in close proximity to the infected person, and for how long, to determine the course of palliative action the team should take after contact-tracing. NFL medical director Allen Sills on Sunday called this a huge part of the league’s efforts to ID all people who come into contact with an infected person.
• Locker room: By NFL standards, it’s particularly big—6,500 square feet, complete with fireplaces and a wall of TVs, and 94 wide-body lockers. When the players report, only 42 will be used . . . with more on the way this week.
“We have the good fortune of being in one of the largest and most awesome facilities in the NFL, and in the locker room, it gives us a big advantage when it comes to social distancing,” Sugarman said. The locker room, a week out from welcoming players, is still a work in progress; Kirk Cousins still has a full locker neighboring to his right, but that will be eliminated when players report. The finished product, Sugarman said, will have an empty locker next to a used one, never two used ones in a row. This week, extra spaced-out lockers will be added to accommodate more players, and some rookies may be housed in an adjoining room. The couches are gone. More space. More breathing room. “The goal is no player will be within six feet of another player,” Sugarman said.
• The hot/cold tubs: Normally, each modern built-in tub would fit 12 players. Now they’re marked for six, with purple markers placed for each of the players to stand. In training camp, when more than six players would want to crowd into a cold tub to lower the body temperature, the Vikings will put up tents outside, with individual ice barrels for players.
• Showers: Every other shower head will be removed. No player will shower closer than six feet from another.
• Training room: The tables that appear closer than six feet apart will be separated by plexiglass to be installed this week. And every table, once used, will be cleaned by an electrostatic sprayer, the kind you’ve seen used to clean airplanes, spraying a fine mist of disinfectant. Sugarman demonstrated on a treatment table.
“The difference is, you want to leave it wet, rest for several minutes,” Sugarman said. “These particles cover the entire the table. They go in the cracks. So, a much safer way to clean. We’ll use these sprayers in the weight room, in the players [meeting] rooms, in the cafeteria.”
• Meeting rooms: These have all changed. A large room for the offensive linemen, for instance, which normally would fit 20 big men sitting at long tables with the coaches at the front, has had all but 12 chairs removed. There is at least six feet between each chair, and at least six feet between the chairs, front and back. In the linebacker room, 14 seats have been reduced to eight, with a jumbo round container of sanitary wipes and a Purell dispenser when players walk in. And on the floor of the linebacker room . . . what’s that?
“Christmas stuff,” Sugarman said. “You should see what the offensive linemen do in their room.”
There’s a North Pole sign, unstrung lights, a small fake tree, and a bunch of little Santas, neatly arranged, waiting to be boxed—most likely to be put away for next December. Which really isn’t that far off. But that’s what happens when a pandemic hits. Normally, the Christmas stuff would get put away before the offseason program commenced in April. Not this year. No offseason program.
In football, there are daily full-squad meetings, and this building has a lovely 172-luxe-chair theater-type setting for just that. Not anymore. “We’ll be able to use 42 of the chairs in here this year,” said Sugarman, motioning to the back of the sloping theater. “By the time the players get here, the seats on these other chairs will be screwed out. Again: No one will be within six feet of anyone else.”
This room will likely be used for defensive team meetings. The offense, likely, will be down on the artificial turf of the indoor facility, with AV equipment and a big screen rolled in daily for film study for the full offense.
Full team meetings? It’s probable that those will be held by videoconference, the way teams did a lot of their teaching in the offseason.
“Again,” Sugarman said, “there’s going to be lots of new normal this year.”
• Cafeteria: At one point during the tour, Sugarman walked into the cafeteria, which normally seats more than 100. This year: 40, with the hope that most people will grab-and-go. “Where’s the food!” he said to the cafeteria workers, knowing that the food this year won’t be laid out to ladle onto plates or taken with fingers.
“Players will not touch food,” he said. “Disposable plate, single-use condiments . . . pasta salad, maybe, in a sealed container. Same food. It just might look a little different when they get it. Best thing is, we’re gonna have an app on your phone. You can order your lunch in the morning. You can walk up here, and grab-and-go. Kirk Cousins walks in, grabs it, he’s here for 15 seconds, he goes back and eats at his locker or wherever.”
• The COVID room: There’s one room in the building. It’s a typical office that will be kept empty and sterile, except when a player or staff member feel sick or is notified he/she has tested positive. Sugarman has laid out a slew of health-care products to show me. Once a person tests positive or complains of illness, the person will be isolated in this room.
“The sick player will get a care package,” Sugarman said. “Three different kinds of face coverings in the care package. A fingertip pulse oximeter because we know COVID can affect oxygen levels and we want to be able to track that. A thermometer. Hibiclens soap, to clean. Gloves. A meal schedule; we can deliver meals to them if they’re isolated. So they’ll get this bag, with all this, and they will be either removed from the building or not allowed in the building, once we examine them.”
If a player or staff person is married or living with someone, the ICO has accounted for that too. When camp begins, there will be a meeting for all family members of players and staffers—sort of what-to-do-if-your-loved-one-gets-sick info session.
There’s another aspect of the 2020 operation here, and with every team, that interested me. The Vikings have approximately 210 employees who work here. With only 100 being allowed to work in proximity to the players, surely there are some jobs that now will either go undone or have to be done by some of the 100. The Vikings Entertainment Network, with 30 employees producing content for the website and league use, will have only six employees in the player-touching group of 100 employees. The ticket manager who handles player tickets? If there are fans at games this year, someone else will do the job of taking player ticket orders. Not essential enough. Same with some janitorial/cleaning staff, interns for various staffs. Now, all of those employees below the 100 who touch the players keep their jobs. They’ll just be doing them without personal contact with the players.
“Sug [Sugarman] and I had to sit down and cut that 200-plus to 100,” Spielman said. “That wasn’t easy, believe me. But I’m actually excited about it.”
“We all gotta pitch in,” Spielman said. “That’s what a team does. When a meeting room as to be sanitized between meetings, we’re going to take turns going in there, everyone [in Tier 1 and 2]. I’ll be cleaning rooms. We all will. You know what was exciting to me? When we had to cut down that list to get to 100, and you let people know their roles, I got three phone calls that night from guys saying, ‘What can I do to help? What do you need me to do?’ “
Theoretically, Spielman could have the short straw one day. He could cut a player and, if no one’s around to drive, Spielman could have to drive the guy to the airport to start his next life.
The more you can do. That just might be the NFL motto for 2020, for as long as this season can last.