NFL expands bench area, tightens mask rules

  • ESPN.com national NFL writer
  • ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
  • Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008

The NFL is expanding the team bench area and tightening mask requirements on game days after two players infected with COVID-19 exposed at least eight others via close contact Sunday.

The bench area will now span 60 yards along the sideline, from one 20-yard line to the other, to encourage better physical distancing among players and coaches. The league is also mandating face coverings for all players during pregame and postgame interactions, either on the field or in the locker room, and strongly recommending their use on the sideline for any player “not participating on the field or about to enter the game,” according to a memo distributed Tuesday to teams.

Those actions followed contact tracing performed after Green Bay Packers running back AJ Dillon and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey returned positive tests performed Sunday morning. The league determined that two Packers players had “high-risk” close contact with Dillon, and at least six from the Ravens had it with Humphrey. As a result, they must isolate from the team for five days.

Speaking on a conference call with reporters, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said that face coverings and appropriate physical distancing on game day are key parts of the decision to classify a close contact as high risk.

“What we are trying to convey and say,” Sills said, “is that masks can prevent you from becoming a high-risk contact. This is our goal. So it’s in [everyone’s] best interest to wear a mask for their protection and to reduce their exposure. … We believe that mask use, whether it’s in the locker room or on the sideline, it just reduces your chance of becoming a high-risk contact should someone turn positive.”

Meanwhile, the NFL also adjusted the “intensive” protocols it uses when a player or staff member has been infected. Moving forward, there will be a ban on in-person meetings for coaches and other personnel staff, following the infection and eventual isolation of multiple members of the Denver Broncos’ coaching staff.

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