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NFL opens to full stadiums as COVID-19 surges

Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (90) pressures Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) during the second half of an NFL football game Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tom Brady calmly ran out from a smoke-filled tunnel, leading the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers onto the field Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys in front of a full stadium for the first time since COVID-19 upended the world and changed the way sports were viewed.

The NFL kicked off its biggest season — teams are playing a 17-game schedule — with no capacity limitations as the league follows the NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAA and others in opening its doors to soldout stadiums.

While there were no restrictions in the preseason, stadiums weren’t completely filled as many fans skip exhibition games.

That wasn’t the case at Raymond James Stadium with more than 65,000 fans coming out to see the Buccaneers celebrate their championship before beginning defense of their crown.

“Seven months ago, we made NFL history,” owner Bryan Glazer told the screaming fans during a brief pre-game ceremony. “There was one thing missing: All of you. Welcome back to Raymond James Stadium.”

Thousands of fans gathered outside the stadium before the game, eating, drinking and enjoying the atmosphere as they waited for gates to open. Once they did, the party moved inside.

Fans are returning as COVID-19 surges, with about 150,000 new cases daily. The delta variant is filling hospitals, children are getting sick, and some schools are abruptly switching back to remote learning because of outbreaks. The U.S. death toll stands at more than 650,000, with one major forecast model projecting it will top 750,000 by Dec. 1 — deep into the NFL season.

“We and our clubs are in daily and regular conversations with local and state authorities, but as we sit here right now, we don’t anticipate any reduction in capacity this year,” Peter O’Reilly, NFL executive vice president of club business and events, said in the league’s last briefing.

“We really feel good about where we stand, given the vaccination rates across the country, and feel as though we will be able to move through the season. Obviously, we don’t take anything for granted; we work closely on all of our protocols, working with and under the guidance of those state and local authorities. As we sit here today, all 30 stadiums are able to be at full capacity and that’s how we expect to go through the season in lockstep with those local and state authorities.”

NFL teams can have different stadium policies and protocols. The Seattle Seahawks, Las Vegas Raiders and New Orleans Saints are requiring fans to provide proof of vaccination to enter. Other teams may join them along the way.

College football’s first full weekend included some stadiums filled to capacity — more fans than will attend most NFL games.

“While people are still getting sick, people aren’t dying at the same rate, according to the statistics. That’s the key,” said Dr. Rand McLain, chief medical officer of Live Cell Research Health.

“You go back to where it started, hospitals were loading up and an inordinate amount of people were dying. We’re past that now at least at this time, though we have the delta variant and the mu variant beating the vaccines. From there, being outside is a huge plus. You’re not seeing the transmission when there’s a breeze blowing.”

The Buccaneers have relaxed several protocols. Fans will not be temperature screened and masks are not required, but are encouraged for indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status. Few fans wore masks inside one of the stadium’s club suites.

“We’re vaccinated, we followed all the rules and we’re not afraid,” said Bucs fan Terry Leonas, who snagged a pair of tickets last minute off a friend who couldn’t make the game.

Another group of fans wore masks in the seats despite being outside.

“We’re not taking any chances,” said Carl Esperson, the lone Cowboys fan among six friends wearing their Bucs jerseys.”

They lowered their masks for a photo and to sip their beers.

The Tampa Sports Authority is continuing with enhanced cleaning and disinfection of high-traffic areas. All restrooms have been retrofitted with touchless fixtures and all concession stands will have plexiglass dividers, with staff wearing masks. All parking lots and concessions will continue to be completely cashless this season.

“As we have stated all along, our top priority has been, and continues to be, the safety of all players, coaches, staff and fans at our games,” said Buccaneers chief operating officer Brian Ford.

A Florida judge ruled Wednesday that the state cannot enforce a ban on public schools mandating the use of masks to guard against the coronavirus, while an appeals court sorts out whether the ban is ultimately legal.

The league hasn’t mandated vaccines for players but strongly encouraged it with strict protocols for those who don’t get the shot. Entering the season opener, 93.5% percent of players are vaccinated. Seventeen teams are above 95%, with the Buccaneers and Falcons at 100%.

Unvaccinated players are tested daily and must follow rigid protocols. Fully vaccinated players are being tested weekly instead of every 14 days, as they were during training camp.

The NFL Players Association wants daily COVID-19 testing for fully vaccinated players, but the league isn’t requiring it yet.