For the second straight week, the N.F.L. is grappling with the fallout from positive coronavirus tests, an existential threat to the league’s adherence to playing the season according to its schedule.
As most of the league practiced, as usual, on Wednesday, more discouraging developments surfaced in New England and Tennessee. The Patriots’ star cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, the league’s defensive player of the year in 2019, was revealed to have tested positive just four days after a positive test by the team’s quarterback, Cam Newton, was confirmed. In Nashville, three more members of the team tested positive this week, running the Titans total of players and employees who are known to have contracted the virus since Sept. 24 to 23.
The positive tests were announced two days after the league put into place new measures meant to halt the spread of infections, protocols added after the N.F.L. scrambled to push back two games in response to new cases.
“We just have to continue to close any loopholes,” Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, said Wednesday on NFL Network. “We’ve said all along, ‘We know this is going to be hard.’ This virus is a relentless opponent. It needs only a small crack. And even 90 or 95 percent with our protocols is not enough. That’s not a passing grade because that still leaves us a bit vulnerable.”
The N.F.L.’s grappling with the virus has been made tougher by its decision not to play the regular season in a closed community, or bubble, to reduce the risk of infection from the coronavirus that it anticipated for months. Its heightened measures in light of the outbreak include video surveillance of players and team personnel to ensure mask-wearing, a prohibition against traveling during bye weeks and limiting the number of free-agent tryouts.
Gilmore’s infection forced the team to cancel practice Wednesday and jeopardized the Patriots’ home game Sunday against the Denver Broncos, the second time New England would have a game moved, after their meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs was delayed a day in the wake of positive tests from Newton and a Chiefs practice squad quarterback, Jordan Ta’amu.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who played Monday against the Patriots, said it was “a little bit of a mental lapse” that after the game he high-fived Gilmore, who at that point had not tested positive.
“Just trying to show respect to a great football player who I hope is getting better very quickly,” Mahomes said Wednesday, “and I’ll try to keep away from that and try not to do it again.”
Mahomes added that after Ta’amu tested positive last week, he started sleeping in a different bedroom from his pregnant fiancee.
With no new positive tests emerging for either the Chiefs or the Patriots on Sunday or Monday — and after the league took the additional step, Sills said, of reviewing video from the Patriots’ facility to confirm compliance with wearing masks and tracking devices — the league went ahead with the game. The Patriots chartered two planes to fly to Kansas City, Mo., on Monday morning: one for players who had been in contact with Newton, another for those who hadn’t.
While the Patriots have so far reported only two confirmed cases, the Titans are dealing with a much less contained outbreak. The team must now return two consecutive days of negative tests before it can be cleared to re-enter its facility. The Titans have not been permitted by the league to hold in-person practices since playing the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 27.
The Titans’ initial outbreak, reported after that game, caused the N.F.L. to reschedule the team’s Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers for Oct. 25. The latest round of positive tests this week imperils their home game on Sunday against Buffalo.
But even as the league has chastised teams for their lax adherence to health protocols and threatened increased penalties for violations, some players have been vocal about maintaining their regular-season routines.
Rodger Saffold, a Titans offensive lineman, defended his teammates on social media after a report that several worked out together last week at a private school, in violation of league rules.
“Guys just don’t work out for fun this is for their lively hood, their family, their opportunity,” Saffold wrote on Twitter. “Say what you want but I’m standing up for my team always.”
For now, neither the league nor its players have moved to adjust or delay the regular-season schedule beyond moving games on an ad hoc basis rather than canceling games, expanding the length of the season or putting teams into quarantine between games, something the N.B.A. and other leagues have done.
The juggling act is likely to continue because even players and coaches who follow the league’s protocols to the letter are still at risk once they leave their team’s facilities.
“Once players go home or walk into Chipotle or go to their chiropractor, they are at risk because Covid is everywhere,” said David Canter, an agent who represents more than two dozen N.F.L. players. “The best way to get through an entire season would be to consider individual bubbles for every team.”
Even as the league punishes teams, players and noncompliant coaches for violating coronavirus safety measures, a growing number of franchises are planning to increase the number of fans in their stadiums on game days.
The Steelers said this week that it would allow as many as 5,700 fans at their game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, following the lead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Carolina Panthers and others who have opted to allow spectators after beginning the season without them.
Some teams are resisting the temptation. The Green Bay Packers said that because of a surge in infections in Wisconsin, they will keep playing without fans in attendance. The Miami Dolphins will continue to have no more than 13,000 fans, or about 20 percent of capacity, at their games even though state rules allow them to fill their stadium, if they choose.
The uneven response, with fans at some games and none at others, is meant to give teams flexibility to recoup some of the billions of dollars in lost revenue from games this season. But a virus this capricious could thwart further efforts by the N.F.L. to return to something that feels like normal.
Gerardo Chowell, the chairman of the Department of Population Health Sciences at Georgia State’s School of Public Health in Atlanta, suggested economic pressures might be taking precedence as the league pressed ahead with games when teams like the Patriots and the Chiefs both reported positive cases just days ahead of their matchup.
“Once you have the data and you are seeing this type of event happening,” Chowell said in a telephone interview, “it’s hard to justify that you should continue moving forward.”