6,000-plus fans to attend Bills playoff game
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration is allowing fans to attend the Buffalo Bills' first home playoff game in 24 years, relaxing a ban on crowds at professional sporting events that has remained in effect since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
New York is permitting up to 6,772 fans at the team's first playoff game, or a little more than 9% of the total capacity at Bills Stadium, the 72,000-seat facility in Orchard Park. The tickets quickly sold out.
The state's plan comes with a major catch, however: Each person with a ticket will be required to travel to the stadium in the days leading up to the game to submit to a PCR coronavirus test, which must come back negative in order to attend.
Tailgate parties, a staple of games at Bills Stadium for decades, will be prohibited, according to Cuomo. Fans will also be required to wear masks, maintain social distance and cooperate with contact tracing after the game.
The Bills' Wild Card Round playoff game will be held Jan. 9 against the Indianapolis Colts.
"The agreement is for 6,700 fans," Cuomo said last week. "They will be socially distant, masks required, but every fan will be tested before the game.”
NY had previously banned crowds at sports events
The decision marks a reversal for New York, which had banned fans at professional and most college sporting events since the major leagues resumed play in the summer in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The crowd ban kept crowds away from the Bills' eight regular-season home games this year as well as other college and pro team games across the state, including at Syracuse University. The lone exception has been Army football, which plays on federal land at West Point and is therefore not subject to the state crowd ban.
Cuomo had faced pressure from Bills fans, team officials, team lobbyists and even some players in recent months to allow some fans to attend the team's home games, which have garnered enormous interest this year as the team became one of the best in the National Football League.
The decision to devote thousands of tests to football fans, however, has already drawn criticism from some state and local lawmakers as well as epidemiological experts, who question whether it is a wise use of resources in the middle of a pandemic.
Bills fans who obtain a ticket will be required to pay $63 for a PCR test that will be processed by BioReference, a major lab that partners with the NFL. For tests that come back inconclusive, ticketholders will get a rapid test the day of the game.
“It’s potentially changing the rules and changing the book during a time when cases are increasing, and part of what I think about is it’s a limited resource still,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, an Infectious Diseases Society of America expert, referring to rapid testing devices and supplies.
Bills, NY negotiations date back to summer
Dating back to the summer, the Bills organization presented the state with various plans to allow fans in with social distancing and staggered arrival times, similar to those enacted by about a dozen other teams in the NFL.
By October, with the team off to a hot start, Cuomo seemed willing to consider allowing some amount of fans for late-season home games, even saying he planned to visit Bills Stadium himself to see the protocols the team planned to put in place.
But COVID-19 cases soon spiked in western New York, leading the state to deem parts of the Buffalo area an "orange" zone — which carries additional virus-related restrictions — and derailing the team's hope to have fans for regular-season games.
Since then, however, COVID-19 case and test-positivity rates in the Buffalo area have decreased, though rates in the nearby Rochester area — a hub for Bills fans and home to many season ticketholders — have increased and are now among the worst in the state.
Discussions between Bills officials and the state picked up in recent weeks as the team clinched the AFC East division title Dec. 19, securing at least one home playoff game.
Soon after, Cuomo publicly floated a compromise plan on Dec. 23 that would see 6,700 fans attend the game provided they test negative for the coronavirus and agree to contact-tracing protocols.
Last Wednesday, Cuomo confirmed the state would put the plan into place, calling it a pilot program that can help the state to determine whether it can use testing to allow similar large-scale events and reopen businesses in the pandemic era.
"If it works there, can you do Madison Square Garden?" Cuomo said. "Can you do a theater on Broadway? Could you do a certain capacity on a restaurant, so restaurants could start to open?"
What experts say
The plan has its critics, however, with some state and local lawmakers and officials questioning whether it is a wise use of testing resources.
Experts described the plan for deploying COVID-19 tests to allow fans into Bills Stadium as an interesting science experiment but problematic in reality.
The debate, in many ways, boils down to whether authorities want to take an avoidable risk amid rising coronavirus infections and a dire push to vaccinate enough New Yorkers to end the pandemic.
“You’re going to potentially defer close to 7,000 tests that could be used in nursing homes,” said Malani, the Infectious Diseases Society of America expert.
Cuomo said New York has built up more testing capacity than any other state, regularly processing more than 200,000 COVID-19 tests on a particular day.
The state disperses hundreds of thousands of tests to schools, nursing homes, hospitals and local health departments each week and has capacity to send more, according to Cuomo aide Gareth Rhodes.
"It’s not that we have a shortage of rapid tests, but we do have to have a model that shows we can start to reopen businesses," Cuomo said Dec. 28. "Anyone who thinks that we’re going to make it another 6, 9, 12 months with a closed-down economy, that’s just not a realistic possibility. So that’s what we’re trying to work on and demonstrate."
Experts said testing does add some level of security to the plan, but there are still potential gaps: Some people may receive false negatives, or may have been exposed to the virus recently enough that it wouldn't yet show up on a test.
“Frankly, testing does add some safety and it does add the ability to take out those actively infected, but you could miss some,” Malani said, adding the plan’s best odds of successfully limiting the virus’ spread ultimately hinges on fans adhering to social distancing and mask wearing rules.
Meanwhile, the limited number of NFL and college athletic teams that currently allow some fans into events without COVID-19 testing have struggled with enforcing mask wearing and social distancing rules, including thousands of Notre Dame football fans who rushed the field following an upset win of Clemson.
“We know face masks only work if you wear them right and you look at these sporting events, which are put on TV, and they have masks on, but they aren’t wearing it right,” said Dr. Ravina Kullar, another Infectious Diseases Society of America expert, referring to some fans failing to wear face coverings over their mouth and nose.
Under New York's plan, fans who refuse to comply with mask wearing and social distancing rules would be removed from the stadium by Bills' security personnel, Cuomo said last week.
Ushers will also be present throughout the stadium to ensure all fans comply with the rules, while state Department of Health officials traveled to other stadiums outside of New York where similar protocols are in place to confirm their effectiveness.
Indoor parties, gatherings remain riskier
Tailgating would remain banned under the plan, Cuomo said, urging New Yorkers to avoid gatherings and parties before, during and after the game to limit the virus’ spread.
Experts expressed concerns that the virus spreads more easily in a party-like atmosphere where people are drinking alcohol and yelling, which increases the number of infectious droplets in the air.
Further, experts are leery of the prospect of Bills fans gathering to watch the big game at house parties and other places indoors, where the virus spreads more efficiently than an outdoor stadium filled to less than 10% of its capacity.
“It’s about the risk of watching the Bills in a private home where there are multiple families together or inside a bar or restaurant,” Malani said, adding Bills fans, also affectionately known as the Bills Mafia, have gone decades without a chance to celebrate a playoff win.
“Think about Bills Mafia and how exciting this moment is for them, a long time coming for them, and I actually worry more about the potential for spread in those settings where people are indoors,” she added.
Cuomo urged Bills fans to follow all guidelines are rules to help make the pilot program a success.
"For all the Bills fans, please everyone take these measures seriously," Cuomo said. "We have made progress on the COVID virus over the past few weeks. The numbers are down. We want to keep them down."
Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.