MIAMI — Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick says an NFL crowd of 13,000 is enough to be heard.
“I played a lot of games in college with less fans than that,” the Harvard alum said Monday. “We’re excited to have fans out there cheering for us.”
The Dolphins announced plans to allow up to 13,000 masked, socially distancing fans to attend their home opener against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 20, and the decision generated plenty of noise around the NFL and beyond.
Bills coach Sean McDermott described as “ridiculous” the lack of league-wide uniformity regarding crowd sizes during the coronavirus pandemic. Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio disagreed, and said the Dolphins’ announcement signifies progress against the virus.
Florida political leaders were also divided. U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala sounded an alarm about spectator safety, but Gov. Ron DeSantis said cheering crowds are something to cheer about.
“Look, we’ve been watching sports on TV,” DeSantis said during a news conference at the Dolphins’ stadium to announce their plan. “But when you watch the NBA with an empty arena, or Major League Baseball with an empty stadium, it’s just not quite the same. I know this isn’t going to be people falling from the rafters here, but I think it is something that will give people a little bit of hope.”
Crowd size for the Dolphins-Bills game will be about 20% of the stadium’s 65,326-seat capacity, with groups of spectators spaced 6 feet apart. The same plan will be followed for the University of Miami’s home opener against UAB at the stadium on Sept. 10.
Fifteen of the NFL’s 32 teams have ruled out spectators to start the season. The Dolphins are one of at least eight teams hoping to have a limited number of spectators, while many teams haven’t announced plans.
To which the Bills’ McDermott says: Boo.
“I think it’s honestly ridiculous that there will be on the surface what appears to be a playing field that’s like that, inconsistently across the league with the different away stadiums,” McDermott said.
Several other coaches, including the Broncos’ Fangio, declined to lobby for a blanket policy.
“I really don’t give a damn about that,” Fangio said. “If we can play in a stadium that’s full, half-full, third-full, home or away, we’re happy. That shows progress with the COVID.”
The Broncos won’t have fans at their home opener.
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin echoed Fangio in saying he didn’t care about uniformity regarding crowds. Tomlin is a member of the NFL competition committee, which decided earlier this year to allow fans where permitted by state and local governments.
“I think we all acknowledged very early in the summer — by ‘we’ I mean us, globally, the NFL — that as we faced this pandemic, some of the competitive fairness things are going to be tough to manage,” Tomlin said. “And attendance is one of them.”
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers — an American studies major at Cal — also voted against a league-wide policy.
“I don’t know how much competitive advantage there is with 13,000 fans, but I would like to see it left up to the teams to decide,” Rodgers said. “I think that’s what makes the most sense — much like powers that aren’t defined in the Constitution are left to the states, I think the same thing with the teams.”
DeSantis and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez didn’t reference the Constitution, but both did applaud the Dolphins’ plan, which includes safety upgrades at the stadium.
“They’re not going to make a lot of money this season,” DeSantis said. “Putting all the money they did into this to give fans the ability to watch some football in person, I think, means a lot.”
Depending on pandemic trends, the options for later games range from half-capacity crowds to no fans at all, Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel said.
DeSantis said Florida’s virus numbers are moving in an encouraging direction. But COVID-19 still outpaces the ability of contact tracers to contain outbreaks in the state, and South Florida remains a hot spot.
Shalala, who served as the secretary of health and human services during the Clinton administration, expressed concern about the safety of those attending games.
“It is very difficult to open anything when you have community spread,” said Shalala, former president at the University of Miami. “We still have community spread in South Florida. So the kinds of precautions that need to be taken are extraordinary, and I think it’s going to be very difficult to do. … There is no question that it’s risky.”
According to the Dolphins’ 46-page plan for games, fans and stadium employees will be required to wear masks when not eating or drinking. Fans must cheer and boo with their masks on, and enforcement will be done by guest services, stadium personnel and law enforcement.
“If you are someone who doesn’t want to wear a mask, this isn’t the place for you this year,” Garfinkel said. “Don’t buy a ticket. Don’t come.”
Tailgating will be prohibited. There will be staggered gate entry, with fans encouraged to enter at a designated time listed on game tickets.
The stadium will provide additional points of entry and exit to help avoid bottlenecks, and upgraded metal detectors will allow for faster processing. New bathroom faucets, toilets and soap and paper towel dispensers will require no contact.
Season ticket holders will have first priority to purchase tickets based on their tenure, and the Dolphins will urge at-risk fans to stay home.
“I know the Dolphins organization is going to do it the right way in terms of the safety guidelines,” Fitzpatrick said. “As players, we want fans out there, so if we can do it in a safe way, then the more the merrier.”