N.F.L. and Other Sports Schedules in Flux Amid New Covid Surge

The N.F.L. on Friday postponed three games that were slated for this weekend, the latest juggling of sports schedules as scores of college and professional athletes and coaches have tested positive for the coronavirus in the pandemic’s latest surge.

With the Washington Football Team and Cleveland Browns possibly having to start quarterbacks signed from their practice squad and the Los Angeles Rams having shut down their facilities because of outbreaks, games involving those teams were delayed two days.

Cleveland will now play the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday instead of Saturday, and Washington will play the Philadelphia Eagles while the Seattle Seahawks will play the Rams on Tuesday instead of Sunday.

The N.F.L. postponements generated the greatest attention yet were far from the only disruptions caused by spikes in virus cases. Three ranked men’s college basketball teams, U.C.L.A., Seton Hall and Ohio State, were among more than a dozen men’s and women’s programs that shut down temporarily.

After Seton Hall canceled Saturday’s men’s basketball game at Madison Square Garden against Iona because of a coronavirus outbreak, Iona Coach Rick Pitino took to Twitter to let anyone out there know — perhaps five guys from Rucker Park — that there was a 3 p.m. slot available to play at the world’s most famous arena. (There were no takers.)

In the N.H.L., the Calgary Flames have had four games canceled this week because Coach Darryl Sutter and 16 other team members were placed in Covid-19 protocols. And in the N.B.A., teams like the Nets and Los Angeles Lakers have been playing with skeleton rosters because of virus outbreaks.

If the heavily-vaccinated American sports world thought it was skating toward a return to normalcy, that notion has been upended in recent days by events that seemed like relics of the pandemic’s more tumultuous and distant times: canceled or postponed games, shuttered facilities, and players and coaches testing positive for the virus.

When the coronavirus intruded before — the Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner was pulled from a 2020 World Series game because of a positive test — it was often before vaccines had become available, which was around this time last year.

But cases have snowballed nationwide this week with an average 120,000 new cases reported per day, a 31 percent spike from two weeks ago, according to The New York Times database. Surges in heavily vaccinated places like New York City, where cases with the Omicron variant are doubling almost daily, have prompted public health officials to urge vaccinated people to get booster shots.

“What’s happening in sports is a mirror of what’s happening in society,” said John Swartzberg, an infectious disease and vaccinology professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

While scientists are trying to assess the severity of the Omicron variant, Swartzberg said it seems unlikely that cases will have eased within a month.

Professional and college basketball as well as professional hockey at least have time on their side, with months remaining to account for any disruptions. Football, though, is entering the final stretch of its season. The N.F.L. playoffs are set to begin next month and there is little wiggle room in its weekend games. There is only one open weekend between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, which is scheduled for Feb. 13 in Los Angeles.

College football’s four-team playoff begins in two weeks, sandwiched by the meat of the bowl season. Its championship game is scheduled for Jan. 10, the day after the regular season ends in the N.F.L.

“Of course, we’re aware of what’s happening and we’re monitoring the situation,” said Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, who added that no changes have been made to bowl itineraries or fan guidelines. As it stands, the four playoff teams — Cincinnati and Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, and Michigan and Georgia in the Orange Bowl — are scheduled to arrive at their sites five days before the Dec. 31 games. Interviews with the media on Dec. 29 are still scheduled to be in person.

Last year, 19 bowl games were canceled, media interviews were done remotely and teams often arrived in town the night before the games.

David Eads, the executive director of the Tournament of Roses, said the Rose Bowl — which was moved to Arlington, Texas, last year because fans were not permitted to attend the game — has not curtailed any activities surrounding the game that on New Year’s Day will pit Ohio State against Utah.

Among the Rose Bowl rituals are visits to Disneyland and a prime rib dinner at Lawry’s Restaurant in Beverly Hills. Utah, which is playing in its first Rose Bowl, has already sold more than 30,000 tickets and the bowl, which holds 92,000 fans, had been expected to sell out.

Eads said that the Rose Bowl stadium, answering to the Pasadena Department of Health, will require all fans to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result within 72 hours of the game. All fans will be required to wear masks unless they are actively eating or drinking, he said.

The College Football Playoff is holding its championship game in Indianapolis, where the N.C.A.A.’s annual convention, which draws thousands of college athletics administrators from all divisions, is scheduled a week later. The N.C.A.A. said it did not yet have any new restrictions and would take its cues from local health officials.

“That would be a terrible mistake,” Swartzberg said of holding the convention as planned. “Looking at the trajectory, it’s hard to believe we’ll be out of this Delta surge and the Omicron surge by then.”

What is sobering for sports leagues about the latest disruptions is that the vast majority of athletes are vaccinated — around 95 percent in the N.F.L. and N.B.A. More than 130 players were placed on N.F.L. teams’ reserve/Covid-19 lists, including at least 10 from the Rams, Browns and Washington. Alan Sills, the chief medical officer of the N.F.L., said on Wednesday that two-thirds of N.F.L. players diagnosed as positive are asymptomatic, and most of the rest have mild symptoms.

Teams have incentivized getting vaccinated by eliminating restrictions for athletes who have received their shots. But leagues have done little to spur athletes to get booster shots, which have shown that they help increase resistance to the most recent variants.

“We have better tools now in December 2021 than to shut anything down completely,” said Amesh Adjala, an infectious disease physician at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He noted that vaccinated hospital staff where he works are tested less frequently than most professional athletes, and what policies to adopt are as much a sports management question as they are a health and safety one.

“It depends on the risk tolerance of players, owners and fans,” Adjala said.

At the University of Alabama, what is happening around the country is being watched carefully. The men’s basketball team stays in its facility, the women’s basketball team is limited to its facility and the football team is in its own building. “Really, we’re kind of in our own little cocoon over here,” men’s basketball coach Nate Oats said in a video news conference on Friday.

“I’ll say this,” he added. “It seems that throughout this thing that certain programs do everything they can and they still get hit with some Covid.”

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