When the NFL decided to go ahead with its season despite the pandemic, things looked a little dicey in the early going. Outbreaks caused game postponements and other weird circumstances. So how did things smooth out and lead to this coming weekend's Super Bowl? The Wall Street Journal credits an insight gained about COVID-19 for saving the season—the league learned quickly that conventional wisdom about how the coronavirus spreads was wrong. The early thinking was that someone was exposed if they spent 15 consecutive minutes within 6 feet of someone who tested positive. That morphed into 15 cumulative minutes over 24 hours. But even that wasn't enough. Players and staffers were turning up positive with even less exposure than that, as a paper written by doctors who worked with the NFL and published by the CDC makes clear, per NFL.com.
"That was a wake-up call," Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer, tells the Journal. "We had to be more precise in our definition of high-risk close contacts because clearly transmission could occur outside those basic boundaries of time and distance." Among other things, the league concluded that the virus could travel further than 6 feet, especially in poorly ventilated areas, and that masks could make a difference. "All close contacts are not created equal," Sills says, per the Washington Post. Take the four factors of cumulative time, distance, ventilation, and masks: "If you're failing in two or more of those, then that's going to become a high risk for a transmission," he says, per the Journal. The league tightened rules on exposure to include anyone who spent any unmasked time indoors with an infected person, beefed up quarantine restrictions, and emphasized masks and virtual meetings. (You won't be seeing a Bud ad in this year's Super Bowl.)