But in recent weeks, the number of positive cases on teams from Green Bay to Miami to Pittsburgh has jumped, forcing players, including star quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford, to stay away from team facilities because they were in close contact with teammates or team personnel who tested positive. Five coaches on the Dolphins skipped the team’s trip to Arizona last weekend. Four offensive linemen on the Las Vegas Raiders had to quarantine for five days after coming in contact with right tackle Trent Brown, who tested positive for the virus.
“All of us are aware there has been an uptick in cases that we’ve seen in the N.F.L. last week,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer. “That’s very reflective of what’s going on in the country as a whole. It’s not a surprise, and it’s something we’ve been preparing for.”
After practice every day, coaches, team personnel and players leave their team facilities and mix in their communities, including places where infections are surging. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, for instance, the average number of cases has grown fivefold since Sept. 6, the first Sunday of the season. The increase in infections has risen even faster in Colorado and Illinois, home to two other N.F.L. teams.
Some players continue to put themselves, and their teammates, at risk. Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley of the Giants were recently photographed indoors with other teammates at a restaurant. Ten players on the Raiders were fined for attending a large gathering without masks, and the team was fined $500,000 and docked a sixth-round draft pick because of repeated violations of the league’s virus protocols. The Titans were fined $350,000 for their lax handling of the outbreak.
“Everyone is right to be worried, because the number of cases is going up nationwide and unfortunately they will continue to go up,” said Patrick Godbey, the president of the College of American Pathologists. “I don’t think anyone has a good way of knowing what people are doing when they leave the team facility.”
There have been a few cases of fans who attended N.F.L. games testing positive, though where they got the virus has not been established. But many teams have stopped increasing the size of their already limited seating capacity at stadiums, mindful of the risk to the broader community. The Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots have given up any hope of hosting fans this season. Fans are also watching less football at home. Viewership for N.F.L. games has slipped.
Commissioner Roger Goodell continues to say that the league expects to complete a full slate of games and play the Super Bowl, as scheduled, on Feb. 7 in Tampa, Fla. But the league is considering allowing only about 20 percent of the seats to be filled, with fans socially distanced in small groups if they know each other. League sponsors, including Bridgestone, which typically invite hundreds of clients and employees to the Super Bowl city, have scaled back their entertainment plans.