Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Vita Vea wears a mask as he walks between drills during NFL football practice, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 in Tampa, Fla. (Photo: Tori Richman, USA TODAY Sports)
I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
You won’t see media photographers on the sidelines of Sunday’s Super Bowl. Instead, they’ll be roaming the front row of Raymond James stadium in Tampa, trying to get the best shots without getting near one another.
“So the angles are slightly above and not on the same plane as the players,” said James Lang, a technical photo editor with the USA TODAY Network. “Post-game is where we’ve usually had great access to get up-close and more intimate photos of the celebration following the game; this year it’s limited to what you can photograph from the positions in the stands.”
We’ll also have two robot cameras mounted in the upper bowl of the stadium in front of the Chiefs’ end zone. One has a wide-angle view, and the other has a telephoto lens and can pan, tilt and zoom. Any photographers you may see on the field are team staffers or broadcast crew.
That’s just one of the hundreds of changes big and small that viewers may or may not see Sunday in an effort to keep everyone safe during the pandemic.
Plexiglass partitions will separate fewer reporters in the press box. Last year, the NFL credentialed more than 6,000 members of the media. This year, the number is 2,353. “Radio Row,” which is usually hopping with a procession of high-profile players and celebrities, has gone from 100 stations to 33.
We won’t have face-to-face access to players, as has been the case all season. “It’s hard to ask a follow-up question or piggyback off someone else’s question because everything is controlled through Zoom,” said assistant sports editor Tom O’Toole.
NFL columnist Jarrett Bell has covered 32 Super Bowls. This is his 30th consecutive year covering the game for USA TODAY.
“There have been different Super Bowls over the years that stood out as unique because of various circumstances,” Bell said. “I can recall the Super Bowl in New Orleans in the months following 9/11, with the heavy military presence, beefed-up security that included forming a security perimeter around the stadium –which became standard since then. One of the Super Bowls here in Tampa (XXV) had a patriotic theme in the midst of the Gulf War, which was one reason that Whitney Houston’s national anthem resonated.
“This all-virtual Super Bowl goes down in history for all things COVID-19-related.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell’s annual state of the NFL press conference, which usually occurs in a packed hotel ballroom, was limited to 20 in-person journalists Thursday at an outdoor stage in Tampa. Here, USA TODAY’s Jarrett Bell attends the hybrid event in person with many others joining virtually. (Photo: Photo provided by Jarrett Bell)
Last time the Super Bowl was in Tampa (Steelers-Cardinals in 2009), 70,774 attended. This year, the max is 25,000. About one-third will be vaccinated health care workers, most of them from South Florida, although all 32 teams were allowed to send health workers from their markets.
All fans must wear a mask. In fact, all fans get kits that include masks, hand sanitizer and sanitization wipes.
This year’s attendance will be a Super Bowl record low. The previous record was set in 1967 at the first Super Bowl, called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. That game between the Chiefs and Packers had 61,946 fans.
The teams usually arrive a week in advance, spending time in the city at pregame media events and festivities. The Chiefs are not scheduled to be in Tampa until Saturday.
Everything carries risk. Last Sunday, a week before the big game, more than 20 Kansas City players and staff were scheduled for haircuts. The appointments were canceled when it turned out the barber tested positive for the coronavirus.
Two players who did receive haircuts – center Daniel Kilgore and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson – were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list as high-risk close contacts with the virus, wrote NFL reporter Jori Epstein. If they test negative each day of a five-day isolation period, they may rejoin the team.
Of course the Buccaneers are local, the first NFL team to secure a home-stadium Super Bowl.
“But because of COVID concerns, the players are all staying at their homes instead of moving into a team hotel all week,” said NFL reporter Mike Jones. “Instead of us reporters having access to the entire team each day, reporters get to join Zoom calls with a select number of players and coaches each day. So, access has changed dramatically.”
Overall this season, 262 players tested positive for the coronavirus, Epstein reported. Still, the NFL completed 16 regular-season contests for each of its 32 teams and three playoff weekends. All to get to Sunday.
Super Bowl players and coaches are tested every day.
The caution is well-placed. More than 1,300 people have died of COVID-19 in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located. More than 100,000 residents have tested positive, leading to more than 2,700 hospitalizations.
The White House says Hillsborough County remains in the “red” zone for new cases, though the numbers have been falling. Most of the county’s hospitals are in a “light red” status, with about 86% of inpatient beds filled.
Reporter Josh Peter has been in Tampa since Saturday.
“You cannot escape COVID,” said Gloria Castillo, a funeral director in Tampa, told him. “It’s really awful every day.’’
While Tampa has struggled to enforce its mask mandate, Peter said the NFL requires masks at any game-related activities, and “the locals have adhered,” in part because the league has employed an army of volunteers to enforce the mask requirement.
“I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing the NFL doing at the actual game itself,’’ Jill Roberts, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, told Peter. “I think within the stadium and the game itself, the risk is very low.
“My concern is an influx of people going to bars and restaurants and tailgating in areas near the stadium and all of those things. Super Bowl parties are going to be as big of a problem as gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas were, and we do know for sure those gatherings did influence the increase in cases that we’re seeing right now.”
While cases are generally decreasing in the U.S., they remain at high levels. With highly contagious new variants of the virus circulating around the country, public health experts stress vigilance must be maintained or we will see those case numbers – and the deaths that follow – rise again.
In Sunday and Tuesday’s reports, Florida showed more new cases of the fast-spreading U.K. variant, B.1.1.7, than the rest of the country combined. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that variant will be predominate in the United States sometime next month.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that based on contact tracing, authorities are finding that “not wearing masks and participating in in-person social gatherings have contributed to the variant spread. We must take prevention intervention seriously. Now is not the time to let our guard down.”
Our health editor, Jennifer Portman, puts it more directly:
“Masks, masks, masks. No parties. No parties. No parties.”
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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.
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