The emotions were everywhere for Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn last week. Back at work in Allen Park, Michigan, for the first time in months since the coronavirus pandemic forced him to work from home, Quinn wasn’t sure what to expect. All he knew was that it would be very different.
“It was kind of bizarre walking in, for sure,” Quinn said. “I would say it was refreshing to come back. My first week back, there wasn’t a lot of people in the office; it was a very small group of people. So that was good. And now, gradually over time, the coaches are back, so it’s a little bit more busy.
“We’re trying to be smart and be physically distanced, at least as best we can until we all get through the testing protocol.”
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It took months of planning and changes to reach this point, including two separate committees and a 120-page binder of notes and memos from the NFL that’s thicker than the team’s expansive playbook.
All this is being done in the name of safety, health and trying to put on an NFL season this fall in a social and medical climate unlike any other in history.
The process began in May, when the Lions formed two committees: a Return to Work Committee and an Infectious Response Team. The Return to Work Committee — which comprised security director Elton Moore, chief of staff Kevin Anderson, director of team operations Gina Newell, vice president of football administration Mike Disner, head athletic trainer Dave Granito, assistant athletic trainer Matt Barnes and others — met at least once a day virtually with the goal of making the team’s facility habitable for work again by August.
Many of these staffers have collaborated before — for instance, Anderson, Newell and Moore often coordinate on team travel in-season — but this was a new experience, and they needed to learn things they never anticipated.
The NFL-mandated Infectious Response Team was led by Barnes, who is also one of the team’s tie-ins to the Henry Ford Health System. He was selected to run it because of his ability to be a liaison between the hospital and the franchise due to his regular role. His group included Granito and a team of doctors — notably Dr. Geehan Suleyman, who specializes in infectious diseases — to answer questions and help solve problems.
“Any questions we have, they work on it day and night; these calls start at 9, 10 o’clock at night because these doctors, they’re busy all day doing other things,” Quinn said. “We have to get them on our off hours.”
These groups helped form the Lions’ return-to-work plan, which was one of the first approved by the NFL and NFLPA.
And that’s where, when Quinn walked in, so much of the building had changed.
It starts with the testing trailer outside the building, which players are working their way through in initial return-to-work testing protocols this week. Quinn said now that he’s through the initial protocols, he’s in and out of the trailer in about two minutes.
Inside, the building has been dramatically altered. The locker room space now has Plexiglas dividers between each locker and no player has a locker directly next to another player. To accommodate all the players — more than other teams initially because Detroit is sticking with a 90-man split-squad format until having to cut down to 80 on Aug. 18 — Detroit ordered new, temporary lockers that will be spread out and physically distanced. It’s created less walking space in the locker room, but Quinn said the lockers needed to be spread out to proper specifications.
Hand sanitizer, touchless soap dispensers and Lysol wipes are prevalent throughout the facility, particularly at high-touch areas including elevators.
On the advice of doctors, in June the Lions installed a new air filtration system in Allen Park and have had the building deep cleaned 10 times over separate 48-hour periods during the past two months. Plus, the building will be cleaned continuously throughout the day using Clorox 360 sprayers. Quinn compared them to the proton packs and hoses worn in the movie “Ghostbusters,” with the goal of eliminating COVID germs instead of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Drink coolers in the facility no longer have handles — think instead how vegetables, milk and eggs are lined up at your local grocer — and the team’s dining plan was revamped, with the old-school buffet a thing of the pre-COVID past.
And yes, there is an app for that. The club developed one to take food orders, which need to be placed hours in advance. Then, when a staffer or player shows up, the meal is pre-packaged for them ready to go in a takeout line.
“Our goal,” Quinn said, “is by the second week of training camp that we have the majority of everybody using the app.”
To keep the appropriate distance — and also to keep people from different tiers separated from one another — the team also added massive tents.
For context, the NFL has created three tiers of access for the 2020 season to help keep any possible spread of the virus contained. Tier 1 consists of players, coaches, trainers, doctors and others who must have direct contact with players. Tier 2 is a combination of general managers, security, football operations, other assistants and staff who need to work at least somewhat closely with those in Tier 1. The difference between Tier 1 and Tier 2 is how long they can be in proximity to one another. The numbers of who can be assigned to each tier are limited and Tier 1 and Tier 2 employees are subject to stricter COVID testing.
Tier 3 is essentially the rest of the employees in the building. Those employees are required to stay away from Tier 1 and Tier 2 employees and will have access only to certain parts of the team’s facility.
How will proper spacing actually be monitored? The league is using Kinexon contact tracers, which will not monitor where players/staffers go but who they have been near. In theory — Quinn hasn’t seen the device yet — if a Tier 3 person comes within 6 feet of a Tier 1 or Tier 2 person, the monitor blinks red or orange. If Tier 1 and Tier 2 people interact for too long, sounds emit from the monitor. The device can be worn as a watch band, sweat band or on the credentials every player, coach and staffer is required to wear.
The Lions, understanding they can only do so much to prevent the virus, have also offered education programs via Zoom for staffers, coaches, players, staffers’ families and, in the final call scheduled for Wednesday night, the families of players. Anyone in the organization — or a family member of anyone in the organization — will also have cell phone access to the team’s trainers and doctors to answer any questions that come up.
“This isn’t just about, ‘Hey, what’s going on in Allen Park?'” Quinn said. “We’ll get questions from our families and our players’ families about the schools. What should the schools be doing?
“Our doctors can give advice to our staff and players to ask the schools to say what they are doing in terms of protocols.”
Admittedly, Quinn knows testing and in-facility protocols can only go so far. At the end of every day, the players, staffers and coaches will go home. They’ll be with family. They’ll interact with others in the world. So they have to do the best they can to keep their people as informed and educated as possible.
It’s likely the only way an NFL season is going to actually work.
“We are not in a bubble. We have a bubble once you walk into the facility, but it goes back to the education,” Quinn said. “That’s the huge thing. I feel comfortable walking into this facility every day because I know everybody around me is going to be tested all the time. What I don’t know is what people are doing when they leave and go home.
“We have to have a lot of trust, we have to have a lot of education and we have to have a lot of mature decision making when people leave the facility.”