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How Bills are planning for potentially reduced seating capacity at New Era Field

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The NFL intends to play games in full stadiums this season.

Yet teams are planning for contingencies, and the Bills are no exception.

Although Covid-19 hospitalization rates are decreasing across Western New York, cases continue to climb in at least 20 states, according to Johns Hopkins University. Medical experts anticipate a spike in the fall, prompting the Bills to consider scenarios for the upcoming season, including models for 15%, 33% and 50% seating capacity at New Era Field, The Buffalo News has learned.

These plans include designations of where fans could sit to maintain social distancing and safety protocols, and each of the models encompasses various offshoots relating to groups or families that could potentially sit together.

A Bills spokesman said the team could not comment on any potential plans, citing a league directive to avoid speculation about the season and hypothetical contingencies. A county spokesman said the team has yet to share its plans with local government authorities, with whom they must seek approval.

“Erie County hasn’t been involved in those discussions and has not seen the Bills’ plans; they are being developed with guidance from the NFL,” Peter Anderson, the press secretary for County Executive Mark Poloncarz, said in an email to The News. “When the Bills’ plan is completed they will need to have [the Erie County Department of Health] sign off on it, but that hasn’t happened yet.

“As far as the prospect of a full stadium, that seems very unlikely at this point.”

Proactive steps to keep fans safe should be contained in the Bills’ plans, according to the county, which continues to discourage large gatherings.

“As you know, the virus is transmitted more easily in large crowds such as you’d see at a full stadium,” Anderson wrote. “ECDOH, however, continues to advocate for social distancing, wearing masks, frequent hand washing, and avoiding large groups (like the crowd at a football game) and will continue to do so.”

Tickets on sale

New Era Field has a seating capacity of 73,079.

Fifteen percent capacity translates to a crowd of about 10,962. Thirty-three percent works out to about 24,000. Half the stadium capacity is about 36,500.

If the stadium is limited to one-third capacity, more than half the season-ticket holders will be left out. In 2016, the Bills’ season-ticket total was 58,535. The team hasn’t released official totals since.

Dr. John Sellick, an epidemiologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Kaleida Health, as well as a professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo, suggested a uniform 33% model as a possible approach for seating arrangements to foster proper social distancing.

“There’s no science on which to base this,” Sellick said, “but I would look at it from the perspective of 6-foot distancing. So if you say, ‘OK, we’re going to do every third seat going across and then stagger them so that front to back people aren’t right directly in front of one another, right in front of you there’d be two empty seats,’ something like that, I think that would be the better way.”

The Bills declined to comment on whether they have made the full stadium’s allotment of tickets available for purchase or how the percentage of tickets available compares to previous years.

But season tickets and single-game tickets for the two preseason home games and all eight regular season home games remain on sale.

The NFL’s refund policy states that fans who purchase tickets directly from the club can receive full refunds or apply their money to a future ticket purchase for any games that are canceled and not rescheduled or played under conditions that prohibit fans from attending.

Bills co-owner and president Kim Pegula, in an interview with The Buffalo News on the eve of the NFL schedule being released last month, acknowledged that the team could begin the season in an empty stadium and phase in the crowd over time, as the league and local health officials permit.

“It’s safe to say that's one of the options that we certainly are looking at,” Pegula said. “And if that's the way we have to go, we'll be ready.”

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Should the Bills play a game where ticket sales exceed approved stadium capacity, it is unclear how the team will determine which fans gain admittance and which are turned away.

Del Reid, a longtime fan who coined the term “Bills Mafia” in 2010, said, “I think right now, people will just take what they can get.”

“If you tell me that we’re not going to be able to go to games this season or only 25% of the stadium is going to be full, which means the tickets will be much harder to come by, if it’s at little to no capacity, I’m OK with it,” Reid said. “If we can just get a season, that’s great. I don’t care what it looks like. Especially the way the Bills are set up right now. Just play the games. We’ll get through this. And hopefully in 2021, everything is back to normal.”

Around the league

Each NFL team is grappling with the situation.

The New York Jets have decided against selling single-game tickets for now, while the Pittsburgh Steelers are withholding 50% of their usual allotment of single-game tickets in anticipation of reduced seating capacity.

The Miami Dolphins are considering allowing up to 20% capacity for home games at Hard Rock Stadium, or the equivalent of about 13,000 fans, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez told the Miami Herald.

The New Orleans Saints are working within similar parameters in the Superdome, which is managed by ASM Global.

“If we just took the 6-foot rule and applied it on its face without any sort of creativity you would bring your capacity to 17.5%, that would be about 13,000 fans in stands,” ASM Global Vice President Doug Thornton told WVUE-TV last month. “That's not acceptable. We tried to get it to a higher level if we could. So we're exploring creating ways whether we seat people in pods of four, six or eight.”

The Green Bay Packers mailed protective masks to season ticket holders last week, without providing details on whether fans would be able to attend games.

“While these masks will assist you in going out for groceries and other necessities, we are some time away from learning how you’ll be able to attend your favorite Packers activity, be it a visit to the Atrium, a training camp practice, or a game,” read a note that accompanied the package. “We are preparing for a range of contingencies with increased safety measures to protect the health of our fans, players, club personnel, and our communities. We will keep you informed as those preparations continue.”

'Safer Stadia' study

Delaware North, a global hospitality and food service company based in Buffalo and the owner of TD Garden in Boston, is conducting a “Safer Stadia” study to determine best practices for reopening athletic venues amid the pandemic.

“It’s meant to be influencing information for a governor or a league commissioner, to be able to say, ‘Here’s a way from a quantitative, science-based approach for sports to come back,’” Delaware North chief marketing officer Todd Merry said in a recent interview with the Boston Globe. “As much as it’s important to us as a company, I think it’s important to the industry that we take a measured look at how we can bring sports back with fans — because it just doesn’t work without them.”

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The company declined further interview requests until the study is complete, perhaps in July, but several initial suggestions derived from the study were outlined in the Globe.

The Garden, which seats a maximum capacity of 19,580 fans, would be limited to no more than 12,000 to 14,000 spectators.

Entry to the arena would be throttled by opening gates earlier and providing ticket holders with specific time frames in which they’d be admitted.

Further mitigation efforts would include mandatory masks, body temperature readings and posting signs to promote proper sanitizing methods and other health precautions.

There also would be new protocols for serving food and drinks, including eliminating buffets in clubs and suites.

The data had yet to reveal substantial mitigating factors at lines to concessions stands, the bathrooms and in the rush to leave the arena after games, Merry told the Globe.

“There’s no eliminating risk of infection entirely,” Merry said. “But the idea will be to make people feel the experience is as safe as going to the supermarket, or going to Home Depot.”

What would a doctor do?

Sellick, the epidemiologist and professor at UB, said he shares Buffalo Sabres tickets with a group of friends, nearly all of whom are 65 or older, and that none seems certain about when they would feel comfortable attending a game.

“Before I would go back in person, I’d have to see that there’s some kind of mitigation involved,” Sellick said. “If they just say, ‘We’re going to fill the arena, come on down,’ then my guess is my Sabres group is going to fall apart because pretty much nobody’s going to want to do that.

“But if it’s something where they say, ‘OK, we’re going to divide the tickets into thirds so only a third of the seats are going to be filled,’ then depending on how badly we get hammered with cases, then maybe I’d think about going back.”

He has a while to make his decision. If the NHL opts to begin next season with the Winter Classic, the Sabres may not play again until January 2021.

The Bills, however, are scheduled to open the preseason on Aug. 14 and the regular season on Sept. 13.

Four out of five epidemiologists would not attend an NFL game this season, according to a survey of 511 infectious disease specialists conducted by the New York Times.

Sixty-four percent of respondents said that without a vaccine or effective treatment, it would be more than a year before they felt comfortable attending a sporting event, concert or play.

“Realistically, nobody knows what to do with this,” Sellick said. “We’ve never been faced with this before, so everybody is looking for ‘guidance.’ There is no guidance. Nobody knows the right thing. But I can’t imagine that putting 78,000 people in that stadium, if we see a big resurgence in the fall, is going to be a real bright idea.”

Sellick’s best advice for those considering attending a Bills game, if stadium capacity were limited and the crowd thinned out?

“I can’t answer for you what you can or can’t do,” Sellick said. “What you have to do is look at your own situation and your own risk tolerance. If you’re 70 years old and you’ve got a kidney transplant and you’re on immuno-suppressive drugs, you’ve got to be nuts to go to one of these things. But if you’re young and healthy, you may do OK.

“The problem is, No. 1, we’ve seen plenty of young people in the hospitals with this, and No. 2, if you get it, you’re going to spread it to your family members who are at higher risk.”

He agreed there’s a difference between attending events at indoor and outdoor venues, because the tighter the space, the greater the risk of transmission.

“Obviously, outdoors absolves some sins, but not all,” Sellick said. “When somebody’s sitting right next to you, it doesn’t matter if you’re outdoors or not if they’re coughing on you. Tag, you’re it.”


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