With NFL training camps opening this week, all Bears players, coaches and staff members will have numerous protocols they need to follow before they can enter the Halas Hall team facility in Lake Forest. The facility itself, which just completed a major renovation, will look different in certain areas, too.
Players were allowed to return Tuesday, with the first few days devoted solely to testing and virtual meetings. No actual training or practices are taking place at the facility yet.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace said in a Wednesday Zoom news conference that the team is fortunate to have one of the most state-of-the-art facilities in the league.
“We feel like we have a major advantage in just the sheer amount of square footage we have and we’ve been very creative with how we maximize our space,” Pace said.
Bears head athletic trainer Andre Tucker, who recently took on the new role of infectious control officer, oversees the Bears' health and building protocols.
All employees must check their temperature twice at home, and temperatures must be below 100.4 degrees. Employees then must log into an app with four screening questions. An employee who passes those four questions will receive a day pass into Halas Hall. If someone fails the questionnaire, Tucker is notified and will review on a case-by-case basis.
At Halas Hall, a trailer is set up outside to provide testing for the virus and virus antibodies. After testing, temperatures are checked again using a facial recognition scanner. Only then can an employee proceed down the hallways. High-touch areas, such as the players entrance doors, will open automatically upon scanning an ID.
Every employee, upon entering, will be given a proximity reader, which is used for contact tracing purposes. Tucker showed off a reader, similar to a wrist watch, on his arm.
For players, the locker room has been expanded into the player lounge to provide additional space. Every other shower will be turned off. Treatment with athletic trainers will be by appointment only, and partitions have been added between trainers tables and rehab equipment.
The NFL is allowing only 15 players in a weight room at a time. The Bears have added a second weight room at the Walter Payton Center indoor practice facility down the street from the main building. Full team meetings will be held at the Walter Payton Center to provide adequate space. Chairs and video monitors will be provided. Smaller meeting rooms have tighter capacity limits.
The NFL is attempting its return as the MLB’s Miami Marlins learned this week of numerous positive tests within their team, just days into the new baseball season.
Tucker said the Marlins news “didn’t scare me at all.”
He said the most important thing is educating players and their families. Because there is no NFL bubble, like the NHL or NBA, players will be leaving the facility after their work day is finished.
“The most at risk I think we are is when everybody leaves Halas Hall at the end of the day,” Pace said.
Pace said the team did not consider quarantining its players in a hotel or nearby facility.
“We just took the parameters that the league and the union agreed upon, and we just try to create that environment [at Halas Hall],” Pace said.
Employees will have to remain diligent at home. Tucker said employees will be encouraged to think ahead about what they will need to do in their own homes should a family member become sick.
“Do you have a place in your house where you’re able to isolate that individual?” Tucker said. “Do you have a bathroom? What does it look like for groceries? The more we vet that out ahead of time, that will help everyone plan accordingly.”
Tucker said Bears testing samples will be sent to a lab in Minnesota, but is “confident” the team should receive results within 24 hours.
Amid all of these changes and protocols, the Bears will have to narrow down their roster over the next month and make decisions on who will start come Week 1. Pace said Wednesday that the Bears plan to have the roster cut to 80 players – down from 90 – by this weekend, which will allow the team to practice in one group, per the NFL’s rules.
Position battles, like that between Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles at quarterback, will take place with limited practice time and no preseason games.
“We need to be creative within these drills and make sure that the time that’s given to us in practice, that we’re using it as much as we can with competitive periods,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said. “It’s hard to do that in walk-throughs, it’s hard to do that with meetings. … When we get a chance to go out there, we’re evaluating the quarterbacks with every single play. Not just throws, but every single check that they make at the line of scrimmage, every bit of leadership that they show in and out of the huddle, we’re there watching.”
Nagy said he feels confident that the quarterback battle “will all play itself out,” and noted that the battle is “completely open.”
A year ago, the Bears played their starters sparingly in preseason games. Nagy said Wednesday that he didn’t like the results that approach produced and he had originally planned to give his starters more time on the field during the preseason in 2020.
The coronavirus had other ideas.
Pace noted that the coaching staff has done a great job of creating "a competitive environment,” in the practice plan, despite not having any preseason games.
“Every coach in the league is going to be different and I don’t know if anyone has the perfect answer,” Nagy said.