Offensive tackle Jesse Davis can sense the fear in some of his Miami Dolphins teammates. The fear of contracting the coronavirus and the unknown impact it can have on each individual lingers over the Dolphins' facility as the team gears up for the 2020 NFL season.
"The fear comes out when we start talking about it more," Davis said. "The fear is there, but it's not shown on somebody's face or somebody's body language."
As the NFL attempts to start and finish a season, the Dolphins have put together a detailed and expansive pandemic plan in hopes of easing those fears and maximizing safety. Rooted in South Florida -- a pandemic hot spot in the United States -- the team has prioritized creating an environment with an emphasis on safety, sacrifice and technology so employees feel comfortable.
Early reviews are extremely positive -- coaches and players have been impressed with the new-look Dolphins facility and the procedures in place. They hope this will prevent them from being a team in the headlines because of an outbreak like what happened with MLB's Miami Marlins last month.
"Between right now testing every single day and the different protocols -- the way the locker room is structured, limited groups when we're working out -- there's a lot of different things that are in place that I can walk in here and feel safe," Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said.
The Dolphins' practice facility has been transformed. They created a second locker room, both rooms with plexiglass between each locker. They also added a weight room inside the bubble and more player shower areas to provide space and help limit the number of people. There is a modified food service (no self-serve buffet) and socially distanced seating. The team also installed the first of 40 Cleanse Retrofit Troffers -- UV light fixtures to provide enhanced ventilation inside the locker room -- and doubled the size and frequency of the cleaning crew for the facility.
The Dolphins also brought in an infectious disease specialist from Baptist Health Clinic to pair with their NFL-designated infection control officer, vice president of football administration Brandon Shore. Those additions, coupled with other NFL and Centers for Disease Control protocols such as contact tracers and daily testing, have the Dolphins feeling good about their extended safety measures as long as the players, coaches and team employees do their part.
"We try to create an environment that is as safe as possible," Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. "My message to the players has been about really making good decisions, being responsible. They're going to have to make some sacrifices outside of the building and inside of the building.
"If we're in bars and we're in crowded restaurants and we're at concerts, the likelihood of us bringing the virus into the building is very high. If we don't do those things and we distance and we quarantine in our homes and the hotel and wherever, then the likelihood goes down significantly."
Flores began training camp emphasizing three central themes to his players: safety, sacrifice and decision-making.
"People tend to forget that you can catch COVID[-19] outside of the facility as well. It's everywhere. You've got to be disciplined as a team. You've got to understand that you've got to hold your brothers accountable with each other," Dolphins safety Bobby McCain said. "... Whatever you bring home, you're bringing it to the family. It's definitely going to take a lot of discipline. The most disciplined team will end up playing the most games and being the healthiest at the end of the day."
In the same South Florida market, the Marlins' outbreak provided an example of what happens when things go wrong. At least 21 members of the Marlins' traveling party, including at least 18 players, tested positive over a one-week period. Marlins CEO Derek Jeter blamed the team's coronavirus outbreak on a collective false sense of security that made players lax about safety measures.
"... If you're not wearing a mask and distancing and taking the precautions, it could spread quickly. I think that was evident with the Marlins, and I think that's just an opportunity for us all to learn and see it actually happen," Flores said. "We have to learn from that situation and take the mask-wearing seriously and distancing seriously, and if you have symptoms, you need to report them."
The Dolphins have emergency contingency plans in place, ones that became more realistic after learning that Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson tested positive for COVID-19. Miami has created a depth chart in which coaches and training staff members have a backup or multiple backups to step in for them if needed.
Flores doesn't have an official assistant head coach, but offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, running backs coach Eric Studesville, tight ends coach George Godsey and special teams coordinator Danny Crossman would be the top candidates to step in for Flores if he were to become sidelined.
The Dolphins are also doing more cross-training for players at nearby positions to prepare them for emergency situations. For example, Davis, who is expected to start at right guard or right tackle this season, has seen some time at center during walk-throughs.
Whether its contingency plans, a spacious locker room or mask-wearing, the Dolphins hope their focus can remain on Flores' themes that focus on prevention rather than response.