The bargain is simple for Buffalo Bills fans: Get vaccinated, and you can enter the stadium. Erie County officials hope that this pledge will encourage fans who want to attend in-person games to get COVID-19 shots. But the proposal will require proof of inoculation for entry, raising questions from public health experts and resistance from Governor Andrew Cuomo.
On Tuesday, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz unveiled the seemingly straightforward plan for the NFL’s next season.
“You want to go to a Bills game later this year? Get vaccinated with your first dose of the Moderna vaccine today. You get your second dose of the Moderna vaccine in four weeks,” Poloncarz said. “Two weeks later, you'll be able to fill out the pass, and in the fall, you'll be cheering on Josh Allen at the stadium.”
The rules would also extend to the local pro hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres. The two teams are owned by billionaire couple Terry and Kim Pegula, but their respective home turfs at Highmark Stadium and KeyBank Center are both owned by Erie County, which Poloncarz contends gives him the right to set admission policy. Both venues would require fans to show either their vaccination card or New York’s Excelsior Pass app in order to attend a game. As a result, attendees would no longer need a negative COVID-19 test for entry.
“We want to ensure it’s a full house, but a safe house for all. And if you elect not to get vaccinated because of your own personal choice, well, it’s your own personal choice,” Poloncarz said.
Even with the start of the NFL season months away, some public health officials are concerned that Poloncarz’s plan creates too many open questions. While an Erie County spokesperson said all game day staff would be vaccinated, hometown fans aren’t the only people who would be at the stadium.
There are always those who travel to see the visiting team play, not to mention the players themselves, who are subject to collective bargaining agreements with the NFL and NHL that may not require COVID-19 vaccination. The Biden administration so far has said it won’t mandate vaccine passports for businesses and travel, meaning there won’t be a national program for tracking fully inoculated people across state lines.
Without federal guidelines on proof of vaccination in place, CUNY Professor of Health Policy and Management Dr. Bruce Y. Lee says verifying whether someone from another state is actually vaccinated is a big roadblock to fully reopening large events.
“It needs to be done in a consistent manner, and it needs to be done in a way that's verifiable, and that's one of the challenges when you don't have consistency across the country,” said Dr. Lee, who is also executive director of the Public Health Informatics, Computational, and Operations Research group.
This isn’t the first time during the pandemic (or even this year) that the Buffalo Bills have been offered up as a test case for relaxing restrictions on large gatherings. In January, when the team made the AFC playoffs for the first time since 1994, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that 6,700 fans could attend in person during their first home game—apparently, without notifying Poloncarz ahead of time.
Now, Cuomo says it’s too soon to say whether the “Bills Mafia” will be allowed to pack the stands this fall, regardless of vaccination status. The governor stressed the importance of collaboration between state and local authorities.
“Things change so quickly, you know, where are you gonna be in 4 months? I'll tell you in 4 months,” Cuomo told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday.
The Erie County spokesperson said they are still working on ways to verify out-of-state vaccination status, but noted that nothing would take place until August at the earliest, when the NFL preseason is scheduled to begin.