Bills' Home Playoff Game Is Set for Saturday (and So Is Key Test for Andrew Cuomo)

6,700 fans will be allowed into the stadium for the Buffalo Bills' home playoff game this weekend; all will be tested pre-game and contact tracing will be conducted afterward

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What to Know

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo revealed a first-in-the-nation plan involving the Buffalo Bills he says could serve as a pathway to reopening Broadway and other large venues before "herd immunity" is achieved
  • 6,700 fans will be allowed into the stadium for the Bills' home playoff game Saturday; all must provide proof of negative COVID tests pre-game and contact tracing will be done afterward; tailgating is banned
  • If the model works, it could be applied to other venues to help businesses reopen sooner; Cuomo says New York can't go another half-year or more with an economy as restricted as it has been

The Buffalo Bills will host their first home playoff game Saturday in two and a half decades after earning the AFC East title this season for the first time since 1995. But this game, which will be played at 1:05 p.m. against the Indianapolis Colts, has more on the line than football. Even non-NFL fans have a stake in this one.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo plans to use the game to see if testing and contact tracing could be employed to a certain degree to reopen larger venues, like NFL stadiums, before "herd immunity" is achieved via vaccination. That's many months away.

Under the agreement with the Bills in what Cuomo touts as a first-in-the-nation pilot program, 6,772 fans will be permitted into the stadium for the game, about 10 percent of capacity. All must be tested for COVID within three days of attending and all must provide proof of negative tests before entry.

Social distancing will be mandatory, with fans from the same group sitting in assigned pods to ensure optimal separation. Tailgating is prohibited.

Masks will also be mandatory; fans who refuse to comply may be ejected. After the game, the state will conduct contact tracing to determine any potential viral spread. If it's statistically insignificant, the plan could be a blueprint for broader business reopenings and perhaps even an earlier return for entertainment venues.

Cuomo says New York can't survive another half year to a year -- or more -- until herd immunity is achieved. With indoor dining still closed, for the second time in New York City, cluster zone areas restricted elsewhere, and large, revenue-generating events seemingly off the table for the foreseeable future, Cuomo is looking at whether rapid testing can help mitigate ongoing economic losses.

"It can't be that we start 2021 with the expectation that the economy will open when the vaccine hits critical mass. Rather than wait six, nine, 12 months to start the economy, can you start to reopen the economy safely, smartly by using rapid testing?" Cuomo said in last week's announcement. "We can't wait. We can't stay closed down. But we have to be smart and we have to be safe."

"That's going to be the path all through 2021, I'm afraid," he added. "The vaccine is going to be the weapon that wins the war, but it won't win the war overnight."

NBC New York's Ray Villeda reports.

The significant X factor in this plan, of course, is people's behavior. Even if entry can be controlled to the game via testing and exit controlled via contact tracing, health officials have been leery of potential fan gatherings before and after the game. Cuomo's plan is inextricably tied to people's personal accountability.

Testing will be conducted in partnership with the BioReference Lab; fans will have to pay the $63 cost of testing. Cuomo has directed his health department to contact trace all fans following the game, though health officials didn't immediately elaborate on what that would require in terms of resources. Fans must also follow state quarantine guidance.

Even if the model does work, it may not equate to any imminent return of venues like Broadway theaters and Madison Square Garden. Those are indoors and more cramped. But it could be the start of a path forward, at the very least.

Bills owner Terry Pegula and his wife, Kim, thanked New York for bringing the pilot program to fruition and said they were hopeful the model would allow more fans to attend more games -- and other events -- in the near future.

The team, on its website, said tickets will be offered to club seat and season ticket holders, based on seniority, and likely not the general public. Saturday will be the first time the Bills hosted a playoff game since a 30-27 wild-card playoff loss to Jacksonville on Dec. 28, 1996, in what proved to be Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly’s final game.

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