Fans return to Bills Stadium on Saturday for the team's first playoff game, a first since the start of the pandemic as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's experiment to test and trace a single group several thousand in size.
Drive-thru testing was overseen Wednesday and Thursday to test the approximately 6,700 fans allowed in the stadium this weekend. All attending fans, plus 200 employees and members of the member, must have received a negative test for COVID-19 within 72 hours of kickoff.
Cuomo on Friday said the tests had been complete -- roughly 1.9 percent came back positive.
Each person much show their ID and proof of a negative test before being allowed in the outdoor facility, with seats about 70,000.
New Jersey-based BioReference Laborities, which oversaw the testing operation, converted a portion of the expansive stadium lots into the drive-thru testing site. Though the company has conducted more than 10 million COVID-19 tests since May, including NFL and NBA players and staff, this will be BioReference’s largest drive-thru event and the first mandatory fan-testing program in the country, BioReference executive chairman Jon Cohen said Tuesday.
“Everybody’s focused on what should be the game and the fans and everything, but this is also focused on how testing programs like this help re-open the New York State economy. That’s a very important issue,” Cohen said. “So it’s a broader brush than it just happens to be a sports event.”
Though a Bills’ win would guarantee them playing at home again the following week, there have been no discussions as to whether fans would be allowed to attend a second game, Cohen said.
In Buffalo, there’s relief that members of the so-called “Bills Mafia” can finally see their AFC East champions in action up close. It will also be Buffalo’s first home playoff appearance since a 30-27 loss to Jacksonville on Dec. 28, 1996, in what proved to be Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly’s final game.
Not surprisingly, the limited number of tickets sold out shortly after being made available on Thursday.
“It’s goose-bump material,” long-time season-ticket holder Barbara Babiarz told Rochester’s WHEC-TV after landing two tickets. “I mean just the thought of being part of this playoff game as a fan when I couldn’t go at all for the whole season I just, there are no words to describe it.”
Cuomo had planned to attend, but said Wednesday he needed to rewrite his planned State of the State speech for Monday given election-related developments in Georgia. He said he would give his ticket to a nurse from Erie County Medical Center and stressed fans honor health heroes by being safe.
Receiver Stefon Diggs, acquired in a trade with Minnesota in March, was already amazed by how many fans turned out in the early hours of Dec. 20 to greet the team at the airport after Buffalo clinched its first division title in 25 years following a 48-19 win at Denver.
“I got a little bit of a taste of it,” Diggs said. “I really look forward to it because we haven’t had fans all year, and that’s something that we can try to take advantage of in the postseason. I try not to think too far ahead right now, but I’ve kind of been focused on this.”