The NFL's chances of playing out its planned 256-game schedule will depend upon containing the conronavirus outbreak and testing results, according to COVID-19 pandemic expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Fauci, a leader among the White House Coronavirus Task Force advising the US government on the deadly virus, told NBC Sports that very little is certain about the NFL's hopes to have a season and a Super Bowl in February at Tampa, Florida, as planned.
"The virus will make the decision for us," Fauci said.
"It's unpredictable depending upon how we respond in the fall... It will be entirely dependent on the effectiveness with which we as a society respond to the inevitable outbreak that will occur."
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, held out hope there might be able to be a limited number of spectators at some NFL games but also warned he was against staging a season if the virus was as widespread in September as it is now.
"Right now, if you fast forward, and it's now September, the season starts, I say you can't have a season -- it's impossible," Fauci said. "There's too much infection out there."
The NFL's 2020 season is scheduled to start September 10 with Houston at reigning champion Kansas City.
- Fans welcome? -
It could be that games are staged in empty stadiums with only players who test negative for the coronavirus.
"I think it's feasible that negative testing players could play to an empty stadium," Fauci said. "Is it guaranteed? No way."
Fauci envisions plenty of tests will be available by September to allow for testing players before games, removing any positive-testing talent from the lineup for two weeks of isolation and using contact tracing to seek out others infected.
"There will be virus out there and you will know your players are negative at the time they step onto the field. You're not endangering," he said.
"Also, if the virus is so low that even in the general community the risk is low, then I could see filling a third of the stadium or half the stadium so people could be six feet apart."
But Fauci warned that if four players on a 53-man NFL roster tested positive on the eve of a Sunday game, it might hint that more cases are present among those still testing negative.
"It's likely that if four of them are positive and they've been hanging around together, that the other ones that are negative are really positive," Fauci said.
No player testing positive for the virus could be allowed to play, Fauci said, adding, "It would be malpractice in medicine to put him on the field, absolutely."
That's because the NFL's close contact would be an easy environment in which to spread the virus.
"If people are in such close contact as football players are on every single play, then that's the perfect set up for spreading," Fauci said.
"As soon as (an infected player) hit the next guy, the chances are that they will be shedding virus all over that person."
Fauci has called a coronavirus return later this year "inevitable" and that it could set up a "bad fall and a bad winter," adding, "There's no chance we're going to be virus-free."