New York State is making an exception to its restrictions on large gatherings to allow fans to attend a Buffalo Bills home playoff game in January as long as all test negative beforehand. It will be the Bills' first playoff game in 25 years and a huge test not only for the team but COVID-weary New Yorkers.
Bills owners Kim and Terry Pegula joined state officials Wednesday to announce the plan. They summed it up for fans.
"We know that fans have been waiting 25 years to be able to attend a home playoff game. We thank the Governor and his entire team, and BioReference for working diligently with the Bills organization. We all know what needs to be done and we all need to do our part, so do the fans -- please remember to be compliant, wear your mask and socially distance. Go Bills!"
The plan is to allow 6,700 fans inside the stadium on game day, to be played on either Jan. 9 or 10. That's about 10% of the stadium's capacity. 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. All tickets will be sold through the website.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Bills staff will only allow fans with negative tests to enter the stadium, where they will be seated distanced apart. Fans must wear masks once they leave their vehicles in parking lots until they return to their vehicles, and will be asked to leave if they take off their masks.
"They’re basically going to have two golden tickets, one which is the ticket for the game," said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz later Wednesday afternoon. "The second, which is the proof that they passed the test, and then they are going to have to show ID to a representative of the Bills’ organization who confirms that it is Joe Smith who passed the test. And then Joe Smith will be allowed to go in and give their ticket to the ticket-taker."
Poloncarz said he expects some fans to find out they have the coronavirus.
"When they do the testing, they’re going to find positive people. I don’t know how many. I don’t what percentage, but just based on the percentage of tests including those that are asymptomatic, we are finding individuals who are asymptomatic who are testing positive," he said. "So I’m confident that people who buy the ticket, who will get tested, are going to come back and find out, even though they are feeling perfectly well, that they tested positive and they’re not going to be allowed in the game."
Fans also must follow state guidance that requires individuals who are exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine for 10 days.
Cuomo is directing his department of health to contact trace all 6,700 fans following the game. The department didn't immediately provide whether the state has the resources to contact trace all the fans.
Fans and the Buffalo Bills are bearing the cost of testing, which state Budget Director Robert Mujica said will be conducted in the three days before the game. Poloncarz said Erie County is not bearing any testing cost.
Fans will pay the $63 cost of testing, plus $11 for parking, whether they park in a stadium lot or not. The testing is being done by a New Jersey firm, with the PCR sample taken in a drive-through manner in the stadium parking lot for later testing.
Poloncarz said concession stands will be available inside the stadium, "however there will be no eating or seating in those concession areas. Fans will have to go back to their seat listed on their ticket, to consume their food and beverage that they purchased."
State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker previously said he was looking into how to address the potential for a post-game surge because of fans gathering before and after the game. Zucker and Cuomo urged all fans Wednesday to not hold and attend tailgates, parties and other large gatherings.
"We believe we are the first state in the nation to run this kind of pilot. We believe it can be very instructive to us going forward," Cuomo said.
Any bad behavior and Poloncarz said the hammer is ready.
"If people don’t follow the rules, if they’re not wearing a mask in the stadium, they’re going to get thrown out. If one-quarter of the people start taking their masks off in the middle of the game, I guarantee you there will not be a game in the following week. If there’s parties and tailgating in these private lots, there will not be a game the following week," Poloncarz said. "So people need to be on their best behavior to enjoy it and if they don’t, they are going to ruin it for everyone else."
Cuomo, who had sent health department staff to study COVID-19 protocols at stadiums in other states, defended his administration's efforts to allow fans at the game at a time when more then 11,000 New Yorkers a day are testing positive for COVID-19. He said the pilot program could be a model for re-opening businesses with rapid testing.
The Bills have clinched their first AFC East title since 1995. They will host a playoff game for the first time 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.
Watch the briefings from the governor and county executive below:
WBFO's Marian Hetherly contributed to this story.