NFL coronavirus response: Bears suspend air travel, close offices

As the rest of the sports world shuttered stadiums and postponed games over concern about the spread of coronavirus, the Bears announced their own precautions Thursday.

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Annie Costabile

As the rest of the sports world shuttered stadiums and postponed games over concern about the spread of the coronavirus, the Bears announced their own precautions Thursday. The team is suspending business air travel for its employees, postponing visits by draft prospects to Halas Hall and is closing its Lake Forest and downtown offices. Employees will work from home Friday.

The Bears’ draft-night party April 24 at Soldier Field was canceled as a result of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s ban, issued Thursday, on gatherings of more than 1,000 people until May 1.

“Further staffing and travel decisions will be made as we continue to monitor the fluid situation,” the team said in a statement. “The health and safety of our players, coaches and all staff is our utmost priority.”

Earlier Thursday, the NFL made its first major decision in the wake of the global pandemic, canceling the annual meetings scheduled for March 29-April 1 in Palm Beach, Florida. League business scheduled for those days — playing rules, bylaws and resolutions — will instead be conducted at the league’s spring meetings May 19-20 in Marina del Rey, California.

The next major event on the league’s calendar is the NFL Draft in Las Vegas from April 23-25. It would seem reckless to hold the draft as it’s currently constructed — with thousands of fans in attendance — though the league has yet to decide whether the location or circumstances will change. Conducting it remotely wouldn’t be a significant logistical change for teams, who don’t send their decision-makers to the draft location anyway.

For now, at least, offseason business remains on track. The league does not intend to push back Monday’s start of the legal tampering period, when most of the big names agree to free-agent deals. The league year, when the salary cap is set and free agents can officially sign, is still expected to begin Wednesday.

That marks the first day free agents are allowed to visit team facilities, be it to take a physical or meet their potential bosses. Doing so may prove to be complicated, if not dangerous — it would require free agents to take commercial airplane flights.

Then there’s the issue of optics: Does the NFL want teams announcing multimillion-dollar deals next week, during a worldwide medical scare? The answer thus far is yes — though, in a shifting landscape, it could change.

The Vikings and Lions were among the NFL teams that took steps Thursday to keep their buildings safe. The Vikings suspended travel for coaches and scouts — who were on the road for pro days and other pre-draft work — until further notice and said they were “preparing for remote work protocols, if necessary.” The Lions said they were taking coaches and scouts off the road and will have employees work from home starting Friday.

The Bears cannot gather as a team in March because of the collective bargaining agreement and do not begin OTAs until May. The franchise is scheduled to honor Allen Robinson at the Ed Block Courage Award banquet April 7, hold the Brian Piccolo Award ceremony April 21 and throw the annual Bears Care Gala on May 16.

It’s unclear if — or when — the Bears and other NFL teams eventually will resume hosting draft prospects. Teams typically invite 30 potential draftees to their facility and also hold a local pro day for nearby collegians.

Chicago-based agent Mike McCartney is advising his clients to skip team visits.

“With 12 or more games played, an all-star game and combine for most, teams have enough information to make an informed draft decision,” McCartney tweeted.

The sports world moved quickly to suspend or cancel its seasons in the wake of the virus. On Thursday, the NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and all championship events for spring sports, including the College World Series. Major League Baseball is delaying Opening Day by at least two weeks and suspending spring-training games. The NBA and NHL paused their seasons.

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