(CBS Local)- Though the Super Bowl can't be the same packed stadium that we're used to due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL is still planning on having fans in attendance. The league announced their plans Friday to have 22,000 fans at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida for the game on February 7. Of that number, 7,500 will be healthcare workers that have received both doses of the vaccine for COVID-19.
Peter O'Reilly, Executive Vice President of Club Business and League Events for the NFL, said Friday that the league began looking into the possibility of having healthcare workers attend once they saw the vaccination process getting underway in December. The conversations, involving league health experts, as well as those at the CDC and locally in Florida, gave the league a blueprint for the plan that is now being executed for 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers to be in attendance.
"It started to build that there was an opportunity and a plan. And to your point in the intro, it was really about two things. It was about thanking and celebrating and honoring and giving, hopefully a bit of joy to these individuals who have saved so many lives and been on the front lines," said O'Reilly in an interview with CBS Local's Ryan Mayer. "While also educating and advocating for the efficacy of the vaccine. There are few platforms as large as the Super Bowl on which one can do that. That was part of our conversation as well. Being able to build a plan for 7,500 over the last month is something we're proud of and excited to bring that experience to these heroes."
The plan will see the majority of the workers invited by the league coming from the Tampa and central Florida area as a thank you to the members in that community which is hosting Super Bowl LV differently than they expected when the city was awarded the game. But, the invitation is a national one as well as O'Reilly explained that it was important for each of the league's member clubs to reach out to those healthcare heroes in their community.
"We're rolling out that plan now. Having it be a national invitation if you will, working with the 32 clubs, allowing each of them to invite four healthcare heroes. Not only the free tickets but they'll pay to fly them down there, all expenses paid. That's part of the message of the vaccinations and the thank you," said O'Reilly.
The healthcare workers won't be the only attendees for the game as the league is also allowing for an additional 14,500 in paid attendance. Combined with the 7,500 healthcare workers that totals 22,000 fans in attendance at Raymond James Stadium or about a third of the capacity of the stadium. O'Reilly says that number was arrived at in the same way that the league coordinated with local officials all season. The league is taking things one step further for the Super Bowl.
"It's really about how you do that and very stringent protocols which will be very much in place for the Super Bowl. Small pods of 2-4 where those fans will sit distanced from those other pods. And making sure clearly mandatory masks," said O'Reilly. "At the Super Bowl itself we're upping that and every fan whether vaccinated or nonvaccinated will receive a KN-95 mask or really effective mask. As well as all of our cleaning protocols and distancing protocols as well."
It's been a long process to get to this point but now that they're here, O'Reilly says the best part has been seeing the excitement of some of the workers that have been surprised with tickets to the game.
"Where it really hits you is the personal stories," said O'Reilly. "We've had the incredible good fortune of surprising some healthcare workers over the last couple of days and it just kicks in the reminder of just how special they are and how excited they are to have this opportunity."
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