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Falcons still developing plan to hold training camp safely amid pandemic

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Matt Ryan is confident the Falcons can compete in the NFC South (1:40)

Matt Ryan details how the Falcons can stay competitive in the NFC South while facing Tom Brady and Drew Brees. (1:40)

Matt Ryan has young twin boys, so naturally, he wants to be cautious about keeping them safe during the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback fully believes that the proper measures will be taken so that his family, teammates and coaches will remain healthy once football returns.

“Everybody’s concerned with it," Ryan told ESPN. "And I think, obviously, there are going to have to be steps taken that are appropriate, which I think they’ll do. I think whenever the time does come [to return], I have faith that it’s going to be the appropriate setting, appropriate setup to keep people as safe as possible.”

The harsh reality of the pandemic hit the NFL community again this week, when members of the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans, including Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott, tested positive for COVID-19. The NFL has allowed team facilities to slowly reopen under strict conditions, but the league still prohibits players who were not previously rehabbing from returning to work as officials sift through plans that will include COVID-19 testing procedures.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn returned to the team facility June 5, and his assistant coaches arrived back June 8. Their returns included temperature checks before they entered the building and the requirement to wear masks.

“I think what we’re finding is it’s going to be part of our programs moving forward in all sports," Quinn said of trying to minimize coronavirus exposure. "But what we’ve also come to learn is when there are those outbreaks or when there is somebody who tests positive, what are the steps that are in place to make sure that person is getting the care they need?"

As the Falcons wrap up their virtual offseason program with the rookie class on Thursday (the veterans finished last week), the focus will turn to ensuring a safe environment for training camp, which is slated to begin league-wide on July 28.

The latest CDC numbers say that there have been 58,414 cases of COVID-19 in Georgia, with 2,494 deaths, and 2,104,346 cases in the U.S., with 116,140 deaths. Quinn said he is not aware of any team members testing positive for COVID-19. Still, he wants to have a contingency plan in case the virus hits the Falcons, such as having someone take over the team if he contracts the virus.

Quinn said there have been discussions about holding training camp practices at Mercedes Benz-Stadium in Atlanta, rather than the team facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia, because there is more space and more of a locker room area, but nothing has been decided. He said there has not been any consideration of enclosing the players in a bubble, with players not able to leave the premises or spend time with their families, during training camp.

Falcons center Alex Mack, the NFLPA's treasurer, said his primary concern related to the coronavirus is what guys do away from the facility, given how strict the guidelines will be when the team is together.

During an NFLPA conference call on Monday that included executive director DeMaurice Smith, president J.C. Tretter and medical director Thom Mayer, there were discussions about the possibility of players being tested for COVID-19 three times a week. Those talks included the hope to move toward a saliva-based test, rather than a nasal swab. Figuring out the logistics of the testing will help determine how quickly players will be allowed to return to the field.

The NFL has already laid out guidelines for the players’ return to facilities, besides the specifics of COVID-19 testing. Some of those guidelines for teams include:

  • Developing an Infectious Disease Emergency Response plan

  • Encouraging meetings to be conducted virtually

  • Restricting access to certain areas of the facility to players and essential personnel

  • Adhering to physical distancing of 6 feet for players and staff when inside the facility

  • Holding strength and conditioning workouts with no more than 15 people

  • Making players and staff wear masks at all times when inside the facility, with masks replaced daily

“The guidelines, those are the challenging ones," Quinn said. “Walking around a room and [fitting] in this room from a distancing standpoint ... it’s all about getting back onto the field. I think once on the field, all the players and coaches would feel comfortable. It’s meetings and locker rooms, how you get into those spaces."

The coaches are currently meeting in the larger team meeting room, rather than the smaller meeting rooms, to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“Right now, a team meeting would basically have to be outside, based on the guidelines," Quinn said. "We can fit 30 or 40 into a room, but not where we can get 100 [for training camp]."

He stopped short this week of announcing definitive plans on how to approach matters, with much uncertainty lingering.

“There's so much information that gets flooded at you -- what you read, what do you believe, what’s there -- so I just try to stay in the present, man, and say, ‘Yeah, I’m concerned 100 percent,'" Quinn said. "What I want to get across to the team, meaning the staff and the players: ‘Hey, man, these are the guidelines we have, and this is how we’re going to kick ass and do it together.'

“But as far as what could happen in a month down the line or this part of the country or that one, I just want the leaders to know: ‘Hey, men, really work hard to stay safe.’ That’s our job as this team. Put yourself in good situations when you have chances to do that. Wear a mask, whatever it is. That’s our way of protecting the team."