AROUND THE SHIELD — When Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule reported to the first day of rookie minicamp Friday, he did so in the same way he has for practice since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: masked up, with all of his note cards, play sheets and the like in hand.
Midway through practice, he and his staff threw the masks to the ground.
The NFL released a memo Friday saying that fully vaccinated individuals — players, coaches, staff and other personnel — will no longer be required to wear masks inside of team facilities, effective immediately. The move comes following similar guidance from the Center for Diseases Control.
"I think you saw 10 coaches take their masks off all at once," Rhule told Carolina reporters after practice. "I want yo to be able to see my face, to see your face, to interact. Every one of our coaches except one guy who is going through the process are all vaccine. We did it for family reasons, but also because we want to make sure we keep our players safe."
Fully vaccinated "tiered staff and players" will no longer be required to wear masks in club facilities, whether they be indoors or outdoors, the league said in a memo obtained by the NFL Network.
"An individual is considered 'fully vaccinated' if 14 days have passed since the individual received his or her last dose of COVID-19 vaccine (either the single dose of Johnson & Johnson or the second does of Pfizer or Moderna)," the memo reads, in part. "Tiered staff and players who are not fully vaccinated (i.e. have not received any vaccine, or are within the 14-day period after receipt of the last does of the vaccine) must continue to wear masks indoors and outdoors at the club facility as required in the October 16, 2020 Club Facility Protocol unless and until they are fully vaccinated."
The league's regulations do not supersede local and state health regulations, where applicable, the memo added. That doesn't mean the pandemic is over or the virus has gone away; just two days ago, Lions rookie Penei Sewell — a product of Desert Hills High School in St. George — announced that the No. 7 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft would miss rookie minicamp in Detroit after testing positive for COVID-19.
But the league is doing what it can to follow CDC guidance and move toward a more normal reopening of society.
In April, the NFL announced fully vaccinated individuals would only be required to test once a week for the virus, and would not be required to submit to "entry" testing following travel. A month later, the league encouraged all 32 of its teams to offer COVID-19 vaccines to incoming rookies.
Players are not required to receive the vaccine, but are encouraged to do so, according to NFL policy. But if they do, they'll be held to similar provisions as the rest of America under CDC guidance: get the vaccine, or mask up.
And Rhule — like many other coaches — plan to take advantage of the new protocols.
"For us to be able to coach with our masks off, to be in the building with our masks off, to follow the guidance of the CDC, it makes me feel safe," he said. "It's a personal decision for all the players, but for us coaches and staff, we have a responsibility to get it done.
"I think it's a great step in the right direction."