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Monday Night Is Missing Its Mojo

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The hospitals here are nearing capacity with coronavirus patients. The Bishop of the Catholic Diocese has told his flock that they can stay home and did not have to attend Sunday Mass. Gov. Tony Evers was even more direct about the grip the pandemic has on his state.

He implored his citizens to stay at home.

“We’re losing people,” Evers, a Democrat, said over the weekend. “The death rate is increasing. This is a time to double down as a state; we cannot afford to allow this to rage out of control.”

Inside Lambeau Field on Monday night, however, the N.F.L. show went on: The Packers beat the Atlanta Falcons, 30-16, before no fans.

There were no cheesehead wearing rowdies in the bleachers. Aaron Jones did not take a Lambeau leap into the front rows behind the end zone when he scored Green Bay’s first touchdown. Nor did Robert Tonyan Jr., after catching three more scoring passes from Aaron Rodgers.

ImageSecurity guards patrolled empty concourses and snuck peeks at the game.
Credit…Joshua Mellin for The New York Times

The N.F.L. is a made-for-television spectacle these days: three hours of packaged razzmatazz broadcast from mostly empty stadiums.

Inside, Lambeau is a messy sound stage. Barricades and trash cans are stacked akimbo on its concourses. A skeleton screw of security personnel directs no one.

Instead of the piped-in fan noise you hear on your couch that helps with the illusion that the N.F.L. has returned to normal, Tom Petty sounds tinny in the empty stadium and the touchdown fireworks explode violently enough to make you think Lambeau has been wired for demolition.

From the field, the ambient sound is not all that different from a junior varsity game on a Thursday afternoon. The collisions are louder and the cross chatter more animated. In fact, Rodgers said that he and Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan shared a laugh about the eerie intimacy of the empty stadium.

“You can hear everything on the sidelines,” Rodgers said. “You can hear the conversation of the other team during timeouts. It’s been a big change for all of us.”

Credit…Joshua Mellin for The New York Times
Credit…Joshua Mellin for The New York Times
Credit…Joshua Mellin for The New York Times

The silence was uncharacteristically deafening outside Lambeau Field as well, and for a very good reason. Titletown, the entertainment district across from the stadium, was empty, leaves blowing through its promenades. Next door, Kroll’s West was nearly empty, surely a game day mirage at the local tavern and institution whose autograph wall of Packer greats summons the dulcet tones of N.F.L. Films’s John Facenda.

On Monday, Wisconsin ranked third in the United States, behind North and South Dakota, in a New York Times analysis of highest weekly case counts per capita. Oshkosh, Green Bay and Appleton were among the top five metro areas in the nation with the highest daily case counts when adjusting for population, according to the analysis.

Seven Wisconsin metro areas, in fact, made the top 20 of that list. Wisconsin has had 134,359 cases and 1,381 deaths, according to state health officials. Over the past week, it has added an average of 2,396 cases per day, 11 percent higher than the previous week. And 14 people are dying a day from the virus, which is 151 percent higher than the previous week. The test positivity rate of 20 over the past week is higher than the week before.

None of that is lost on Green Bay Coach Matt LaFleur.

“Unfortunately, Covid is running rampant in our community,” he said. “All it takes is one guy to infect everyone else. Be responsible, wear a mask and social distance. There’s a level of responsibility with that to protect one another and just be very cautious and mindful about what you’re doing out there.”

The N.F.L. understands its season could be on borrowed time.

Last week, nine players and nine staff members of the Tennessee Titans tested positive for the virus, the league’s first full-fledged outbreak of the season. The Titans’ game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed and, on Monday, Green Bay shared the national television spotlight with Kansas City and New England, whose game was rescheduled to Monday night from Sunday after players on both teams, including Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, tested positive for the virus.

The Chiefs beat a Newton-less New England, 26-10.

Whether or not the Packers, or any team, should be playing while an unchecked virus persistently gnaws its way through the population is the question.

Bishop David Ricken may have told the Packers’ Catholic faithful to stay home on Sundays, but N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell does not plan to sideline the league’s players over health concerns.

Instead, with billions of dollars on the line, the league promised to increase fines for players who are reckless in their off hours, and to punish teams that violate its safety protocols. The penalties could include the loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game, Goodell wrote in a memo sent to the league’s teams on Monday.

Credit…Benny Sieu/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Rodgers groused as a self-professed “older player” about a new prohibition on players and coaches leaving their team’s city on bye weeks, and those exempt from testing are still required to report to the team’s facility for daily screening and temperature checks.

Rodgers, 36, was emphatic. The Packers are 4-0 and off this week before facing Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He grumbled about the restrictions, but it’s clear the N.F.L. would rather avoid the scramble of further disrupting the schedule. The show, in their view, must go on.

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