The Atlanta Falcons are set to become the latest NFL team to return fans to their stadium, while the Arizona Cardinals have scheduled a test event as they seek to do so.

The Falcons and Major League Soccer (MLS) team Atlanta United have announced that both teams will play games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with fans in “limited capacity”, and following league protocols, beginning with the Falcons’ home game versus the Carolina Panthers on October 11. 

Team and stadium officials made the decision based on several factors including the recent decline in COVID-19 cases in the state of Georgia. It was decided last month that Mercedes-Benz Stadium would be without fans throughout September, affecting two Falcons home games and three home matches for United.

Steve Cannon, CEO of AMB Sports and Entertainment, parent company of the teams and stadium, said: “Having fans watch from alternative locations was a difficult, but important decision.  It’s been challenging for both teams to play without fans, but their well-being as well as the safety of our associates and fans was paramount.”

To further test stadium operations and protocols, the Falcons will host roughly 500 “friends, family and associates” for the game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday. This will allow the stadium operations team to assess and address any issues that might surface and be ready to have fans back in the building.

The Cardinals were also forced to play behind closed doors for Sunday’s home opener against Washington Football Team, but State Farm Stadium will stage a test event for the visit of the Detroit Lions on September 27.

A group made up of “family and close friends of players, coaches and staff”, numbering no more than 750, will attend. Permission from the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) and the Maricopa County Department of Public Health is designed to allow testing of “the implementation of health and safety protocols”.

In a letter sent to the team, ADHS director Dr. Cara Christ wrote “this can be an important next step for fans safely returning to in-person viewing”. After Sunday, the Cardinals’ next home game is due to be versus Seattle Seahawks on October 25.

Certain statewide COVID-19 conditions must be met before fans can return. Christ said that with Arizona currently in the “moderate” category for COVID transmission, it is recommended that fan attendance will not be permitted until this falls to “minimal”.

In other NFL news, SoFi Stadium has become the latest sports venue to announce its availability as a vote centre for the forthcoming US election. The new home of the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, which hosted its first game earlier this month, will establish a vote centre adjacent to the stadium, operational from October 30 to election day on November 3.

Dean Logan, registrar-recorder/county clerk for Los Angeles County, said: “Partnering with SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park, the Los Angeles Chargers, and the Los Angeles Rams to host a vote centre in such a large, visible location demonstrates the spirit of community and a shared commitment to make sure all voters have access to cast a ballot in 2020.”

Jason Gannon, managing director of SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park, added: “Our goal is to help expand polling access for our local community and the greater Los Angeles region, providing Angelenos with more locations and greater ease of access to exercise their right to vote.”

Other NFL teams providing election help are the Falcons, Panthers, Lions, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Washington.

In Los Angeles, the home of the Lakers and Clippers NBA franchises, along with the Kings NHL team, Staples Center, is also being used as a vote centre.

Image: Mercedes-Benz Stadium