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49ers heading to Arizona after Santa Clara County's COVID ban on games, practices

By Cam Inman, The Mercury News on

Published in Football

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The 49ers are taking their ball and going to a new home in Arizona.

State Farm Stadium in Glendale will host the 49ers's next two games, because of Santa Clara County's health directive banning contact sports over at least the next three weeks amid a COVID-19 surge.

The 49ers, on the Arizona Cardinals' field, will play next Monday night against the Buffalo Bills and then vs. Washington on Sunday, Dec. 13.

The 49ers (5-6) have yet to announce where they will move their practices and, essentially, their entire operations with the potential of not returning to their Santa Clara facility the rest of the season.

"The biggest thing for me is us all leaving our families. We're all human like everyone else," coach Kyle Shanahan said after Sunday's 23-20 win over the host Los Angeles Rams. "It's a huge deal to leave your family for the month of December. It's a huge deal. This virus is a huge deal."

Although the 49ers would like to practice this week in a nearby county outside Santa Clara County's borders, the more likely scenario is they get a jump on their Arizona travels.

The most natural fit is to follow what the Cardinals do for training camp: Practice on fields outside State Farm Stadium and stay at a neighboring hotel, all of which offers turnkey operations to also stage meetings, distribute food and follow other quarantine-needed measures to abide by Maricopa County's protocol.

The Cardinals' practice facility in Tempe is not a viable option simply because the Cardinals are occupying it, but nearby college or other fields and vacancy-friendly resorts are alternatives while abiding by local health protocol.

Shanahan did not speak Monday as he normally would the day after a game, deferring to Tuesday in hopes of providing more clarity on travel plans. He did add Sunday: "I want a place that's safe for us."

Jed York, the 49ers' CEO, expressed his gratitude to the Cardinals' organization in a Monday morning tweet: "Thank you Michael Bidwell and the @AZCardinals for all of your help. Very appreciative of Arizona welcoming us during these unprecedented times."

York also tweeted that San Diego was not a viable option despite overtures from its mayor's office.

After their games against Buffalo and Washington, the defending NFC champion 49ers will play at the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 20 before returning to State Farm Stadium to play the Cardinals on Dec. 26. The 49ers are to host the Seattle Seahawks in a Jan. 3 regular-season finale.

The 49ers will play as many games at State Farm Stadium in December as the Cardinals (6-5). None of their games overlap on the schedule, and their Dec. 26 meeting will be broadcast via Amazon Prime Video, Twitch and, locally, on NBC Sports Bay Area.

Although State Farm Stadium hosted 4,200 fans in the Cardinals' past two games there, the general public is not allowed at the Cardinals' game Sunday against the Rams because of rising COVID-19 cases in Arizona; family members of Cardinals players and staff can attend, however. It's doubtful the 49ers will be afforded the same opportunity for Monday's game to mitigate cross-community exposure.

State Farm Stadium has a natural-grass surface and a retractable roof. The facility, located 20 miles northwest of downtown Phoenix, opened in 2006 and was formerly named University of Phoenix Stadium.

The 49ers were stunned to learn Saturday of the county's stricter guidelines, and Shanahan expressed "extreme disappointment" over that decision, which had the 49ers and their families scrambling for answers before and after Sunday's win.

"That's all we could talk about for the last 18 hours, because we got no answers from them," Shanahan said.

 

In response Monday, Santa Clara County Executive Dr. Jeff Smith said the county has been in regular contact with the 49ers "for months."

"It is hard for me to believe that the 49ers were surprised by the new orders given how serious the situation is both locally and across the country," Smith said. "They received a notice of the new orders as soon as the orders were finalized, at the same time we notified the thousands of businesses impacted in the community.

"It is impossible to notify anyone of the final decisions before they are made."

Maricopa County's population is just over twice the size of Santa Clara County's but it has recorded six times as many cases over the course of the pandemic (205,522 cases there to 34,292 in Santa Clara County).Over the seven days prior to Thanksgiving, Maricopa County reported more than twice as many new infections, even when accounting for population, at about 50.1/100K per day, compared to 19.1/100K in Santa Clara County.

Maricopa County (3,980) has recorded more than eight times more fatalities than Santa Clara County (476) over the course of the pandemic.

If Santa Clara County's 14-day quarantine order for out-of-state travels remains in effect, that would nullify the 49ers' chances of returning to Levi's Stadium for that Seahawks game. The Cardinals face the Rams on the road that afternoon, so remaining in Arizona would be an option.

State Farm Stadium hasn't been too kind to them in the past. Last year's win on Halloween night was the 49ers' first in Arizona since 2013, improving their all-time record to 6-8 at that venue.

"We need a place to feel safe and stay. We're going to have to stay in hotel or somewhere," Shanahan added. "Second thing, we need practice field to play on and a stadium to play in. I'm not going to be that picky but we need some obvious things."

"We're not sure about how the rest of the season plays out," running back Raheem Mostert said after Sunday's win. "One thing I'd really like to say is no matter what we go through, we're a team and we truly believe we'll take care of each other."

Added linebacker Fred Warner: "It's been roller coaster all season to say the least, and this is one more thing. It's out of our control. That's out of our hands. ... Whatever we do from here on out, we'll take it and run with it."

The 49ers had a season-high nine players on the NFL's COVID-19 reserve list last Monday, but five were cleared before their game against the Rams in SoFi Stadium.

Sunday's upset recharged the 49ers' hopes of making the playoffs, which will add a seventh team to the NFC field after this past offseason's changes; half the NFL's 32 teams could go to the postseason under an owner-approved contingency plan if the season's schedule is severely impacted by cancellations or postponements.

The 49ers reported to camp four months ago. Daily testing for COVID-19 ensued. Now comes likely a month away from home, although some players already have spent this season isolated while their families remain at offseason homes out of state.

Mostert got emotional in revealing the strain this season already has had on him, while his wife and two young sons have stayed at their offseason home in Cleveland out of COVID-19 precautions.

"It's been a struggle not having my little family, sorry if I get emotional, but it's really tough and I miss them so much," Mostert said. "It's a fight everyday. You're fighting for your life. I want people to understand that."

(c)2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC