In this Feb 3, 2019, file photo, New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty is shown during to Super Bowl LIII (53) against the Los Angelese Rams at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. [The Providence Journal / Bob Breidenbach]

They have watched the list of teammates opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 grow over the past few days.

Patriots’ team captains understand fully why those players — an NFL-leading eight as of Monday morning — made their decisions to not play football during the pandemic.

“A lot of respect to those guys, obviously the guys I got a chance to play with over the years, who decided to opt out,” said safety Devin McCourty, one of four captains who met with the media via video conference Sunday. “I’ve gotten to speak to all those guys and it’s a tough decision right now with everything going on, what you want to do as far as your family.

“They made tough decisions to forego contracts this year, not to have the opportunity to be around all the guys, so I have a lot of respect for those guys. We won a lot of football games together and gone through a lot of different things. They’ll still be my friends and I’ll talk to them all the time.”

The Patriots returned to Gillette Stadium for strength and conditioning work this week and are holding virtual meetings, just like they did throughout the offseason during the pandemic.

Starters Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung and Marcus Cannon are among the eight players who won’t be joining the Patriots.

“I support those guys 100 percent,,” said All-Pro special teams player Matthew Slater. “Their No. 1 responsibility, as far as I’m concerned, is to their family. They owe their family what they see is best for their family. That comes well before what happens at 1 Patriot Place.

“Those guys have my full support. I know that it’s tough for those guys. There is no easy decision for this.”

Said running back and captain James White: “We obviously knew there were going to be guys opting out. Everybody has their own unique situations for themselves and their family and they have to do what’s best for them. We all completely respect and understand the decisions they made.”

The NFL is reportedly moving up the deadline for players to opt out of the season to this week, something that angered McCourty.

The Patriots veteran took no questions during his video conference and spoke about the need to keep a spotlight on racial injustice and other issues in the country. He then lashed out at the league for moving the deadline up.

“I think it’s an absolute joke that the NFL is changing the opt-out period mainly because they don’t want to continue to see guys opt out,” said McCourty. “I’m sure they’re shocked about how many guys opted out. I think it’s terrible … that the league is changing that date.”

The Patriots have changed around the facilities inside Gillette Stadium because of the pandemic.

Players will be social distancing in the locker room where stalls have been moved to keep them apart for each other.

As the NFL tries to get the season going next month, it figures to be a challenge, given what is going on in Major League Baseball.

“You have to be as safe as you can,” said captain and center David Andrews. “There’s obviously a risk we’re all taking here. There’s a risk going to the grocery store, filling up your car with gas.

“You’ve just got to be as safe as you can, be as clean as you can. You’ve got to just try to stay on top of things. We’ve been fortunate so far and hopefully we can stay on this trend moving forward.”

The new-look facilities are just part of the plan to make sure the Patriots remain safe while they are at work.

“There’s a lot of different stuff,” said White. “Everything’s spaced out giving everybody the right amount of distance from one another.

“We have to follow all the right protocols and make sure we’re keeping each other and our families as safe as possible. Going in there you just feel a little bit more comfortable, a little bit more at ease. It just comes down to us trying to do the right things to protect one another.”

Andrews missed last season due to blood clots in his lungs and weighed the option of not returning this year due to COVID-19.

“My choice has been made,” he said. “Talking with doctors and my wife, it’s something that we feel comfortable with. I’m just excited to get the chance to go out there and compete again.”