More than 65,000 fans packed a stadium in Tampa to watch Tom Brady lead the Buccaneers up for grabs during the NFL season opener, just hours after President Joe Biden announced a radical new plan to slow the latest wave of COVID-19.
Most of those in the open-air stadium on Thursday night were not wearing masks. There was no vaccine requirement for fans, which Biden urged sports and entertainment venues to enforce. Many other football stadiums are taking an equally lax approach to pandemic measures this fall, raising concern among health experts.
This fall’s crowded college and professional football stadiums could create the right conditions for COVID-19 is spreading among unvaccinated fans, experts say.
The risk of catching or transmitting a virus that has infected more than 40 million people in the United States will depend on where the stadium is located and whether the game is being played outdoors, among other factors.
It is difficult to predict how many cases of COVID-19 could develop from a single event. This depends in part on the infection rates where the site is and the number of people vaccinated.
The highly contagious delta variant triggered an increase in infections this summer which has recently started to decline. The seven-day moving average for new daily cases in the United States stands at around 150,000 after starting in September above 167,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
At these rates, it is “essentially a certainty” that there will be at least one infected person at any gathering of a thousand people, said epidemiologist Ryan Demmer.
Many football stadiums can accommodate 60,000 fans or more.
“At any type of big event like at a football stadium, there will undoubtedly be a lot of people infected there,” said Demmer of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
IS COVID-19 CLEAN DURING OTHER EVENTS?
Yes. The Lollapalooza Music Festival in Chicago drew around 385,000 people in late July. Festival-goers had to present proof of vaccination or a negative test. Almost two weeks after the event, city officials reported 203 related COVID-19 cases.
In Wisconsin, health officials said nearly 500 cases of the coronavirus could be linked to crowds that attended Milwaukee Bucks games or gathered outside the arena – estimated at 100,000 a night – during the team’s push towards the NBA championship.
ARE SITES TAKING ACTION?
The NFL does not have a general policy for masks or vaccination status for fans. This creates a patchwork of guidelines that each of the 32 teams developed.
The Las Vegas Raiders, for example, will require proof of vaccination for all fans aged 12 and over. The New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks will require fans to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
Louisiana State University, a college football powerhouse, has a policy similar to that of the Saints.
Many teams ask fans to wear masks indoors but don’t require them when seated.
Football games are the last events to pick up with stadiums or arenas full, after a summer of concerts, NBA playoffs and baseball.
DO THE OUTSIDE STAGES ELIMINATE THE RISKS?
No. But they’re considered safer because air can circulate better through them, which can hamper the airborne virus’s ability to spread.
That said, there is still an “extremely high chance” that an unvaccinated, unmasked fan could end up with COVID-19 if they sit next to an infected person for about three hours, even in the dark. ‘outside, said Demmer, the epidemiologist.
Most of the 30 stadiums in the NFL are outdoor venues.
Four teams have closed roofs – the Detroit Lions, Las Vegas Raiders, New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings – and five have retractable roofs that can be opened or closed.
A stadium that opened last year in Los Angeles and is home to the Chargers and Rams has a canopy-type roof and panels at each end that allow air in and out.
WHAT PRECAUTIONS CAN FANS TAKE?
The most important step is to become fully immunized. Doctors say the injections do not eliminate the risk, but they significantly reduce it, especially when it comes to developing a severe case requiring hospitalization.
“The delta variant is … so much more contagious that if you have groups of unvaccinated people it will tear them apart,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Bringing masks and hand sanitizer to the game is a good idea, said Dr Sharon Wright, infection control manager at Beth Israel Lahey Health in Boston.
She noted that the masks aren’t perfect, but they do offer some protection. They also prevent people from touching their faces.
“A lot of people touch a lot of things in sports arenas,” she noted.
Once fans are in their seats, they should try to stay there as much as possible to minimize contact with those infected, Demmer said.
“Don’t walk around the stadium,” he said. “Try not to stay in a lot of concession lines.”
The epidemiologist said there is no doubt that the overcrowded stadiums this fall will lead to more infections, but he also realizes that “we can’t live the next five or 10 years without having large gatherings.” because of the virus.
“I just wish everyone got vaccinated and we could really get over this once and for all,” Demmer said.
Murphy reported from Indianapolis. Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this Salt Lake City report.
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