What pandemic? According to Dallas Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones, the game must go on.
Sunday, the Cowboys will play their first home match to a reduced crowd in Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, a fact that worries many public health experts.
“Simply limiting fan capacity in stadiums is not enough,” said Dr. Erin Carlson, an associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“It pains me to say these things because I love sports … but it’s not worth risking the lives of our community members,” she continued.
After the coronavirus touched down in North Texas, the future of the 2020 football season remained uncertain. Since then, public health experts have adamantly warned against gathering in large groups at all costs.
AT&T Stadium isn’t the only arena seating spectators. Thursday, the Houston Texans squared off with the Kansas City Chiefs, where a crowd of 17,000 thronged the Missouri stadium, according to AP News.
But of the 32 NFL stadiums nationwide, 26 are not welcoming fans for at least the first game, if not longer, according to The Washington Post. (The Cowboy's opener, away against the LA Rams, did not have in-person fans.)
For its part, AT&T Stadium has a seating capacity of 80,000, and Texas currently allows sports venues to operate at 50% capacity. Jones has said he doesn’t think the arena will be welcoming 40,000 people, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, but he has yet to set a maximum.
Reduced crowd sizes could still put people at risk, Carlson said. A new University of Reading study indicates that even with an 80% capacity decrease, coronavirus transmissions are likely to occur if fans don’t take precautionary measures before, during and after the game.
“Socially, stadiums are a carefree environment; they have some of the same characteristics as bars,” Carlson said.
Like bars, people frequently drink alcohol when they’re at a sports stadium, which lowers their inhibitions, Carlson said. A home team touchdown could also inspire high-fives and hugs among strangers, which naturally leads to a heightened risk of spread, she said.
That could make moot the Cowboys’ “pod seating" arrangements, whereby fan groups are expected to remain in seat blocks. Guidance released by AT&T Stadium asks that fans maintain “pod integrity” by only giving tickets to friends and family who are in their direct circle.
One thing that the Arlington stadium has going for it is its retractable roof, Carlson said. When open, air will circulate better, which will make it harder for the disease to spread.
Fans who are sick, or who know they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, should stay at home, according to the stadium’s guidelines. Fans should also take their temperature prior to leaving the house.
But Carlson said that some asymptomatic fans, who are not yet running fevers, may unknowingly be spreading the disease to others.
“One asymptomatic ‘super-spreader’ could give this easily, easily, to 20 people at a game,” Carlson said. “They may become infected at the game and then take it back to their community, so then there could be little outbreaks in the communities from the surrounding area that come from this.”
Fans are expected to practice social distancing both inside the stadium and in the parking lot. Still, Carlson said that remaining 6 feet apart could be difficult in certain areas, such as lines for concession stands or bathrooms.
Another concern is the amount of cheering that’s involved in the game, since yelling easily spreads coronavirus-laden droplets in the air, Carlson said. Recent studies have shown that yelling can propel droplets 20 feet, she said.
Masks are required to be worn at all times, including in the parking lot, but it’s unclear how such a stipulation will be enforced. Those who are actively eating or drinking, or who are younger than 10, are not required to wear one. Plus, Carlson said, there’s no such thing as the “COVID police.”
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It’s not just about what happens during the game that counts, said Dr. Diana Cervantes, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. One must remain vigilant in terms of social distancing, even with limited capacity, she said.
Tailgating is still allowed at AT&T’s home games, provided cars have at least one empty space between them. There, Cervantes said that people will congregate and eat and drink, all of which will make it harder to maintain a safe distance.
Cervantes said she understands that people miss being able to see games. Still, it’s better to be careful and avoid the need for immediate gratification in the name of tradition, she said.
“It’s a risk that I think tips the balances against the wellbeing of society,” Cervantes said. “It’s not just about me; it’s not just about whether I get sick. If I get sick, there’s always that huge potential that I can make other people sick, and that just snowballs.”