As the sports world focuses on how to manage players, coaches, team personnel and officials in safe yet highly regulated environments for new return-to-play protocols, lurking in the shadows is another question teams and leagues will soon have to confront.
When will it be safe enough to allow people into stadiums or arenas to watch games without a vaccine in place for the coronavirus? And what, if any, is an acceptable degree of risk for people who want to sit in the stands?
Thus far, North America is a patchwork of provincial and state guidelines under which leagues must operate when it comes to the numbers of people allowed to gather in one place.
Nowhere in Canada can more than 100 people gather together at the present time, even outdoors. In some provinces, that number ranges to as many as 50 and to as few as 10.
Meanwhile, the state of Texas has said pro sports venues will be allowed to operate at half of their attendance capacity. In states such as Oklahoma, which recently approved an indoor rally for U.S. President Donald Trump that could have accommodated 19,000 people, it's left up to individual businesses or venue operators.
The NHL, NBA and MLS, however, are planning to return to play during the summer in bubble environments without fans, while Major League Baseball is set to begin its 2020 season on July 23 or 24 in empty ballparks.
There’s no perfect methodology to determine the risk of attending a sporting event amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is possible to break down the various factors involved.
The first is indoors versus outdoors. Although there is no exact science to this, much evidence this spring suggests that being outdoors makes a significant difference.
“Outdoors just allows more diffusion,” said Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Toronto. “Everything that we know seems to be that that’s beneficial.”
This may be akin to the difference between being near someone who's smoking a cigarette indoors, as opposed to being in close proximity to that person outdoors in terms of the amount of second-hand smoke one might be exposed to.
Two other primary factors relating to risk of infection are less predictable in a stadium environment: the numbers of people with whom one comes into contact with, and the duration of time spent in close proximity to someone who's not from your household.
And those concerns extend beyond the time someone spends in the stands watching the game, or being in the stadium concourse or on a staircase to go to a public washroom or a concession stand. There are also activities that may expose a person to large numbers of people before and after the game, such as tailgating, getting in or out of a stadium on crowded sidewalks, or travelling to and from the game by public transit.
“That will be more complicated, the bigger a crowd you have," said Dr. Morris.
Social distancing in stadium seating makes a difference, as does the overall configuration of seating.
“There’s an advantage to some degree in stadiums because you don’t have too many people sitting face to face, which is beneficial,” said Dr. Morris. “But on top of that, putting barriers doesn’t seem to be feasible, although you could imagine that.”
When you factor in any contact that an infected person may have with random individuals during other encounters in the stadium, the risk becomes even greater.
Wearing a mask can reduce the chances of spreading or contracting COVID-19, but it can’t eliminate it.
“It’s not like we have certainty about the benefits of masking,” said Dr. Morris. “Most people in the ID or epidemiology world believe that overall there is not only plausibility but a signal, based on experiences around the world, that masking makes a difference in controlling disease.
“If masking makes a difference then its benefit is going to be enhanced where there is likelihood of spread occurring. Stadiums are up there along with churches, choir practice, conventions, that kind of stuff.”
But unlike churches or choir practice, stadiums are complicated by the sale and consumption of food and drink. Everything from food preparation to lining up at concessions and bathrooms to actual consumption represents a risk.
“There are no masks that you can eat and drink through,” said Dr. Morris. “If people are eating and drinking it means they are not wearing a mask and it usually means that they are talking. This poses a unique challenge for arenas and stadiums ... from a public health perspective, food and drink is always problematic.”
The future of having fans in the stands, however, is likely to involve not just the need to keep them safe during their entire time spent at games, but also enhancing the ability of teams and leagues, stadium operators and local health officials to respond to infections or outbreaks when they occur.
“There is the risk of attending and the risk of the outbreak. They are not the same thing," Dr. Morris said. “If a league were to consult with me, I would say what they want to do is interface with public health and making sure that when you buy your ticket the ticket that you possess to go into the stadium has your home address and cellphone number. And you have to come in with ID to confirm it.
“If they were really smart and sophisticated they would get an understanding of the risk based on the epidemiology of people coming in and would also be able to get an understanding of where people are going by interfacing other technologies.”
Further measures could involve asking a percentage of people attending games to provide saliva samples. In this way, sports leagues and their teams could not only protect the safety of those in the stadium but contribute to the overall knowledge of where in the community spread may be occurring.
“They could actually see who is coming to the stadium and leaving the stadium, where they are going to, and where they are gathering," Dr. Morris said. You could actually get an understanding of where there may be clusters and where you may want to be testing.
“If we get positives we will report that to public health. We can contact you and we will know everyone else who sat around you so we can let them know what is the concern. Arenas, stadiums and leagues are going to have to be thinking and coordinating with public health officials and governments to decide what is acceptable.”