The sight of fans in the stands at any Super Bowl often brings a bit of "wish I were there" envy from those watching at home. This year, expect pangs of wistfulness, too, as the camera pans the crowd at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
The crowd at Sunday's big game will be limited to less than half the stadium's capacity, and tickets came with KN-95 masks. It's far from normal. Nevertheless, seeing others take in the big game in person will remind many of the shortened seasons and many empty stadiums that COVID-19 caused.
Still, that there are 25,000 fans at the Super Bowl should inspire hope for 2021 — along with questions. The Minnesota Twins home opener looms in just two months. Is it possible some fans could safely be back at Target Field?
While Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's best-known infectious disease physician, is a well-known baseball fan, answers from him and other experts about what fans should expect have been elusive or mixed.
Interested fans will discover a surprising information gap. Published research has generally focused on risks to athletes, but the ticket-buying public is looking for guidance, too. Medical experts should round up data, analyze it and share it.
A year into the pandemic, there's experience to draw on. The NFL allowed limited attendance at some games this season, with mitigation measures in place. The same was true for the World Series and some college football games. Closer to home, minor league baseball's St. Paul Saints did the same. Early reports on COVID risks for fans look encouraging, though with major caveats. Many events took place before more transmissible strains moved into wider circulation. Contact tracing resources were strained in many states. And medical experts also need to weigh the data that is available and render judgment.
Responding to an editorial writer, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said that the league worked closely with local, state and federal health officials to enable fans to attend the Super Bowl and other games safely and to ensure the events didn't spread the virus. During the regular season, 19 teams hosted 1.2 million fans at 116 games.
"The clubs and league tracked with local public health authorities COVID cases in the 5, 10 days prior to a game, gameday and the following 5, 10 days. We engaged a third-party research firm to track the data with the clubs and the local public health officials," McCarthy said. "There have been no clusters of positive cases attributed to NFL games."
Although the tracking time frame could have been longer after games, the league's efforts are still impressive. COVID tracking will also be in place following the Super Bowl. The league should share it promptly.
What's known about other major sporting events also is promising, as well. The World Series and National League Championship Series were held in Arlington, Texas, this fall. Spokesmen for the Texas Department of State Health Services and for Tarrant County public health said they would have been alerted by other states if these events were under suspicion as "super spreaders." So far, that is not the case. Florida health officials also said they were not aware of COVID cases linked to attendance at the College Football Playoff National Championship game played Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens.
The St. Paul Saints worked closely with Minnesota health officials to devise safe policies for attendance last season. A maximum of 1,500 fans per game were allowed in, with mitigation measures including masking, strict social distancing, and breaking attendees down into smaller groups with separate entrances and bathrooms, as well as cashless concessions.
Sean Aronson, the Saints' director of broadcasting and media relations, said four people tested positive after attending — working out to 0.012% of total attendance. Contract tracing efforts by health officials later determined the four were not exposed at the game, he said.
Minnesota Twins President and Chief Executive Officer Dave St. Peter told an editorial writer that planning for fan safety in the coming season dominates his days. The team is studying best practices from the Saints and other teams and working with MLB and state health officials. He said he is "hopeful" that fans will be able to attend the team's April 8 home opener, but "the reality is that science is going to guide the decision."
St. Peter also added that fans, if they are able to attend, should expect a different experience this year. The pandemic isn't over and mitigation measures remain critical. The Twins, Saints and other teams have done commendable research and planning. Continuing cooperation from fans who understand the risks COVID poses will be critical for a winning 2021.