- New York City is allowing in-person attendance of live sporting events, capping capacity at 10 percent of the venue’s usual capacity.
- Some stadiums and arenas have been allowing limited attendance throughout the pandemic, while baseball’s Texas Rangers plan to allow full capacity once the season begins.
- The risk of virus transmission is lower in outdoor stadiums than it is indoors.
- Enhanced safety measures are in place, including physical distancing, masking, sanitation, and signage.
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For the past year, sports fans have been largely absent from arenas and stadiums due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the pandemic began to ramp up last March, virtually all sports leagues paused their seasons. When games resumed later that summer, most of them took place in venues with no fans in attendance.
Since last month, though, New York City has allowed limited attendance at sporting events: No more than 10 percent of the venue’s total capacity.
That works out to fewer than 2,000 fans at the city’s main indoor arenas, Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center.
The city’s two outdoor baseball stadiums — Yankee Stadium and Citi Field — will be able to accommodate between 4,100 and 4,700 fans.
It’s worth noting that some venues never fully shut their doors to fans. AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, limited attendance to 50 percent of its usual 100,000-seat capacity for Dallas Cowboys football games.
The Texas Rangers announced this week that they would allow a sellout crowd of 40,518 at Globe Life Field once baseball season begins.
The news out of New York is significant, though, as it represents the first time in close to a year that fans have been able to enjoy live sports.
Of course, as the pandemic continues to endanger a population that’s still largely unvaccinated, it raises an important question: Is it safe to go to a game?
Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, an environmental scientist and senior adviser to the International WELL Building Institute — an organization that provides health and safety ratings to facilities including Yankee Stadium — told Healthline that ensuring fan safety has been a major undertaking.
“Everything, and I mean everything, had to be evaluated for its potential health risk,” Hershkowitz told Healthline.
“Everything, all of the surroundings, had to be considered for its impact on health — from where people line up outside, where they’re going to be entering washrooms, restaurants, merchandising, seating, locker rooms, clubhouses. There is not one thing that has not had to be reviewed for its potential to instigate an illness,” he said.
Hershkowitz explained that fans will notice a few changes when they return to Yankee Stadium.
Touchless ticketing is now the norm. Signage around the stadium reminds fans of occupancy limits and physical distancing. Face coverings will be required as well.
Ultimately, said Hershkowitz, fans will need to be confident that they’re attending games in a safe venue, and it’s incumbent on facility operators to earn that confidence through stringent safety measures.
Facilities such as Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are outdoor facilities, which reduces the risk of virus transmission.
New York’s indoor arenas represent a more complicated scenario.
Madison Square Garden, which hosts ice hockey as well as basketball, adds a further wrinkle.
“A new study shows that stagnant smoke and pollutants remain about 10 feet above an ice rink,” explained Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
“Cool air close to the ice and warmer air rising above it create a ‘thermal inversion,’ which effectively traps air, preventing its movement just above the ice at the level where skaters are breathing the air,” Glatter told Healthline. “This places skaters at higher risk for both acquiring and transmitting COVID-19 while on the ice itself.”
Glatter also said that specific temperatures and humidity conditions inside arenas may further enhance the survival of the aerosolized virus.
While the risk in these venues may be higher, it can be somewhat mitigated by following the same advice most of us have been following for the past year.
“Wearing properly fitted masks along with effective filtration and ventilation inside ice arenas can help reduce COVID-19 risk and potential transmission,” Glatter said.
As vaccination efforts continue, COVID-19 transmission should hopefully slow in the coming months.
But that doesn’t mean we’ll see sold-out stadiums full of unmasked fans anytime soon.
Rob LaHayne, CEO of TouchCare, a healthcare concierge company in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, has worked with a number of professional sports teams. He told Healthline that on-the-spot testing will probably become common.
“Testing is first and foremost, and stadiums are no different than workplaces and schools,” he told Healthline. “In fact, the provisions of bulk testing and enforcing safety procedures are important to safeguard arena employees and fans alike. Daily testing will become commonplace in our lives, if it’s not already.”
“While arenas and sports venues are taking different approaches to prioritize the safety of fans, mandating fans to produce a negative PCR test in the days — typically 48 hours — leading up to a game and day-of testing is a particularly effective strategy,” LaHayne added.
Ultimately, he said, these stringent guidelines are the only way to minimize risk and welcome fans back to live sports — even if things are still far from normal.
“Masking, social distancing, and testing are all basic safety measures that are helping arenas reopen doors and welcome fans back,” LaHayne said.
“By following guidelines, venues can restore a sense of normalcy in the stadium again. As testing becomes more commonplace, the implementation of technology to make tracking of testing and vaccinations will follow,” he said.