Editor’s Note: There are few no-risk activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are ways to mitigate risks. Fully vaccinated people are, of course, at much lower risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus than people who haven’t been vaccinated. CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen advises approaching your activity decisions with that in mind. This story has been updated to reflect the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance on mask wearing issued August 13.
As more people get vaccinated against Covid-19 and the National Football League season starts September 9, you may be wondering whether the time to trade your couch for a stadium seat is finally here.
The factors that made pre-pandemic sporting events fun – excited people crowding together, cheering, talking, eating, drinking and sometimes doing all of these things indoors – make games potentially problematic now. Ignoring the risks associated with these activities could leave us “stuck in outbreak mode,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN’s New Day September 7.
Coronavirus spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and others breathe in those droplets, or when virus accumulates in or flows through the air. Getting the virus from surfaces is also possible, but this isn’t a primary mode of transmission, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said. The safety or risk level may partly depend on your vaccination status, since unvaccinated people remain unprotected against coronavirus.
Because of how coronavirus can spread, indoor events are higher risk than outdoor events – so “making sure that it is completely an outdoor type of event” is important, said Krystal Pollitt, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and assistant professor in chemical and environmental engineering at the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science.
The CDC recommends that unvaccinated people steer clear of large gatherings with others outside of their household. Of course, the safest way to enjoy the big game is by viewing it on television or online. But if you choose to be there in person, here’s what you need to know about planning for and attending sports events, regardless of your vaccination status.
Preparing for an in-person sporting event
Before you go to a sporting event, find out the number of Covid-19 cases both where you live and where the event is taking place. “The higher the transmission of COVID-19 in the community, the higher the risk of transmission” at the event, the CDC has said.
Call the venue or look at its website to check whether the venue is following CDC guidelines for sporting events or large gatherings, or similar guidance. Some of these safety measures include holding the event outdoors, requiring that all attendees wear masks, regular cleaning and blocked-off seats or visual cues for physical distancing, the CDC has said. A higher-risk event would be if it’s in an indoor space, if most but not all people wear masks, and if the event is using just a couple of strategies to reduce risk. Some venues might require attendees to provide either proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within a few days prior or full vaccination.
Indoor events should be well ventilated, said Dr. Ada Stewart, a family physician with Cooperative Health in Columbia, South Carolina, and the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, in April. Signs of a well-ventilated room include the ability to run fans and open windows or doors. High ceilings and portable air cleaners that have HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters also help.
If knowledgeable employees aren’t sure about ventilation quality, other measures are especially important – such as limiting the number of attendees, requiring that people from different households stay at least 6 feet apart, and asking that people constantly wear masks. The CDC has recommended avoiding large gatherings that don’t have these precautions in place.
If you’d like to be extra ambitious in protecting yourself and assess the actual ventilation yourself, you can take an inexpensive carbon dioxide monitor to track concentration levels and changes over time, Pollitt said. Levels above 800 to 1,000 parts per million would be concerning, Pollitt added, since that would mean the air isn’t circulating well enough.
What to do on game day
Pack hand sanitizer and more than enough masks. To reduce the risk of infection with the Delta variant, fully vaccinated people should wear masks in public indoor and crowded outdoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission, and if they or their housemates are immunocompromised or at higher risk for severe Covid-19, the CDC has recommended. Unvaccinated people should wear masks in these settings regardless of coronavirus transmission level. CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen suggested wearing a surgical mask that’s at least three-ply.
Venues should be sanitizing common and seating areas at least once daily or between every game, the CDC has advised, but bring sanitizing wipes to use if needed.
Eat beforehand “so that your opportunity to not have your mask (on) is limited,” Stewart said in April.
If you don’t eat beforehand, there are two concerns, said Wen, who is also an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. “One is people taking off their masks to eat if they are in close proximity with one another,” Wen said. “If everybody’s well spaced out and it’s outdoors, the risk is very low. But if they are close together and taking off their masks to eat, in close proximity or indoors, that increases risk.”
The other is “people gathering together,” Wen added. “Probably in order to get in (the game), you do have to get in a line. That’s something that’s hard to avoid. But you can avoid the concession stands during busy times. So, bring your own drinks if you can. You don’t want to necessarily have to go to a concession stand just to buy some water if you need it.” You could also pack your own snacks, but consider packing something that won’t take a long time to eat.
“Tailgating is another one of those time-honored traditions,” but don’t tailgate with people from outside your household, said Regina Davis Moss, the associate executive director of health policy and practice at the American Public Health Association.
In all areas, unvaccinated, immunocompromised and other vulnerable people should try to stay at least 6 feet away from others as much as possible. To reduce your contact with frequently touched surfaces, opt for touchless payment where available.
If you must use the restroom or buy food, try to go during less busy times instead of during halftime or time-outs.
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And scope out other ways to reduce risk when buying food, Davis Moss said. When you’re getting the mustard for your hotdog, for example, make sure to use hand sanitizer before and after since condiments “are surfaces that a lot of people are going to be touching.” Condiment packets are safer.
Not screaming about a score or bad play may be hard, but the louder you make your voice, the higher the chances of your producing virus-carrying droplets or aerosols if infected – even if you’re wearing a mask. Try to keep your voice to a normal volume at most, Pollitt said.
Lastly, you could leave a little bit before the game ends to avoid crowds as you navigate the parking lot or transportation.