Counties with NFL stadiums suffered Covid-19 spikes following packed football games during the first season played during the pandemic, according to a new study, as researchers get a better understanding of how to avoid superspreader events, even as cases decline nationwide two years later.
Researchers at University College London and Texas A&M University found counties where NFL stadiums held games with at least 20,000 fans had rates of Covid spikes 2.23 times greater than stadiums with fewer fans or no fans.
Those spikes occurred roughly two to three weeks after the games, according to the study, published Friday morning in JAMA, although researchers found “very little evidence” of spikes after an initial data collection seven days later.
Researchers, who analyzed coronavirus numbers using the New York Times Covid database during the 2020-2021 season—before the widespread rollout of vaccines—did not find evidence of county-level Covid spikes following games with fewer than 5,000 fans in attendance.
Large events, researchers urged, “should be handled with extreme caution during public health events where vaccines, on-site testing, and various countermeasures are not readily available to the public.
31,700. That’s the number of fans who attended a Dallas Cowboys game midway through the season, the highest attendance of any NFL game during the 2020-2021 season (the Cowboys averaged 90,929 fans per game in the 2019-2020 season, according to ESPN). Other teams, like the Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals, kept their attendance below 5,000 per game. The least attended game that season had just 748 fans in the crowd.
The NFL was the first Major American sports league to announce plans to play a full season in 2020, with games starting in September of that year, six months after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Twenty of the 32 teams in the league allowed fans to attend, with varied levels of crowd control, in accordance with local regulations and NFL protocols, which also included team testing and contact tracing among players. The league was able to maintain low infection levels among players, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facing the prospect of crippling revenue shortages without ticket sales, however, NFL teams attempted to strike a compromise, with distancing protocols separating fans in the stands and masking requirements in place throughout the games. Research on Covid spread among fans during those games has so far been a mixed bag. In total, there were 117 games with fans in attendance and 152 without them. According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, stadiums were able to control the spread with masking and distancing requirements, as stadiums stayed far short of full capacity.
Researchers in the JAMA study cautioned against pointing blame exclusively on the NFL games or the large crowds that tailgated before them for the Covid spikes in both the counties where the games were played and in neighboring counties. Variations in local Covid policies and guidelines at the time could also play into the spread of the virus, researchers said.
The Stadium Revenue Each NFL Team Will Lose If Games Are Played Without Fans (Forbes)
Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus