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NFL makes Covid safety plans for fans

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National Football League fans gather in downtown Tampa prior to Super Bowl LV during the COVID-19 pandemic on January 30, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.

Octavio Jones | Getty Images

The National Football League is preparing for the final competition of the season with Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay, and the league promises the event will not become a Covid-19 superspreader.

The NFL said it would be handing out kits of hand sanitizer and KN95 masks to fans during Sunday’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to limit the spread.

NFL manager Jeff Miller said the wearing of masks will be mandatory for fans, players and team staff and the league will enforce social distancing measures. The NFL said attendance at the 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium will be limited to 25,000, including 7,500 vaccinated health workers.

“It has been a lot of work by a lot of people and a lot of commitment with local, state, and national health officials to do this as safely as possible,” said Miller, who oversees the NFL public and political affairs.

Health and safety experts speaking to CNBC agreed with the way the NFL is coordinating their event, but still raised issues.

“My biggest concern about when Covid-19 could spread in the stadium isn’t necessarily with people sitting in their seats,” said Stephen Kissler, an epidemiologist at Harvard University. “It is actually when they mingle in other parts of the stadium.”

The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs fans watch during the Super Bowl LIV game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL on February 2, 2020.

Robin Alam | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

What is the plan?

Kissler, a researcher in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, said people who gather in lines to enter the stadium or wait for concessions are more likely to spread droplets containing the virus.

To counteract this, the NFL has its own entry points, which are larger for the fans present, although they don’t offer temperature tests at the gates.

The NFL also sells Super Bowl tickets in groups of two to six so that they can sit in “pods” together. Jonathan Barker, the NFL’s head of live event production, said the pods were not placed too close together and a maximum of 10 people per pod.

“There will never be anyone in front of or behind another person,” said Barker, counting on 30,000 clippings of fans to fill the empty spaces.

Barker, who has been in Tampa Bay since Jan. 4, said the stadium had undergone rigorous daily cleaning. “And when we have three days off, we will step up that effort to clean, disinfect and disinfect everything,” he said.

The NFL estimates that by kick-off there will be around 200,000 health screenings for people working on the event, including staff. BioReference Laboratories, a diagnostics company, supports the NFL’s health and safety efforts at Super Bowl LV. The company is expected to distribute 35,000 PCR tests to employees and salespeople at the stadium.

In order to limit contact, the NFL has partnered with Visa to offer cashless ATM transactions. These corporations will go in two different directions.

In Tampa Bay, Mayor Jane Castor mandated outdoor masks near targets near the Super Bowl. Epidemiologist Kissler said the limited capacity and atmosphere outdoors, as well as the vaccinated fans should help, but warned, “We still don’t know exactly how much the vaccine prevents the spread of Covid-19.”

“We have to remain vigilant, keep our distance, wear masks and keep up with sensible measures that we have become so familiar with over the course of the year,” said Kissler.

Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said the tracing plans were shared with federal health officials, including President Joe Biden’s Covid Task Force. He said the “detailed plan” provided guidelines for getting on and off.

“We take our responsibility very seriously to model the best behavior and show how we believe an event of this magnitude can be safely conducted,” said Sills.

A view of Raymond James Stadium, home of Super Bowl LV, during the COVID-19 pandemic on January 30, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.

Octavio Jones | Getty Images

No signs of anger

Although the league had its own problems with outbreaks among players and staff during the regular season, Sills said no persistent cases had occurred over NFL games. Miller said over 1 million people played 116 NFL games during his pandemic season.

“We haven’t traced an outbreak or cluster of cases to any of the places we’ve hosted fans,” said Sills. “It’s an important benchmark for us and something we’re really focusing on in this game.”

The league released the latest Covid test results on Tuesday, reporting zero new positive results from the players and one from the staff. To date, the NFL said 262 players and 463 staff have tested positive.

It is unknown if the NFL is insured for the Super Bowl. While discussing the NBA bubble in July, Attorney Alan Taylor suggested that the leagues need to seek new event guidelines as most had no insurance for a pandemic. Until the federal government supports such measures, they are likely to remain expensive.

“The guidelines that the professional leagues must receive must be new guidelines based on the new situation we are in,” said Taylor, co-chair of the professional liability division of Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney law firm.

Gil Fried, a stadium safety and risk management expert at the University of New Haven, said the NFL has a safe way out of legal troubles when outbreaks occur.

Fans participating in the game consent to the “taking of risks” associated with attending such an event, with Covid still very active. According to the Buccaneers website, fans must “leave, and not enter, the stadium grounds” if they do not consent to the risks associated with visiting Raymond James Stadium.

“This is a very big shield that the NFL will have,” Fried said. “I think the NFL will do a good job of enforcing the rules, but I think it’s a bigger problem with the fans and what they do,” he added. “You can have any rules you want, but if the fans don’t follow or do what they’re supposed to, you’re going to get into serious trouble.”

Fried suggested that the NFL use frequent announcements and other behavioral triggers to help fans adhere to protocols.

“They need signs,” said Fried. “They need announcements on their tapes in the stadium that all say, ‘This is what you have to do.’ They need to be constantly reminded. And make sure your security enforces it and dump them if they don’t meet the requirements. “

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Robert Dunfee