NFL says it has a plan for Super Bowl safety, but experts still warn of Covid risks

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National Football League fans convene in downtown Tampa ahead of Super Bowl LV during the COVID-19 pandemic on January 30, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.

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The National Football League is bracing for the final contest of the season with Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay, and the league is promising that the event won’t turn into a Covid-19 superspreader.

The NFL said it will distribute kits including hand sanitizers and KN95 masks to fans at Sunday’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs-Tampa Bay Buccaneers to help limit any spread.

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

“It’s been a lot of work by a lot of people and a lot of engagement with local, state, and national health officials to do this as safely as can be done,” said Miller, who oversees the NFL’s public and policy affairs.

Health and safety experts who spoke with CNBC approved of the way the NFL is coordinating its event, but they still raised issues.

“My biggest concern for when Covid-19 might spread at the stadium is not necessarily when people are sitting in their seats,” said Stephen Kissler, an epidemiologist at Harvard University. “It’s actually when they are mixing in other parts of the stadium.”

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

Robin Alam | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

What’s the plan?

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

To combat this, the NFL says it has customized entry points, making them larger for fans attending, though it will not offer temperature checks at the gates.

The NFL is also selling Super Bowl tickets in groups of two to six people so they can sit together in “pods.” Jonathan Barker, the NFL’s head of live event production, said the pods aren’t placed too close to each other, and they max out at 10 people per pod.

“There will never be anybody in front of or anybody behind another person,” said Barker, adding he anticipates 30,000 cut-outs of fans to fill the empty seats.

Barker, who has been in Tampa Bay since Jan. 4, said the stadium has endured a rigorous and daily cleaning. “And as we get three days out, we’ll up those efforts in cleaning and sanitizing and disinfecting everything,” he said.

By kickoff, the NFL estimates, it will have gone through roughly 200,000 health screenings for individuals working at the event, including staff. BioReference Laboratories, a diagnostics company, is supporting the NFL’s health and safety efforts at Super Bowl LV. The company is expected to distribute 35,000 PCR tests to staff and vendors at the stadium.

And to limit contact, the NFL partnered with Visa to offer cashless transactions with reverse ATMs and said concourses will flow in two different directions.

In Tampa Bay, Mayor Jane Castor issued an outdoor mask mandate surrounding destinations near the Super Bowl. Epidemiologist Kissler said the limited capacity and outdoor atmosphere, plus having vaccinated fans, should help, but he cautioned, “We still don’t know for sure how much the vaccine prevents the spread of Covid-19.”

“We have to stay vigilant, maintain distancing, wear masks and keep up with common-sense measures that we’ve become so familiar with over the year,” Kissler said.

NFL chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said tracing plans have been shared with federal health authorities, including President Joe Biden’s Covid task force. He said the “detailed plan” includes guidelines around entering and exiting.

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

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

Octavio Jones | Getty Images

No signs of trouble

Even though the league had its own problems with outbreaks among players and staff during the regular season, Sills said no lingering cases have occurred via NFL games. Miller said over 1 million people have been to 116 NFL games during its pandemic season.

“We have not traced any outbreak or cluster of cases to any of the places we’ve had hosted fans,” Sills said. “That’s an important measuring stick for us and something that we’re very much focused around for this game.”

The league released it latest Covid testing results on Tuesday, reporting zero new positives among players and one among staff. To date, the NFL said 262 players and 463 personnel have tested positive.

It’s unknown if the NFL is insured for the Super Bowl. When discussing the NBA’s bubble in July, attorney Alan Taylor suggested that leagues would need to seek new policies for events, as most did not have insurance for a pandemic. Until the federal government backs such policies, they are likely to remain expensive.

“The policies the professional leagues will need to obtain will need to be new policies based upon the new situation that we’re in,” said Taylor, co-chair of law firm Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney’s professional liability unit.

Gil Fried, an expert on stadium safety and risk management at the University of New Haven, said the NFL has a safe path from legal issues if any outbreaks occur.

Fans attending the game agree to the “assumption of risk” associated with entering such an event, with Covid still very active. According to the Buccaneers’ website, fans “must leave and not enter the stadium grounds” should they not consent to risks associated with attending Raymond James Stadium.

“That’s a very big protective shield the NFL will have,” Fried said. “I think the NFL is going to do a good job enforcing rules, but I think it’s a bigger issue of the fans and what they do,” he added. “You can have all the rules you want, but if the fans don’t follow or do what they’re supposed to do, you’re going to be in serious trouble.”

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

“You need signage,” Fried said. “You need announcements, on their ribbons in the stadium all saying, ‘This is what you need to do.’ You need constant reminders of that. And make sure your security is enforcing it and kick them out if they don’t comply.”



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