Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced Friday that the Saints will not be allowed to have people at the team’s game against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 27. This story was published a few hours before that announcement.
By the end of the month, Louisiana expects to have thousands of cheering fans in LSU’s Tiger Stadium and possibly the Louisiana Superdome for football games — a move which health experts agree could spread COVID-19 further in a state that already has the highest number of coronavirus cases per capita in the country.
“There is no question there are going to be cases that rise from it. It’s impossible to imagine a situation where that would not happen,” said Ed Trapido, an epidemiologist at LSU’s School of Public Health.
“There will probably be a couple of hundred infected people [at the stadium]. There will probably be another 400 or 500 cases incubating by the end of the day,” said Susan Hassig, a faculty member in the epidemiology department at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
Other experts were a bit more optimistic about fans returning to stadiums, though they said it was important that significant mitigation measures be taken to make arenas safer. And all academics interviewed for this story argued against any person over 69 years old or with significant health problems attending a game.
“I think it’s important we get back to school and we get back to sports and get back to work,” said Jeffrey Klausner, an epidemiologist at University of California Los Angeles. “But we need to do that in a focused way to reduce the risk.”
LSU officials say they are going to great lengths to lower the risk of the game day experience. On Wednesday, the school announced its 100,000-person-plus Tiger Stadium will be opening Sept. 26 for LSU’s game against Mississippi State at a quarter of its normal capacity — with possibly around 25,000 fans.
The fans will be required to wear masks and stay six feet apart from one another while on campus. Students may also have to get tested if they want to attend the game at all. Traditional tailgating will not be permitted, though people will be allowed to gather in small groups near their cars or RVs before kick off, according to LSU’s plan. A group attending games will be limited to eight people sitting together.
Many fans have already opted out of the season. LSU says over half of its season ticket holders — who occupy over 70,000 seats in the stadium — do not plan to come to games this year.
The Saints play the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 27 and the home team is still in negotiations with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrel about seating at the Superdome. The mayor has the authority to restrict the number of fans in the 74,000-person stadium or to ban fans altogether if she wants.
All the health experts interviewed for this story said Tiger Stadium will likely be a safer environment than the Superdome — even if there are more fans there because it’s outdoors and that reduces the risk of coronavirus spreading. Klausner cited as evidence the Black Lives Matter protests that took place outside without appearing to have contributed to the spread of COVID-19.
“Doing this outdoors is much, much lower risk than doing this indoors,” he said.
Just how risky it might be for fans in the Superdome isn’t clear. Klausner said he would have to know more about how the air moves around the arena and the ventilation system to make an educated guess. Trepido said it was hard to know because there is “a lot of air circulating in the Dome” and he doesn’t know how many people will be able to attend the games yet.
Hassig doesn’t believe the Dome would be safe if thousands of people are in it — particularly if they are chanting or yelling. “I want the Saints to do well this season because I think it’s probably Drew Brees’ last season,” she said, “ but being inside the Dome is not a good idea.”
Even in outdoor stadiums, there have to be mitigation measures taken beyond requiring masks and limiting the size of crowds, said John McCarthy, a mathematician at Washington University in St. Louis. Even with fewer people in the stands, McCarthy said stadiums still need to be mindful of how they arrange seating and handle potential choke points such as bathrooms. He says it is imperative that people are spaced out.
It’s also important to address how fans will enter or exit a stadium, McCarthy said. People should enter and exit a stadium in waves– so everyone is not trying to arrive or leave at once. The best practices would be to have different entrance and exit times designated on tickets.
McCarthy has been advising stadiums and professional sports teams around the country on how to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when fans return. While the NBA, NHL and MLB have been playing for weeks, the leagues haven’t had spectators — outside of family and close friends.This month will demonstrate whether bringing fans back to sporting events exacerbates the pandemic in the United States.
By reducing the capacity of Tiger Stadium to 25 percent, LSU has said it will be able to space out fans.
The school is also requiring physical distance at the stadium’s bathrooms. Restrooms in other buildings on campus will be closed and porta-potties will be “limited” in order to discourage tailgating before games, according to the athletic department.
LSU does plan to stagger the entry of fans into Tiger stadium as well, but those details are still being worked out and will be announced later, said Robert Munson, spokesman for the LSU athletic department.
The health experts said boxes, suites and other luxury seating in both Tiger Stadium and the Superdome will be some of the riskiest areas in the arenas. Those spaces tend to be enclosed and often have more of a party atmosphere — which can result in more COVID-19 spread.
LSU has reduced capacity in its suites and premium seats to 25 percent. The school is also trying to encourage people in suites to sit in their outdoor seats by removing indoor furniture and not playing the game on televisions in common areas. In the club areas, they will still have buffets, but they won’t be self-serve. Staff will have to give people their food. “Suite hopping” will also be banned, according to the released plan.
But Klausner said it would be best to shut down this type of seating entirely.
“I would just close off the indoor areas completely,” he said. “The privileged have to make some sacrifices, too, and they may have to sit in the general admission area if they want to go to the game.”
Another factor at LSU is the marching band. The band will have fewer members, but it will still be playing in the stands during the game, according to the school’s plan. Both Klausner and Trepido said there isn’t really a lot of information about what risk that might pose.
There’s some concern that the louder a person talks or sings while infected with COVID-19, the more likely they are to spread it. But no one has examined to see if a band playing instruments in an outdoor setting is likely to further spread the virus.
Klausner said he would recommend fans not sit within 20 feet of band members playing. He also joked that LSU could provide a “test case” of whether an “infected tuba player would become a super spreader” during a performance.
Munson said the school has already decided not to seat anyone near the band. For example, fans won’t be allowed to sit in front of the band as they normally do. The school is also researching caps or protective gear for wind instruments. He did not know whether the band members — like the football players — would be tested for COVID-19 prior to the game.
Even a good, well-reasoned stadium plan needs some enforcement mechanism to work, McCarthy said. For example, some professional sports teams are threatening to pull people’s season tickets if they don’t abide by the new stadium rules, he said.
“You can have the best plan in the world, but if you don’t have any way of enforcing it, it doesn’t matter,” McCarthy said.
Munson said LSU has hired 50 more people just to monitor the behavior of fans at the game, though there’s been no mention of pulling people’s tickets if they misbehave.
Trepido and Hassig were also skeptical that either Tiger Stadium or the Superdome staff would be able to enforce the rules. Both suspected that people would remove their masks frequently during the games.
“If they sat where they were supposed to sit or were conscious of keeping their masks on, I would not be nearly so worried. But I don’t believe any of that is going to happen,” she said. “They’re just not. It’s like expecting college students not to have parties.”
Both Trepido and Hassig said they expect the opening up of Tiger Stadium — and potentially the Superdome — to lead to more spread in the community among people who don’t go to the arenas, when fans travel back home.
“It’s just open season on the possibility of being exposed and getting sick,” Trepido said.
“I think it’s really dangerous for the Baton Rouge community frankly. I think they are going to have to push the hospitals back to critical levels,” Hassig said of the Tiger Stadium decision.
Hassig said the decision to open up Tiger Stadium could make it harder to return to normal in other areas. If the infection rates spike high enough and hospitals look like they will be overwhelmed, the government may have to reinstate restrictions again.
“If they cared about keeping their K-12 kids in school and keeping LSU in some semblance of in-person classes, they wouldn’t be doing this. This is a bad idea,” Hassig said.
But Trepido said that even if fans aren’t in the stands, they would be gathering somewhere else and that might actually be less safe than an outdoor stadium setting. Bars and restaurants that are enclosed could pose more of a risk in some ways, he said.
“People are going to congregate one way or another, whether they are at the stadium or in backyards or in bars or restaurants,” he said.