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Keeping games safe: How to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in a crowd

Gonzaga forward Kaden Perry is introduced to the crowd on Oct. 9 during the Bulldogs’ Kraziness in the Kennel.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The omicron variant has changed the pandemic ballgame again, and mitigating risk at sporting events is a tricky and potentially daunting dilemma. Layering protective strategies, including mask and vaccine requirements and eliminating eating and drinking can lower the risk that events pose for transmission.

How can crowds safely attend basketball games this season?

“Safe” is a qualitative term, said Dr. Josh Liao, an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Any crowd or gathering comes with a risk, and knowing that safety is a spectrum, not a light switch, is important.

The safest gathering, of course, is the one that doesn’t occur. And if teams were taking the most extreme precautions, there would be no spectators at all.

If crowds do gather to watch sporting events, particularly indoors, layering mitigation strategies becomes incredibly important, Liao said.

What mitigation strategies exist to keep the risk of transmission lower?

Improving the environments where games happen is important to making indoor events safer, Liao said. Venues can improve ventilation and air circulation to make arenas safer for attendees.

Beyond the actual environment, how people move through it is also important. Do people sit and watch the game or get up and move around several times during the event? Are there concessions, and if so, are people unmasked and eating or drinking for long periods of time?

At Gonzaga University, concessions were banned at all sporting events going forward this week, a move that could limit virus transmission.

As Liao pointed out, there’s a big difference in an environment where people are sitting and watching a game versus eating, drinking, interacting and moving around more.

“Behavior plays an incredible role here,” Liao said.

While no behavior is zero-risk, eliminating higher-risk behaviors, like eating or drinking, should mean people will not remove their masks.

Are mask and vaccine requirements enough to prevent outbreaks?

Health officials are recommending that people upgrade their masks in the face of a surge in omicron cases statewide. If you’re still wearing a cloth mask, consider adding a surgical, disposable mask underneath it.

If you have access to them, wear a KN95 or N95 mask for more protection against the highly transmissible variant.

Mask requirements for large events are important, Liao said, but even more important, people need to wear them properly.

Venues and universities can help set behavioral norms by having signage or even staff members reminding people to wear their masks properly. With eating and drinking off the table, universal masking is much more possible.

Sporting events are different than watching a movie or a play. Things like cheering or yelling are norms, and masks become even more important when you are doing these activities, which produce more respiratory droplets, on which the virus travels.

Requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status, ensures that anyone who might have a breakthrough case or an asymptomatic infection has a lowered risk of infecting others.

Not every sporting event with crowds has resulted in an outbreak, but it can happen.

A weekend of wrestling tournaments last December in Western Washington led to the spread of omicron and hundreds of people testing positive for the virus.

State health officials said reports and photos of the tournament showed there was a lack of masking compliance and distancing at the events.

Vaccine requirements are also important, Liao said. Fully vaccinated and boosted individuals are better protected against the omicron variant.

What other policies can universities or teams implement?

Many college campuses have vaccine requirements for students and staff. Some even have testing requirements and symptom checks.

Liao said colleges and universities could apply the same stringent and rigorous requirements they have for their community members to those attending sporting events.

“It doesn’t make sense to fortify one side of a house, and then let the wind blow down the other three sides,” he said.

Creating consistency across settings at institutions for not only students, staff and guests as well helps create norms and expectations of all events, from sporting events to smaller on-campus gatherings.

How transmissible is omicron?

Omicron is more transmissible than the delta variant.

Experts estimated that with the original strain, a person with the virus would infect two to five others. With delta, an infected person could infect four to seven others. With omicron, an infected person could infect more than four people, possibly up to 10 .

A person who gets omicron likely will give it to more people than previous variants, meaning it spreads much faster, as recent case counts show.

Keeping omicron at bay will not be an easy feat, but using a consistent and layered approach is the best way to go, experts say.

This means mask and vaccine requirements, eliminating higher-risk activities like eating or drinking, improving ventilation and having crowd limits. Liao said organizations should acknowledge the risk that comes with large crowds.

“Because of omicron, there’s a nonzero risk,” he said.

Policies, Liao added, equal science plus values. Being consistent and transparent to the community about expectations and acknowledging risks is the best way to take a thoughtful approach.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.