It's an exciting time to be an American sports fan, from the U.S. Open tennis tournament and college football to the upcoming NFL season and MLB playoffs. Plenty of venues are either at capacity or expected to sell out soon.
But now isn't the time to prove that you're a diehard fan. Rather, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, it's too soon for fans to head back to full stadiums for in-person games. "I don't think it's smart," the White House chief medical advisor told CNN's "New Day" on Tuesday.
Bringing tens of thousands of people together, even outdoors, prolongs the pandemic because it opens the door for the virus to spread. Outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but crowded outdoor groups can still raise the potential for transmission due to sheer physical proximity — not to mention, any large amounts of cheering or screaming. The country could remain "stuck in outbreak mode" because of large-scale gatherings like sports games driving transmission, Fauci told CNN.
It's tough to trace an uptick in cases back to one specific event like a sports game or concert. The Lollapalooza music festival in August, for example, brought hundreds of thousands of people to Chicago, and led to 203 Covid cases linked to the event — not enough to be deemed a superspreader event, according to local public health officials. The festival required proof of vaccination to attend.
But given how transmissible Covid's delta variant is, your safest path for now is to skip those large events, says Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "If you want to minimize your risk as much as you can, going to a sporting event is not the right choice," he says.
Fortunately, you can take personal steps to make ballgames relatively safer, from a Covid transmission standpoint. Here's what experts want you to know:
Most outdoor venues require masking while in the stadium's indoor concourses, which adds a layer of security, Gonsenhauser says. But large crowds frequently shouting or cheering can present more opportunities for virus spread, even outdoors — which is why you should wear a mask in a crowded outdoor stadium, he says. Though it's rare, fully vaccinated people can still occasionally catch Covid and potentially transmit it to others.
If you visit a stadium, plan your in-game itinerary carefully, Gonsenhauser recommends. For example, choose less-busy times to visit the concession stand or use the bathroom, to avoid waiting in long lines full of other people. And be strategic about exiting the venue to avoid bottlenecks and crowds, he adds: "There's always that crush at the end of the game. You can really wait for that to subside, so that you don't need to be shoulder-to-shoulder in crowded environments."
Gonsenhauser plans to attend the Ohio State football game this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, where the stadium's seating capacity is 102,780, and the university is not requiring proof of vaccination. Masks are only required in indoor parts of the stadium, but Gonsenhauser says he'll probably wear a mask at all times.
"I'm choosing to do the thing that reduces risk for everybody around me, because I care about trying to end Covid," he says.
Attending a game brings a certain amount of risk. Pregame and postgame activities tend to be significantly riskier, Gonsenhauser says.
For example, meeting up at a crowded bar before a game or going to an afterparty at someone's home introduce more opportunities to come in contact with people and potentially get infected, he says. Even tailgating can be problematic, because you'll probably be eating and drinking without masks alongside other people in a crowded parking lot.
Though it might feel like a buzzkill, opting out of these gatherings will significantly reduce your risk of infection. Safer pregame or postgame activities could include small gatherings with people from your household, or outdoor get-togethers with people maintaining social distance.
Season ticketholders, this might be a bummer: Consistently attending sporting events increases your risk of Covid infection and transmission, because you're exposing yourself to crowds more frequently than the average American, Gonsenhauser says.
That's particularly important if you've had a serious recent exposure to Covid. The CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people get tested 3-5 days after being exposed, and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until they receive a negative test result. If you test positive, you should isolate for 14 days — which would include skipping any sporting events on your calendar during those two weeks.
The threat of increased risk should also be a major consideration if you have any personal concerns about getting infected or inadvertently transmitting the virus to at-risk loved ones, like unvaccinated children or anyone with an immunocompromising condition.
After attending any large-scale event like a sports game or a concert, you need to spend your next two weeks monitoring any potential symptoms — like fever, chills or cough — that may develop. Going to every gameday only increases your potential risk.
The safest way to support your favorite teams during the pandemic, of course, is to watch or listen to the games at home. Even participating in a virtual fantasy football league is safer than braving the in-person crowds.