Experts worry Super Bowl could trigger coronavirus explosion

  • Comments
  • Print

Skip the parties that could turn Super Bowl Sunday into Super Spreader Sunday, experts and government officials are pleading ahead of America’s biggest sports day.

This year’s matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers comes as the nation remains in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, and as contagious new variants are spreading. On a weekend usually defined by packed gatherings in bars and living rooms, with fans screaming at televisions and sharing spreads of finger foods, authorities are urging smaller, quieter celebrations.

“I can’t say it seriously enough: I want everyone who is celebrating this Sunday’s game to be back next year, and that means not allowing 2,000 more Kansas Citians to die,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said in an interview. “I’m a lifelong fan of the Chiefs, but I am more of a fan of peoples’ families sticking around and staying alive.”

In addition to a traditional wager of local items, Lucas and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor this year joined forces for a public service announcement, donning face masks and pleading with residents to celebrate safely.

Already, though, there are signs a pandemic-weary public may not heed yet another call to forego tradition. In the host city of Tampa, parties are being planned with performances by top musical acts. In Kansas City, news that no parade would follow a potential Chiefs victory drew a backlash from officials in a neighboring county.

A quarter of Americans plan to attend a Super Bowl party, a recent Seton Hall Sports Poll found.

That’s worrisome to some health experts, who note that other events celebrated with widespread get-togethers, such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, have been accompanied by a jump in infections. Although cases are trending down across the nation and vaccinations underway, caseloads remain high and most Americans have not yet been inoculated. Meanwhile, the variants, which are suspected to be more transmissible, provide new cause for concern if people are gathering with others.

Indoor Super Bowl parties are “creating a perfect environment to accelerate new transmission chains, because that person gets infected, doesn’t realize it, sees their parents,” said David Rubin, director of the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“When given an opportunity,” he added, “a more transmissible train will spread more rapidly.”

Similar alarms have been sounded all over the U.S. in recent days, in news releases, PSAs and even memes shared by public officials. During a Wednesday White House briefing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky urged Americans to “watch the Super Bowl safely”—either virtually or only with household members.

The nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, reiterated a similar message in a media blitz this week.

“You don’t want parties with people that you haven’t had much contact with,” he said during a Wednesday appearance on NBC’s “Today” show. “You just don’t know if they’re infected, so, as difficult as that is, at least this time around, just lay low and cool it.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday that the league urges fans to watch the Super Bowl in small groups of household members at their homes.

“We want our fans to be safe,” Goodell said. “They need to be smart. They need to wear their PPE. They need to be gathering in small groups. We worked with the CDC about their advice that came out last Saturday about staying at home and doing it with family and household members. And we believe that’s the way it should happen. We’re all going to enjoy the Super Bowl a little different this year.”

In at least one previous case, sports-related celebrations were blamed for a spike in coronavirus infections. Last fall, officials with the Los Angeles County Department of Health told USA Today it was “highly likely” that watch parties and a gathering outside the Staples Centercelebrating the Lakers victory in the NBA Finals contributed to a rise in cases.

As has become a theme in the U.S. response to the pandemic, calls for a more subdued Super Bowl have not come without controversy. After Kansas City officials joined the Chiefs and local sports commission in announcing they would hold no public celebration of a victory, leaders in Cass County, Mo., suggested they could host instead.

Three commissioners in the deep-red county, which has no mask mandate, wrote to the Chiefs with the offer. The team has shown no interest.

One of the commissioners, Ryan Johnson, told a local television station the decision poured cold water on “something that brings so much joy, happiness and hope, quite frankly, which we need a lot of right now.” Neither he nor the other officials involved responded to inquiries from The Washington Post.

Lucas called the Cass County letter “embarrassing,” saying the decision not to celebrate was agreed upon by football officials, city health leaders and “every sane medical professional and pretty much every sane person in America, and it’s also something that says: look out for your fellow man and woman.”

Kansas City health officials plan to deploy investigators around major bar strips this weekend to enforce coronavirus-related restrictions, including limiting bars and restaurants to 50% capacity and requiring masks for those not eating and drinking. Some bars seem prepared to comply, with several in the city’s Power and Light District touting takeout instead of dine-in specials.

House parties are also discouraged. City rules restrict home gatherings to 10 people, although this is not enforced. To demonstrate the risks of house parties, the health department posted a video highlighting a recent outbreak from a New Year’s Eve party attended by 13 people. All worked from home. All but one tested positive for the virus. The one who did not didn’t get tested despite showing mild symptoms.

“They all recovered, but not everyone is that lucky,” text in the video reads, affixed over footage of maskless people celebrating.

The city has been headed in the right direction, with infections and hospitalizations dropping since mid-January, said health department director Rex Archer. But Super Bowl gatherings could erase that progress.

“We are better, but that’s kind of like saying we are out of the ICU but we are still in an hospital bed,” Archer said. “We still got a long ways to go.”

The Tampa area, meanwhile, has seen cases decline, too, although hospitalizations are up and the state’s death toll peaked last month. Florida has few coronavirus rules compared to many other states. Gov. Ron DeSantis, R, in September signed an executive order lifting statewide coronavirus restriction. It in part bars local governments from fining people for not wearing masks or following other virus-related rules.

Castor, who nonetheless mandated mask-wearing early in the pandemic, last month expanded that rule to include outdoor areas where Super Bowl celebrations are expected to occur.

“We are incredibly excited to host a fun and safe Super Bowl here in Tampa—but we need everyone to do their part,” she said in a statement. “We want fans to feel confident knowing that when they come out to celebrate Super Bowl LV, they can do so safely in a city that takes this pandemic seriously.”

With fewer restrictions than Kansas City, multiple large-scale events are being advertised in Tampa. Representatives for a four-day series of parties at an oceanfront pool bar called WTR Bar & Grill have billed theirs as one of the biggest since the start of the pandemic.

50 Cent, Migos, Diplo and Steve Aoki are set to perform over the course of the celebrations, which are hosted in part by Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy. VIP tickets run as high as $50,000.

James Judge, a spokesman for the event, said guests will enter via walk-through coronavirus screening devices, with those who show symptoms required to take an on-site rapid test to enter. Masks will be required at all times for guests and staff, unless they are eating or drinking. He emphasized that the parties are outdoors.

“Clearly, everybody wants to put safety first and make sure that we can save lives,” he said. “We want to save lives. But at the same time, there has to be some sort of balanced approach where we make sure that we don’t further destroy our economy in the process.”

Judge said the event hosts are “doing everything we possibly can to make this as safe as possible but still allow people to be able to have a good time.”

The NFL said that it developed its plan for attendance at Sunday’s game in consultation with the CDC and the Florida Department of Health. The league originally said that it would have about 22,000 fans on hand, including 14,500 ticket buyers and approximately 7,500 vaccinated health care workers being invited as guests of the league. The league said Tuesday that it “is providing all 25,000 fans with . . . free PPE kits upon arrival at the stadium.”

The league has said that attendees at the game will sit in distanced pods of two, four or six fans each. Pods of vaccinated health care workers are to be interspersed throughout the stadium between pods of non-vaccinated fans. Fans will not have other fans seated directly in front of or behind them.

It’s a Super Bowl being conducted without its usual excesses. The Chiefs are not scheduled to arrive in Tampa until Saturday, the day before the game. All media availabilities to players and coaches on the Chiefs and Buccaneers were conducted remotely. The Super Bowl media center, normally a hub of activity, was comparatively empty for much of the week.

The NFL’s total attendance for its 256 regular season games and 12 playoff games was about 1.2 million, league officials have said. The NFL has said that no coronavirus outbreaks were traced to fans attending its games.

“We hope that we were in some ways representative of doing things the right way this season,” Goodell said Thursday.

Marissa Levine, a professor of public health practice at the Tampa-based University of South Florida, said she hopes people will try to minimize their risk due to the threat of the variants and still-high transmission. Masks and distancing are key to gathering safely, she said, noting that people often let their guard down while celebrating. And cheering or yelling in close quarters can create “perfect conditions for transmitting COVID.”

“Given everything we’ve been through with COVID, we all need some kind of a pick-me-up, something positive to look forward to—and the Super Bowl provides that,” she said. “The challenge is, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. And we need to celebrate safely.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

5 thoughts on “Experts worry Super Bowl could trigger coronavirus explosion

  1. Thanksgiving was going to trigger a coronavirus explosion – didn’t happen. Christmas was going to trigger a coronavirus explosion – didn’t happen. Heck, even Sturgis Bike Week didn’t trigger a coronavirus explosion.

  2. The experts just are a bunch of talking heads. As always everybody needs to use good judgement but go out and have fun. This pandemic can’t shut down our entire world. Now I can’t even go on a charter boat ride out in the great wide open because of Biden’s new policies. The showmanship is insane. One more small business out of business