The NFL held another Super Bowl last night, and as was discussed in the run-up to kickoff, there were widespread concerns that doing so with fans in attendance in Tampa’s stadium — and fans gathering elsewhere for Super Bowl parties — might set off a spike in coronavirus infections just like that other recent big mass gathering event did. How did America do?
Let’s start with inside the stadium, where the NFL allowed in 22,000 fans while augmenting them with 30,000 cardboard cutouts. There are roughly a billion articles today saying that this made the game look more crowded than it was; so how crowded was it?
That’s pretty crowded, even if you account for the few cutouts visible. Not to mention pretty sporadically masked. And while one of those two things might be acceptable in an outdoor space, the one proven way to spread the virus even outdoors is to be unmasked, close together, and singing or shouting.
But 7,500 of those fans were vaccinated health care workers! They’re just like cardboard cutouts, right, because now that they’re vaccinated, they can’t catch or spread the virus? Well, no:
“Currently, we do not have enough data to be able to say with confidence that the vaccines can prevent transmission,” [Dr. Anthony] Fauci said in a tweet during an online Q&A session. “So even if vaccinated, you may still be able to spread the virus to vulnerable people.”
The important distinction here is that while the available vaccines have been shown to be extremely effective at preventing people from getting extremely sick, they don’t actually prevent people from getting infected. And people who are infected but not sick can still spread the virus — there’s some early evidence that at least one of the vaccines dramatically reduces the number of people with active virus in their noses, which is a great sign that they’ll spread it less, but that still makes those vaccinated health care workers at best 67% cardboard.
Outside the stadium, meanwhile, things were if anything much worse, especially once the hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers won:
— Ryan Smith (@RyanReports) February 8, 2021
Now, all this is outdoors, and the vast majority of coronavirus spread has been indoors, so maybe things will be more or less okay despite the lack of masks and close quarters, much like they were after last spring’s Black Lives Matter protests, though the protestors then seemed to be on the whole more consistently masked. We’ll find out in a couple of weeks, once we see whether virus levels spike in Tampa. (And other cities where people gather to watch the Super Bowl, which I understand happens even in cities without teams in the game!) And if it does, it could have a major impact on whether other sporting events like the MLB season or the Tokyo Olympics are considered safe for fans — assuming that either the leaders of sports leagues or elected officials use epidemiology and not businesses’ profit concerns as their guide, which is probably not a safe assumption at all.
Plus, of course, how much the virus spread last night will determine whether a whole lot of people get infected and die: not just the people at the game and the street parties, but the people who then get infected by them, and the people who get infected by them, and so on. One of the problems of public health and infectious disease vectors is that “I’m willing to accept the risk” is seldom a reasonable justification for risky behavior — your behavior can end up bringing sickness or death to someone you never even meet, just like that one poor person who went to a biotech conference in Boston last February and ended up leading to the infection of at least 245,000 people. If we’re lucky, that didn’t happen last night in Tampa; if we’re unlucky, allowing fans to celebrate the Super Bowl up close and maskless could end up costing us a shot at an earlier end to this pandemic.