Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the country’s foremost authority on the COVID-19 pandemic, told Yahoo Sports on Monday that it’s unlikely NBA teams can host full-capacity crowds during the 2020-21 season.
Fauci, in a phone interview, said unrestricted capacities at sports stadiums will be among “the last thing[s] that you're gonna see” as the United States pushes toward the end of the pandemic in 2021.
When asked about the possibility of full, 20,000-seat NBA arenas in July, when the postseason is scheduled to conclude, Fauci said: “Ah, I think that'll be cutting it close.”
The return of tightly-packed crowds will depend on a variety of factors, public health experts say, from human behavior to uptake of soon-to-be-approved COVID-19 vaccines.
“We're gonna be vaccinating the highest-priority people [from] the end of December through January, February, March,” Fauci said. “By the time you get to the general public, the people who'll be going to the basketball games, who don't have any underlying conditions, that's gonna be starting the end of April, May, June. So it probably will be well into the end of the summer before you can really feel comfortable [with full sports stadiums] – if a lot of people get vaccinated. I don't think we're going to be that normal in July. I think it probably would be by the end of the summer.”
When asked about full NFL stadiums in September, Fauci said: “Oh, that's possible. I think that's possible.”
The return to normalcy
Public health officials, however, qualify all future projections with several caveats. The timeline of a return to normalcy, which will double as a return to sports normalcy, will depend on whether the preliminary results of vaccine trials hold up in final data; and whether vaccine distribution goes as planned; and whether the American public is willing to get vaccinated. Surveys have suggested that roughly half of U.S. adults might not be – though more recent research indicates skepticism could be waning.
“Having an efficacious vaccine in and of itself doesn't get us out of this difficult situation we're in,” Fauci said. “But an efficacious vaccine that's widely utilized could get us to a point where we're really approaching normality.”
“We could get there by the end of the summer, and as we get into the fall of next year,” Fauci continued. But “if 50% of the people say, ‘You know, I don't want to get vaccinated,’ then it's gonna take considerably longer than that.”
There is no agreed-upon target, no golden number, no specific percentage of the U.S. population that must be vaccinated for normalcy to return. Fauci pegged it at “somewhere between 75 and 85 percent.” Other experts expect it to be much lower. And Fauci clarified that a failure to clear that threshold would not mean that normalcy will never return – “it just would take longer” to get there, he said, “that's all.”
The only thing public health experts concur on is that the virus won’t just disappear. And that the end, therefore, will be slow. “It's not like we're gonna turn off the light, and the virus is gone, and the world can go back,” Dr. Tom Farley, Philadelphia’s health commissioner, told Yahoo Sports. “It's going to have a very long tail to it.”
The reopening of sporting events and other large gatherings will therefore be gradual. “It will be a continued dial-back, hopefully, on things like capacities,” Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s public health commissioner, told Yahoo Sports. She and other experts envisioned a cautious, step-by-step easing of restrictions sometime in 2021. Sports teams would, for example, ramp up to 25% capacity; then spend a few weeks monitoring data trends; and only then, if case counts, transmission rates and other indicators hold relatively steady, would they ramp up again.
“The general approach is, you release a set of restrictions, and then see if that works,” Farley said. “Because there's so much guesswork. So if you go four weeks, and there's no increase in virus activity, well then you can go and do the next set.”
Different rules for different teams
COVID-adjusted stadium capacities, in most cases, will depend on city, county and state governments, which have the authority to limit gathering sizes. Leagues and teams may institute their own rules, but also must adhere to local guidelines. In some cases, like Florida’s, full sports stadiums are already permissible – but the state’s three NFL teams — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars — have all independently limited capacity significantly. In many other cases, including New York and California, no fans are permitted whatsoever.
Professional leagues have taken different approaches to operating within those local guidelines. The NFL has largely left the devising of protocols to individual teams. With Texas allowing stadiums to operate at 50% capacity, the Dallas Cowboys welcomed 30,048 fans to AT&T Stadium on Thanksgiving. The San Francisco 49ers, meanwhile, aren’t even allowed to play at Levi’s Stadium.
NBA teams are also restricted to varying degrees. Some, like the Los Angeles Lakers, have announced that home games “will be held without fans until further notice.” Others, like the Utah Jazz, will open their arena to “1,500 [fans] in the lower bowl only and limited seating on the suite level” when the season begins on Dec. 22.
The NBA, though, has also distributed a memo to teams outlining a set of “uniform league-wide standards” for fan attendance. They include requirements for “pre-arrival or upon-arrival symptom and exposure surveys”; for mask-wearing at all times “except when actively eating or drinking”; for physical distancing, both between ticket parties and between fans and the court; and even for testing.
“Fans seated within 30 feet of the court,” the document reads, “would be required to undergo and return a negative coronavirus test that is either (1) a PCR or equivalent test sampled no more than two days prior to the game tip off; or (2) an NBA-approved rapid test … sampled the day of the game.”
The memo, which was obtained by Yahoo Sports, does not cap attendance by percentage or number. It does, however, detail protocols for concessions and concourse areas. And, crucially, it states: “Because of the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation, we expect that these rules may be modified during the season in order to ensure continued alignment with the current public health situation, scientific knowledge about the virus, and technologies that could enable more fans to safely attend NBA games.”
As the pandemic abates sometime in 2021, every aspect of the sports fan experience will evolve with it. The progression to full stadiums will be a major piece of that evolution, but not the only one. Some teams have invested in technology – whether for testing, or streamlined entry plans, or contactless concessions – that could stick around.
And even when local governments do allow stadiums to fill, especially indoor ones – even when life has returned to normal – “I think we should be wearing masks as long as there is any of this [virus] around,” Fauci said. “Because it's an easy thing to do.”
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