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As St. Louis Sports Teams Work To Reopen Arenas, This Tool May Help Them Weigh The Risks

St. Louis Cardinals Harrison Bader (left) talks with bench coach Oliver Marmol during batting practice at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Thursday, August 6, 2020. The Cardinals announced on August 7, 2020, that two more players and a staff member have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the numbers to nine players and seven staff members, testing positive.
Bill Greenblatt
The St. Louis Cardinals are tentatively planning to allow up to 12,000 fans to return to Busch Stadium this year. A new mathematical model developed in part by a Washington University professor sheds light on some of the key risks associated with large, public gatherings.

The pandemic shuttered most large venues, including sports arenas and concert halls, nearly a year ago — and some in St. Louis are hoping to reopen to fans in the coming months.

But with rampant spread of the coronavirus nationwide and limited vaccine doses available, large public gatherings can seed future outbreaks.

A new tool developed in part by a St. Louis mathematician may help decision-makers weigh the risks of reopening and decide which prevention strategies are most effective. By comparing the chances of getting infected for each type of interaction people have at these events, the mathematical model identifies which are likely to be the riskiest.

Many sports teams are working feverishly to finalize reopening plans for the upcoming season, including the St. Louis Cardinals. Like other Major League Baseball teams, the Cardinals played to a stadium filled with cardboard cutouts of fans last year.

For some, it’s a challenge trying to decide how to best prevent the spread of the coronavirus, said John McCarthy, a professor of mathematics at Washington University.

“It’s easy to think of things you might do, but which of them work and which don’t?” McCarthy said. “How important is it to space people out? How far should they be spaced? What do you do about concessions?”

As part of a collaboration with Delaware North — a private company that operates concessions at dozens of sports arenas nationwide, including Busch Stadium and Chaifetz Arena — McCarthy and his colleagues developed a model to rank the infection risks for specific activities at sporting events and other types of gatherings.

Cardboard cutouts Cardinals fan Dan McMasters late parents and his two children in the stands at Busch Stadium. McMasters thought it was a fun way to have generations of his family bond over baseball.
Dan McMasters
Cardboard cutouts of Cardinals fans filled the stands of Busch Stadium during the 2020 season.

Fans go through many small steps when they attend a game: stand in line at the entrance, buy a soda, use the bathroom. And during a pandemic, each one carries a risk.

The research team modeled the risks at various stadium capacities and found one factor consistently stood out: seating.

“By far, the biggest contributor to the risk was the seating part, because you’re there for three hours,” McCarthy said. “Regulators have tended to focus much more on the entrance and exit protocols, but fixing them alone doesn’t solve the problem. No matter how well you do entrance and exit, that doesn’t affect your risk when you’re sitting down.”

Eating at a game also was a key risk factor, because fans have to take their face masks off. Every minute spent eating was about seven times riskier than not eating, the analysis found — and the more people around you, the higher the risk.

To aid with reopening plans, the researchers have shared the model with state governments, concert operators and professional sports teams.

After a financially challenging year and multiple COVID-19 cases among players, Cardinals officials are making projections for the upcoming season.

President Bill DeWitt III said last month the team hopes to allow 8,000 to 12,000 fans to return to Busch Stadium this year, in accordance with state and local health guidelines. If groups of two to four fans are spaced out by six feet, DeWitt said, “geometry dictates really you can only do about 28% [capacity] of the bowl.”

Others have already begun welcoming fans back on a limited basis, including the St. Louis Blues. This week, the team began allowing up to 1,400 masked fans to attend games at the Enterprise Center, seated in small groups of up to four people.

The move “marks an important step in responsibly returning our dedicated fans to Enterprise Center, Blues President of Business Operations and CEO Chris Zimmerman said in a press release. “We can't wait to see and hear more of them back in the stands.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.