As NFL Eyes Full Stadiums, A New Study Links Fan Attendance to COVID Spikes

Can pro football safely bring fans back in September as planned?

Fake and real crowd during NFL Bengals vs Jaguars game
The crowd both real and fake during a Bengals game against the Jaguars.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As of April 6, 19% of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 32.6% have received at least one dose, according to the CDC. President Biden, who previously set May 1 as a target date for all adults to be eligible for the jab, has moved that up to April 19. But as coronavirus cases are back on the rise, how soon will we safely be able to return to normal life?

The NFL has its answer: September 9. According to Commissioner Roger Goodell, the league is planning on opening every football stadium at full capacity when the season begins with a game in Tampa Bay. But according to The New York Times, that may be wishful thinking, as new research found a connection between fan attendance at NFL games during the pandemic and spikes in COVID cases near the stadiums. 

“After adjusting the figures to eliminate potential false positives and days when counties did not report cases, they found surges in infection rates in the second and third weeks following NFL games that were played with more than 5,000 fans in attendance,” the Times wrote. “The study does not prove a causal link between fan attendance and COVID-19 cases, but suggests that there may be a relationship between the two.”

The study, which is undergoing peer review, was submitted to the medical journal The Lancet in March. Its findings “overwhelmingly” show in-person attendance led to “episodic spikes,” according to the research team; that’s contrary to research the NFL cited showing little-to-no related spikes.

The scientific debate in this specific case mirrors the larger problem of drawing a line between single events and an increase in COVID cases. Researchers across the country have attempted to trace infections from sporting events, political rallies, protests and reopenings, but the lack of substantial contact tracing data and uniform prevention measures like social distancing and mask mandates have made it difficult. 

Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president for communications, public affairs and policy, told the Times that the league will still follow local, county, state and federal public health recommendations. What those recommendations are when September comes around will likely depend on which way cases, deaths and vaccinations trend. 

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