You Can Catch COVID Here Even If It's 80 Percent Empty, Study Says

This research is bad news for anyone who misses cheering on their favorite sports team at the stadium.

One of the longest-lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic has been the cancellation of large gatherings, especially sporting events and concerts. Now, massive arenas that are usually home to tens of thousands of cheering fans sit eerily quiet as professional games are being played to mostly empty stadiums. But according to one new study, that's for a very good reason, as it appears you can still catch COVID in a sports arena or stadium even if it's 80 percent empty.

The research, which was conducted by scientists in the U.K. and published in the journal Covid Economics, looked at professional soccer matches played in nearly empty stadiums just before lockdowns went into effect. The findings revealed that areas that hosted such events saw a spike in coronavirus cases in the following weeks, with around six cases per 100,000 people. Even more importantly, researchers found very limited crowds drew the same spike in cases as at-capacity attendance at matches.

"Even when stadiums are only partially filled, fans tend to pack together in groups," James Reade, PhD, a sports economist at the University of Reading and lead author of the study, said in a statement. "They also mix in bar areas, toilets, and queues, as well as in pubs, shops, and restaurants outside the grounds. They travel long distances around the country to attend matches, often in groups and on public transport. This behavior presents an effective route for airborne viruses to spread, and is no less prevalent with smaller crowds."


However, Reade also admitted that current public health guidelines may have an effect on future numbers—and that leagues should use caution when welcoming back fans. "While it is difficult to compare data before and after lockdown—as people's behavior and rules have changed on transport and in shops, for example—our findings do suggest pilot events will be essential to planning for the safe return of crowds to sporting events," Reade said.

While some states such as Texas have reopened arenas at 25 percent capacity, others such as Massachusetts say they won't reopen until a vaccine is released.

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The sports industry, which has been reeling from a lack of in-house fan-generated revenue, is already struggling to plan for the future of live sporting events. "Teams have to start thinking long term about what technologies they can implement from the cleaning staff, the fans, to the players entering the building," Irwin Raij, the co-chair of international law firm O'Melveny sports industry division, told CNBC. "Teams are going to have to find alternative means or revenue generation outside of having in-person gatherings in arenas and stadiums."

To start, however, Reade says simple measures, like one-way crowd traffic and contactless refreshment kiosks, can help keep fans safer. And for more on how coronavirus is affecting our lives, check out This Major City Just Canceled Halloween Due to COVID.

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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