1 of 5 | Significant spread of COVID-19 was not found in communities that permitted limited crowds at NFL and college football games in 2020, according to a new study. File Photo by Kyle Rivas/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 17 (UPI) -- Limiting attendance at NFL and college football games likely prevented COVID-19 outbreaks in the regions around stadiums during the 2020 season, a study published Tuesday by JAMA Network Open found.
On game days, an average of just over 26 cases per 100,000 people in the general population were reported in regions where football games with in-person attendance were played last season, the data showed.
In comparison, regions across the country that did not host games with fans in the seats saw an average of slightly more than 24 cases per 100,000 people in the general population.
The findings indicate that in-person attendance at football games -- with social distancing and mask-wearing -- "could be resumed" in the coming season, researchers said.
However, given the emergence of the Delta variant and other new strains of the coronavirus, outbreaks and spread are "less predictable" and may "lead to more disruptive interruptions," according to the researchers.
"Football games did not contribute significantly to the community spread of COVID-19," study co-author Turgay Ayer told UPI in an email.
Still, "personally, I am very much concerned about the variants and would be cautious in bringing back capacity crowds," said Ayer, a professor of predictive health at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
Depending on local restrictions put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, NFL and NCAA teams limited attendance at games during the 2020 season to maintain social distancing between fans.
Average attendance at NFL games, for example, was fewer than than 9,500 in stadiums that typically hold 70,000-plus, with some teams playing in empty stadiums to comply with local regulations.
For their analysis, Ayer and his colleagues analyzed data on college and NFL games at which limited in-person attendance was allowed last season.
They reviewed statistics on COVID-19 spread on game days in the surrounding counties and compared them with similar figures for counties that did not host football games with fans in the seats.
Out of 796 games played last fall, 528 had limited in-person attendance, the researchers said.
Although NFL and NCAA football games with limited in-person attendance "were not associated with substantial risk for increased local COVID-19 cases," leagues should still proceed with caution as the 2021 season draws near, researchers said.
"Given the rapidly evolving landscape, and particularly the new variants of concern, it is hard to draw lessons for the future," Ayer said.
Plans for the 2021 season differ by team and conference at the college level, but the NFL is "planning on full stadiums across the league this year," Megan Grant, a communications consultant working with the league on COVID-19-related issues, told UPI.
However, "[we] will remain flexible and adaptable as necessary [and] like last season, there may be different fan experiences depending on the current situation in the local markets," said Grant, managing director at Washington, D.C.-based Glover Park Group.