Shortly before Super Bowl LIV last year, the first cases of the coronavirus were detected in the United States. Since then, more than 400,000 people have lost their lives to the virus in the U.S. alone. Though cases and hospitalizations have started to plateau and vaccines are slowly being distributed, the highly contagious United Kingdom variant threatens to increase infections. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that the variant could be the dominant strain of the virus in the country by March.
With the U.S. possibly being on the cusp of another surge in cases, the NFL’s decision to push for a Super Bowl in Florida this year feels like a betrayal to its fans and the rest of the country. It’s almost inevitable that the Super Bowl will cause harm, both for those who attended the event in-person and for those who gathered to watch the game in groups from their homes or at restaurants and bars.
Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida was attended by 25,000 fans Feb. 7, who came to see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs go head to head for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. It was a disappointing defeat for the Chiefs, who lost 31-9. Kansas City’s young phenom quarterback Patrick Mahomes admitted it was “the worst I think I’ve been beaten in a long time.”
Though I do not follow football, I did take a special interest in both this year and last year’s Super Bowls because I’m a Kansas City native. However, much more disappointing than the Chiefs’ defeat on Sunday night, was the decision for the game — a long-standing American tradition and de facto holiday — to take place, despite Florida being the state with the third most COVID cases behind California and Texas.
With COVID-19 protocols limiting in-person viewers, 7,500 vaccinated frontline healthcare workers made up those in attendance, with the NFL providing free tickets as a way of recognizing the work of those in the medical field during the pandemic. “We hope in a small way that this initiative will inspire our country and recognize these true American heroes,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a press release. “This is also an opportunity to promote the importance of vaccination and appropriate health practices, including wearing masks in public settings.”
In addition to the 25,000 people watching the game live, 30,000 cardboard cutouts of those who paid $100 were also in the stands. Providing the illusion of a packed stadium, the life-like cutouts were enough to cause my stomach to drop before realizing they were not real people. The stand-in fans served as a way to ensure social distancing between live attendees who were spread across the stadium’s 75,000 seats.
The NFL followed regulations in accordance with the CDC, the Florida Department of Health, and area hospitals and healthcare systems in making their live event possible. However, what will the potential of this superspreader event mean for those who gathered with friends and family for Super Bowl parties and went to restaurants and bars to watch the game?
“Any time you have 25,000 potentially inebriated people together shouting, yelping and screaming in one place in the middle of a pandemic, you are bound to have transmission,” Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, said in an interview with Business Insider.
Chin-Hong also noted that when fans yell, moisture droplets that spread COVID-19 can travel much further than the social distancing length of six-feet. Super Bowl Sunday was the state’s 40th day in a row of COVID-related deaths being in triple digits. According to the CDC, Florida has reported more cases of the U.K. variant than any other state.
The NFL’s decision to hold the Super Bowl highlights the hypocrisy of what they claim to believe in versus what their actions reflect. Back in August, the Chiefs were one of the NFL teams that allowed fans to attend live games, promoting the message that they owed it to their faithful fans. However, there was underlying danger that could not be ignored in pushing for fans to return to the stands. Ultimately, the Chiefs did not have any coronavirus cases traced back to attendance of one of their games throughout the season, but we must continue to ask if the risk of attending these events is worth the reward?
Despite stating that the championship game allowed the NFL to celebrate frontline workers, this event will result in a continued strain on those who have endlessly battled to keep us safe through the pandemic. Though the league felt the game was a chance to briefly step away from the craziness of the past year, reality will be waiting for us once the final score is set.