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Super Bowl gatherings, small parties could increase COVID-19 spread, experts say

Although the NFL limited the number of fans at the Super Bowl, USF Health experts are concerned about a possible surge in coronavirus cases due to “informal groups” that could gather without implementing proper provisions like mask wearing and distancing. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are ready to make history as the first team in the NFL to play Super Bowl LV in their home stadium. However, in the midst of the excitement, USF Health experts are concerned about possible health risks the large event could bring to the city. 

With less than a week until the Bucs and the Kansas City Chiefs compete for the coveted Vince Lombardi trophy, USF Health experts fear a surge of COVID-19 cases as the city welcomes thousands of out-of-state visitors participating in the Super Bowl festivities across the Tampa Bay area. USF public health professor Marissa Levine said especially with the new variants of the virus which spread more easily, it is not the time to let one’s guard down. 

“Right now, we have had very high community transmission, the hospitals have been very busy, we’ve seen a lot of deaths and nobody wants that to repeat,” Levine said. “In fact, it looks like we were starting to come down in terms of peak, of the surge, but not necessarily fast. And we’re in a situation with new variants where if people let their guard down, we could see another significant increase.” 

Besides the usual COVID-19 regulations such as maintaining physical distance and wearing face masks, the NFL limited the capacity of Raymond James Stadium to 30%. Among the 22,000 fans who will be attending, 7,500 will be vaccinated health care workers. Thomas Unnasch, a USF Health professor, said the game itself is not the biggest concern. For him, unregulated gatherings could potentially become sources of coronavirus transmission. 

“I’m not concerned about the game,” he said. “The problems that I see are … there are going to be a lot of informal groups. A lot of people go into sports bars to cheer the Bucs on, a lot of people having private Super Bowl parties and those sorts of things are totally unregulated.”

For associate professor at USF’s College of Public Health Jill Roberts, students gathering in large crowds to watch the game and not following COVID-19 precautions are alarming. She said she has seen many walking around campus without masks and meeting in bars. 

“The problem is that I think that students are maybe getting to be a little bit complacent, because a lot of students have already had coronavirus and so they’re not really worried, although you could get it again, you could also transmit it to other people,” Roberts said. 

“I don’t want to see a young person end up losing their lives, or losing quality of life because they took their mask off at a Super Bowl party. It’s just not worth it.”

As a precautionary action to minimize the spread of the virus, Mayor Jane Castor announced a mandatory mask policy Thursday across specific locations defined as “Event Zones” and “Entertainment Districts.” These include the Raymond James Stadium, some areas downtown, Ybor City Historic District, the South Howard Commercial Overlay District, the Central Business District and the Channel District. 

Tampa residents will have to wear face coverings in all indoor locations and places in which they cannot social distance. The city will give masks to those who don’t have one, and children under the age of 5 are exempt from this policy. 

The order comes as a result of an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 due to the Super Bowl celebrations. 

Despite the precautions already in place, Unnasch said it comes down to social responsibility from each individual.

“I’m much more concerned about what people are going to be doing as private citizens than I am about what’s going to be happening to the game or any of the public events that are going to be going on.” 

Levine added that private and smaller gatherings are where people tend to forget about the COVID-19 precautions, making it easier for the virus to spread.

“The bigger concern is away from the game, and particularly people who gather, say, in houses with friends and family who maybe they don’t live with on a full-time basis,” Levine said. “In those circumstances, people are more likely to let their guard down, not keep their distance, not wear a mask and that’s exactly where the virus could spread more readily.”

The Super Bowl is also expected to attract visitors from across the state and the country, and according to Michael Teng, associate professor at USF Health, these people could potentially bring more COVID-19 infections to the Tampa Bay area. 

“First off, we’re going to have a lot of people not from here come in,” he said. “This is a potential problem, just bringing in more people and also bringing, in particular, potentially more infections for the coronavirus.”

Roberts said visitors could be the ones exposing themselves to new variants of the virus, turning the city into a potential source of infection.

“Actually, the concern may be for them, because we probably have higher rates [of infection] than they do,” Roberts said. “And so the reality is that people could come here from other states and not necessarily carry in coronavirus, but get it here and take it back home with them.”

Even with all of the concerns, the doctors recognize that the Super Bowl could bring positivity to the Tampa Bay community if the recommended COVID-19 safety precautions are followed. Among the recommendations, Levine said celebrations should be held in ventilated areas while wearing face masks as well as celebrating the occasion with people within the same household. 

“We’re fortunate here in Florida that we can do celebrations outside, that’s a really important mitigation effort,” Levine said. “Being indoors is more risky, particularly if you’re coming together with people you don’t usually hang around with, so outdoor celebrations where you keep your distance and have masks available could be the safest if you are going to do anything. But you really have to do it with small numbers of people, don’t find yourself in large crowds.”

Roberts said the Super Bowl will be a distraction from the reality of the pandemic, but it does not have to become a superspreader event if everyone does their part to mitigate the spread.

“People will be excited for one thing, I think that this is really uplifting in coming off such an awful year. And, this year has been rough to start as well. And I think that it’s something that our collective communities mental health needed, we needed this. And so it’s really nice,” Roberts said. 

“We all want to watch the game. … So I think that we can come together as a community and really have a great thing with this … it’s going to be pretty awesome. We just need to do it safely.”