Sports and other large outdoor events are finally returning but experts say they shouldn't be an 'unregulated free-for-all'

The Texas Rangers on Monday drew tens of thousands of fans to Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas for opening day, with photos of the game looking like relics from the days before the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was the largest crowd size at a sporting event in the US since the pandemic began, Insider’s Erin Snodgrass reported, and as states continue to open up further, more large events are likely to follow.

However, infectious disease specialists told Insider that’s not necessarily dangerous, depending on the state and as long as some precautions are taken.

“Because it’s outdoors, I may surprise you here, but I do think they can play baseball in front of fans,” Andrew Noymer, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California Irvine, told Insider.

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While Noymer said he wouldn’t personally go to a Rangers game right now even if he were a fan, he thinks some outdoor events can go on in states where transmission is low and virus variants are not of immediately pressing concern.

In Michigan, for instance, where the surge in coronavirus cases is currently the worst in the nation, he would not recommend such events. The state is reckoning with the more transmissible and more deadly B.1.1.7 variant, which has now been documented in Michigan more than any other state.

And Michigan isn’t the only state facing a surge, as about half of US states are seeing a rise in their daily case numbers.

The stadium was nearly at capacity during the game between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays at Globe Life Field on April 5, 2021.

But for states where the epidemiological situation is relatively good, like Texas or California, allowing large outdoor gatherings with precautions could do more good than harm.

“We may be in a worse spot later in the summer,” Noymer said, adding that even in places where the situation looks good now, that could change quickly. “We should save the limited tolerance that’s left for stay-at-home type orders for when it’s really necessary.”

Despite the good situation in Texas, Noymer said precautions should still be taken at large events. He said they should still be at 50% capacity, at most, but noted that when people cannot be spaced apart they should be wearing masks.

The Rangers game Monday was nearly at capacity, with 38,238 fans in attendance in a stadium that seats 40,300. While Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the state’s mask mandate last month against the recommendations of experts, Major League Baseball does require fans to wear masks. But photos of the game showed masks worn sparsely.

Noymer also said sporting events are better suited to go on with precautions than others, like a music festival, for instance, adding: “You could do Coachella at 30% capacity and it would still just form a blob of humanity.”

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California San Francisco, agreed that for these large events to occur, precautions should be taken.

“What you don’t want is an unregulated free-for-all,” Chin-Hong told Insider. “You still can’t party like it’s 2019.”

Fans walk to their seats during batting practice before the Texas Rangers take on the Toronto Blue Jays at Globe Life Field on April 5, 2021 in Arlington, Texas.

He said even in places that appear to be doing well, the situation is not yet stable and it’s not yet clear when it will be. As for large outdoor gatherings, he said a great way to reduce risk is a combination of vaccinations and testing for attendees.

The San Francisco Giants, for instance, are requiring fans older than 12 years old to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result in order to enter the stadium. And that’s in addition to a 22% capacity restriction. Instead of relying on controversial vaccine passports only, the model also mitigates the heightened risk involved with people who choose not to get the vaccine.

Chin-Hong said these precautions are smart even in a state that feels safe right now, like California, because those places are not yet risk-free and that they should be implemented alongside masks and spacing.

Large events could be an even more dangerous situation now than they would have been a year ago due to the variants, especially for young people who are not yet vaccinated but are attending these gatherings,

“It’s not like people are just getting COVID. They’re getting serious COVID,” he said, adding that Michigan has seen a significant increase in the number of coronavirus hospitalizations among people in their 20s and 30s.

Chin-Hong emphasized that the pandemic is dynamic and could change quickly, making it wiser to gradually lift restrictions, rather than all at once.

“I’m always humbled by this virus,” he said. “It’s better to be safer and then pull back rather than just assume it can be a free-for-all again.”

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