As coronavirus pandemic continue tearing up the whole country, many Americans have made tough decisions to squat for Thanksgiving – avoiding their usual family gatherings, and maybe even spend the day alone.
The atmosphere at the AT&T Stadium outside Dallas, meanwhile, will be very different.
The Dallas Cowboys are expected to host tens of thousands of fans at their traditional Thanksgiving Day game against the Washington Football Team on Thursday, it may match or exceed the announced turnout of 31,700 available for their previous home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s the kind of mass gathering that has some public health experts on edge, especially as COVID-19 cases continue to rise – both nationally and locally. According to state data, the number of active cases in Tarrant County – where AT&T Stadium is located – has nearly doubled in the last two weeks alone.
“It really worries me,” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health. “… I know they’ve done it before. And my hope is that they’ll get away with it. But I’m very worried about an incident like this, right now, in the middle of this surge. Not doing this with fans.”
Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple declined to provide crowd projections or capacity limits for Thursday’s match, and a spokesman for SeatGeek, the team’s ticketing partner, declined to comment when asked about requests for tickets for the match.
The team has outlined a series of COVID-19 precautions existing for its games, and cites the unique design of the AT&T Stadium as its asset. The stadium has a retractable roof and large end zone doors, which allow outside air to circulate throughout the stadium during matches. Dalrymple wrote in an email that the roof and doors will be open on Thursday.
“We’re really comfortable with the team’s plans (for attendance),” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy added in an email. “More importantly, local experts and public health authorities are comfortable with their plans.”
In a league where attendance decisions are left to individual teams and local health officials, no team has hosted more spectators than Dallas this season.
The Cowboys had hosted 25,750 fans per game, on average, during the pandemic and alone accounted for more than 17% of the overall NFL attendance – in just five games. And while six teams have moved on to change their attendance plans amid a recent spike in cases, Cowboys officials are showing no signs of following.
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During interview with radio station Dallas FridayCowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team had no plans to change its stadium capacity for Thursday’s match. Three days earlier, his father – team owner Jerry Jones – said on the same radio station that it was the team’s goal to “increase our fans as we go through the season.”
“I’m very proud of the fact that we did it safely. We did it smart,” said the older Jones at 105.3 Fan. “(It’s) very helpful, to say the least, to play in front of those fans. And I see a continuing aggressive approach to having fans out there.”
State guidelines in Texas currently allow sports venues to be filled to 50% of normal capacity – which, at AT&T Stadium, would roughly be up to 40,000.
Public health officials in Texas have not released evidence of COVID-19 transmission at the Cowboys games so far this season, and Dalrymple said the team had not been contacted by local public safety and health officials for contact tracing.
However, residents in at least two Texas counties have informed contact tracers that they attended a match shortly before testing positive, when they may have been contagious. WFAA-TV reported last week that there are eight such residents in Tarrant County. Six others have been identified in Denton County, according to county spokeswoman Jennifer Rainey.
“However, in none of the 6 cases were concluded with games being the source of infection,” Rainey wrote in an email.
(The Cowboys have announced a total attendance of 128,750 across five home games.)
In response to a series of questions about attendance at the Cowboys game, the Texas State Department of Health Services referred USA TODAY Sports to officials in Tarrant County, who did not respond to multiple requests for information.
Jha says she values Cowboys fan safety protocols, and thinks they are taking some important steps to keep people safe. But he worries that the move might not be enough anymore And he believes the risks at this point – with many vaccines close to FDA approval – are too great.
“I really want to go to a football match. Our lives have changed so much in the last nine months, “said Jha.” But we are very close to the end zone here. And I just want to add more burden to our hospital, to have more people who don’t have to get sick, that’s not good. “
Contribution: Jori Epstein
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