How high is the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a stadium?
How high is the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a stadium?

Some spectators are reported to have contracted COVID-19 after attending Euro 2020 football matches. The risk of infection is real and the delta variant along with the Euro 2020 format aren’t helping matters.

The European Championship is being held in 11 different cities in 10 different countries. The images we are seeing on our television or computer screens seem strange to many — 18 months into the pandemic: Crowds in confined spaces spreading aerosols through their chanting, thousands of people not wearing masks.
What impact will the first major sporting event to be held with large crowds of spectators in the stands have on the third wave of the pandemic, which is only now subsiding? Our fact check provides the initial answers.

Has COVID-19 spread at European Championship matches?

At some EURO 2020 matches, fans were screened in advance after positive COVID-19 rapid tests; at others, spectators tested positive for the virus after the fact.

In Denmark, spectators tested positive for the delta variant after the match between the hosts and Belgium. The authorities then advised 4,000 spectators from certain stadium blocks to get a PCR test.

In Budapest, a French family are reported to have tested positive after France’s match against Hungary. By far the most COVID-19 cases were reported after Finland’s match against Belgium, which took place in St. Petersburg.

According to Finnish media, at least 86 infections were detected in people returning home from Russia. In most cases, it is unclear whether they were infected in the stadium itself or elsewhere, like during travel to and from the match.

Is it a myth that open-air events are harmless?

Experts agree that the chance of contracting COVID-19 at outdoor events is relatively low as fresh air dilutes aerosols — it’s the airborne particles produced by breathing and talking that carry the virus. But only if the minimum personal distancing from others is maintained.

William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in the United States, also points out that stadium attendance during Euro 2020 in and of itself poses a very low risk of infection, provided safety measures such as limiting the number of spectators are observed.

However, the measures vary from one European Championship venue to another.

In Budapest, they have been filling the Ferenc Puskas Stadium to capacity, but spectators need to provide a negative PCR test to be admitted. In Glasgow, Hampden Park has only been 25% full, but spectators have not been required to provide a PCR test.

According to German aerosols researcher Gerhard Scheuch, dangers lurk in football stadiums — particularly in often poorly ventilated boxes, elevators and restrooms.

Fans at Rembrandtplein Square in AmsterdamGatherings outside of the stadium, like these Danish fans in Amsterdam, are part of the problem

“If an infected person exhales the virus there, the aerosols linger for a relatively long time,” he said.

Most problematic, according to Scheuch and Schaffner, is what happens before and after a game; tens of thousands of fans use buses, trains and planes to get to and from the stadium. They stay overnight in hotels and may want to party in bars after a game.

What about the fact that many aren’t adhering to the requirement to wear a mask?

Scientific studies show that mask-wearing is a critical factor in preventing outbreaks. According to an unpublished study obtained by DW from the RWI Leibniz Institute for Economic Research and the SDU University of Southern Denmark in Sonderborg.

And Bundesliga matches with large crowds led to a significant increase in new infections. This was particularly the case when masks only had to be worn on the way to stadium seats, but not in the fan block.

Danish fansDanish fans in Copenhagen seemed comfortable gathering together without masks

Sporting events with a high number of spectators “pose an increased risk of infection,” says the author of the study, Philipp Breidenbach.

The researchers recorded an increase in local infection rates of about 7-8% after the Bundesliga matches studied. The results are clear evidence of how important it is to wear a mask and maintain personal distancing rules when attending events, the study says.

Schaffner agrees: “Masks are not perfect. But they do provide some protection if everybody is yelling around you in a soccer game.”

Can the distancing rules work inside a stadium?

The first half of the European Championship has already shown that the specified minimum distance in the arenas is not being observed. In Copenhagen, Munich, Budapest, and other venues, many fans stood and sat close together.

At the same time, the maximum capacities in many stadiums were drastically reduced by UEFA so that such distances could be maintained.

The exception so far has been Budapest, where not only a full stadium, but also fan marches with up to 20,000 participants were allowed to go ahead.

UEFA steward holds up a signWorth a try: A steward in Munich holds up a sign reminding fans to keep their distance

The semifinals and the final are to be played at London’s Wembley Stadium with up to 75% capacity. This means only every fourth seat will be free — too few to maintain a minimum distance of 1.5 meters (about 5-feet) between spectators.

Could Euro 2020 accelerate the spread of the delta variant?

There are growing concerns that the number of infections being caused by the delta variant of COVID-19 is on the rise in host countries Russia and in Great Britain.

Italy vs Austria at WembleyIf UEFA has its way, Wembley will have even more spectators for the semis and final than for Austria vs. Italy

UEFA has also decreed that around 2,000 foreign spectators, as well as 2,500 UEFA officials, media representatives and VIP guests are to be allowed into the stadium without going through the usually required quarantine after entering the country.

Scheuch, like many others in his field, has warned against this. Nevertheless, Scheuch believes the risk that Euro 2020 will strongly drive the spread of the delta variant of the virus in Europe is low.

“At the final, we might have a seven-day incidence rate of 200. Let’s assume no tests were done and everyone was just let in. Then we would have about 120 people at most in that stadium who are infected.”

Of those people, Scheuch said, only a portion would be highly contagious. In this worst-case scenario, Scheuch arrives at a total of about 50 new infections.

Croatia fansOne can only hope that these Croatian fans don’t bring home an unwelcome souvenir from Copenhagen

“Of those, however, most will be English people who will stay in the country; only a few will return to Europe.”

According to the scientist, the more contagious delta variant is already on the rise in Europe anyway, and a few more infected people will not greatly accelerate the rate of infection.

Other experts also believe that delta will soon be the dominant variant in other countries, regardless of the effect of Euro 2020.

Still, many, such as the chairman of the World Medical Association, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, warn against traveling to London because of the risk associated beyond actually attending games.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, as of June 28, 2021, just under 36% of adult European Union citizens have been fully vaccinated.


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