Eve Edelheit / The New York Times

The Miami Dolphins are drawing sold-out crowds of 13,000 to home games this fall.

October 18, 2020

BULKELEY | Bring Back the Bubble, Kick the Fans Out of the Stands

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We’re seven months into our lives being upended by COVID-19, and many still refuse to acknowledge the obvious: National-level sports are a bad idea unless leagues use an isolation bubble. Why aren’t we acting to improve safety measures when it comes to isolation?

Major League Baseball was forced to recognize the issues with traditional travel-based games after dozens of players caught COVID-19 over the course of the season. Now, the final rounds of the playoffs are being played in bubbles. So why aren’t other leagues following suit?

The National Football League, like the MLB earlier in the year, is postponing multiple games a week as players continue to test positive for the virus. There is no more getting around the truth — without restrictions on travel and players’ contacts, COVID-19 will infiltrate leagues.

Of course, we do know why the NFL resists using the bubble format. Among the reasons are players’ resistance to the idea, the logistical issues with creating bubbles and, of course, money. The NFL, unlike the other three major sports, is allowing fans to attend games.

The policy is determined on a team-by-team basis, with some franchises barring fans from their stadium for the foreseeable future. But others are allowing upwards of 10,000 fans attend each game.

There is much to be said regarding the benefits of letting spectators attend games in person. At the top of that list is revenue. From the fans’ perspective, the chance to go to a game offers the opportunity for life to resume some semblance of normalcy. And for colleges that are letting fans attend games, students will be grateful for a taste of the classic college experience.

Of course, if you catch COVID-19 at the game, your life stops being normal again pretty quickly.

Overall, allowing fans to attend games is a clearly misguided decision. Letting fans into the stadium is essentially proof that the health of fans — and by extension, that of the community — is not important to these organizations.

For Cornell students, it can sometimes be easy to forget that we are in the vast minority with our testing policy. Many in-person universities only conduct a test if a student shows symptoms or is contact traced; for the general public, surveillance testing is nonexistent. While we catch every case here on East Hill, asymptomatic spread is still a very real issue elsewhere in the country.

And contact tracing a person who just went to a football game with 13,000 other people is perhaps not as simple as contact tracing a student whose largest gathering in months was on the patio at CTB.

Letting fans into games allows too much room for error, just like having teams travel as frequently as in any other year — especially given the fact that we are still not positive about all the ways in which COVID-19 can spread.

Student sections are already making national headlines as they fail to wear masks or maintain social distance, showcasing the infeasibility of the plan to have fans in attendance for college football games. In just one such instance, the student section at Southern Methodist University was cleared out by police earlier this month as fans failed to follow guidelines. The student body on that day already had over 80 active cases on a campus of under 7,000 undergraduates. For reference, Cornell recorded five positive cases over the course of last week.

With case numbers on the rise around the U.S., now is not the time to throw caution to the wind. As we enter cold and flu season, our current situation is not predicted to improve — so why are we letting up now, effectively undoing whatever damage control the months of quarantine provided?

The NBA and NHL showed us how we could bring back sports in a pandemic while mitigating risk. The MLB proved that there will be cases if we resist using the bubble format — and some players who did catch COVID-19 are suffering long-term health consequences. NFL and college football games are being canceled every week as athletes get back positive tests.

If we can’t learn from our mistakes and play it safe, we are in for a hard winter.