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New model puts math to work to make sports venues safer in coronavirus era

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John McCarthy, Washington University mathematician

John McCarthy, Washington University mathematician (Courtesy Washington University)

Determining how many fans can safely attend a sporting event in the age of coronavirus has been solved in most cases by randomly picking the number of people allowed inside a venue.

In some cases it’s 50% of capacity, in others 25%. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual answer is zero.

Professional franchises looking for something more succinct to rate the safety level for fans now have access to a tool that is both complicated and precise.

A group led by Washington University mathematician John McCarthy produced a model that is helping officials at arenas and stadiums around the country assess the risk of attending games.

The Safer Stadia tool has been implemented by at least a half dozen venues, and McCarthy has received interest from more than 20. The goal is to develop the safest possible environment and to convince decision-makers and fans that the possibility of exposure to coronavirus has been minimized. 

“Originally this was strictly from a mathematical viewpoint,” McCarthy said. “Then we checked with various doctors, including the head of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General (Hospital), and also with an engineering company. They all said this is a solid, robust approach.”

The study is filled with complicated wording and math equations that would mean little to the average sports fan. But breaking it down to basics, the idea is simple: risk = hazard x exposure.

If an arena is interested in using the system, McCarthy’s group collects specific data to build the framework that determines the venue’s risk analysis. The information required is detailed: How does an arena ventilate bathrooms? What is the distance between bathroom sinks? What is the width of corridors where fans walk? What is the ticket-taking system and how long is the walk to seats?

The system was created after Delaware North, which owns the Boston Bruins and TD Garden and operates concessions at more than 50 arenas, sought a method to safely have fans attend games. It has been introduced to every team in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS.

“We want to give as thorough an analysis as we can,” McCarthy said. “Some stadia had their own plans … but they want a way of scoring how good the plan is. We came up with an interactive tool that can give you a score. Then you can ask, ‘What happens if we change something?’”

McCarthy’s interest in the project went beyond his role as Washington University’s chairman of the department of math and statistics. The native of Ireland is a sports fan whose interest in the Cardinals blossomed when he moved from Berkeley, California, to St. Louis and then found that people he followed as members of the Oakland A’s — Tony La Russa, Mark McGwire and Dennis Eckersley — joined the team.

McCarthy’s son, Myles, who works at the University of Illinois, also is involved.

Thus far, no St. Louis area teams or venues have asked to use the model. However, McCarthy has met with officials from the governor’s office in New York, where the Buffalo Bills are looking for ways to have fans at games. He also was part of a group that met with the Massachusetts lieutenant governor.

At these meetings, arena officials can present their plan, which includes a score that takes into consideration all data. Arenas can improve their scores with additional mitigation policies such as plexiglass to separate people in some areas or, McCarthy suggested, having fans depart in groups after a game has ended.

The food service portion of a sporting event is critical, especially to Delaware North. Busch Stadium is among its clients in the food concessions business.

Wearing a mask remains the most significant factor in limiting the spread. McCarthy said a recent poll showed that 70% of people said they would wear a mask in order to attend a game.

McCarthy said he can see the model being valuable for the foreseeable future as teams and arenas grapple with how to re-introduce spectators. And ultimately, he speculated it’s not out of the question that arenas could be designed with some of this in mind.

“My guess is that this is going to be a problem through all of next year,” he said. “Then post-COVID, there are going to be other outbreaks. Stadiums have to be fire safe, and you could imagine architects in the future might start designing so they are structurally safer in the event of another pandemic.”

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