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New Guidelines for Safe Reopening of Sports, Live Events

21 May, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

As the U.S. works toward what might be termed its soft reopening (with some states going a little softer than others), the sports industry is simultaneously feeling its way along as it moves toward a new normal as well and attempts to ensure the safety to athletes, spectators, officials and others.

The problem, everyone agrees, is that because it’s a brand-new situation with a variety of unknowns, there doesn’t seem to be a template. But recently, some new documents with guidelines for live events (some are even specific to sports and drilling down further, some to youth sports) could help make things easier; after all, who hasn’t wanted a road map when venturing into unfamiliar territory?

The Event Safety Alliance Reopening Guide (available for free download here) is a collective work by event industry professionals to help its peers who are planning to reopen during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. The Guide doesn’t address sports specifically; instead, it lays out guidelines for a number of live events.

The writers of the report are very clear: the document contains no “best practices” that apply everywhere since COVID-19 creates different challenges depending on countless factors, including the size of the event, its geographic location, the physical space, and the anticipated attendees, to name a few.

The Reopening Guide addresses health and sanitary issues that event and venue professionals need to consider in order to protect both patrons and workers.  Since there is still insufficient testing, no contact tracing and no vaccine against COVID-19, this guidance is particularly detailed. The first edition is tailored to be especially useful for event professionals reopening the smallest events with the fewest resources available to mitigate their risks, since in every municipal reopening plan these will be allowed to reopen first.   

In lieu of having any hard guidelines, the report sets up chapters to identify reasonably foreseeable health risks and to suggest options to mitigate them.

The report is divided into sections:

  • Planning When to Reopen (when it’s legal and reasonably safe)
  • Patron Education (how to change expectations, what to explain, messaging systems, etc.)
  • Worker Health & Hygiene (face coverings, PPE, handwashing, etc.)
  • Sanitizing the Venue (sanitizing high-touch areas, cleaning and disinfecting)
  • Ingress and Egress/Entry and Exit (screening, parking lot practices, handwashing/disinfection stations, temperature screenings, etc.)
  • Front of House Circulation, Food and Beverage, Merchandise (rest rooms, seated venues, assigned seating, general admission, etc.)
  • Production Issues (Booking an event space, material handling, cargo, set-up, etc.)
  • Legal Issues (duty of care, proximate clause, etc.)

The 29-page report includes a number of sources, including specific venues and event, travel organizations, medical organizations including the CDC, WHO and Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.

Along those same lines, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has also presented Guidance for Opening Up High School Athletics and Activitiesa guidance document for associations to consider when re-opening high school sports and other activity programs nationwide. This is the first youth-specific, sports-specific document to be produced

The NFHS guidance document describes a staged approach to re-opening high school sports and other activities, similar to the phases of “opening up” outlined by the White House last month. The committee suggests that state high school associations consult with their state and local health departments for determining the appropriate dates for implementing a phased-in approach within their respective states.  

In particular, decreasing potential exposure to respiratory droplets, and creating cleaner environments within schools and sports venues, are points of emphasis. And those come just in time; Iowa's governor announced that high school sports were restarting; athletes could return to practice on June 1, with games beginning June 15. 

The NFHS report is available for free download here. And expect more of these types of reports as well; in fact, the International Hockey Federation recently released its own guidance documents regarding safe return to play, as well as ensuring the integrity of venues. Information can be found here. For more general guidelines, the Sports Turf Managers Association, the organization of sports field managers worldwide, has developed guidance on maintaining fields during shutdowns, and on safely reopening. And not to be outdone, Road Runners Club of America has issued "Looking Forward: Guidelines for Races," with resources for event directors to restart everything from 5Ks to marathons, with directions leading from pre-event marketing to post-event surveys.

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