Sports facility owners and operators have a steep hill to climb before they welcome back spectators to indoor events and group programming. While the search for a COVID-19 vaccine shows promise for bringing an eventual end to the pandemic, it may take much longer to convince many former patrons it is safe to return to their local gym or indoor stadium.
In a world awakened to the ongoing threat of surface and air-borne pathogens – whether SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), the seasonal flu or another invisible menace – venues where people gather for physical exercise must mitigate not only genuine sources of contamination risks, but fear as well.
Management will need to demonstrate that they have taken every opportunity to ensure cleanliness, health and safety within their facility. And they will need to communicate the steps they have taken to their associations, employees, athletes, club members and visitors.
Many sports destinations have already modified policies and procedures as suggested by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention or required by state and local health authorities. Common responses include the installation of plexiglass shields, signs and floor markings to aid social distancing, and adoption of more rigorous janitorial and sanitation protocols to keep viral particles at bay.
With barriers and open spaces in place, the logical next step is to focus on systems that can remove or remediate contaminants that enter the space. That's why many arenas and other sports centers are taking advantage of downtime to assess and upgrade heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems.
And in the process, they are finding opportunities to incorporate advanced air-purification systems, some of which not only neutralize virus particles from the air but also scrub contaminants from surfaces, providing that "extra mile" of safety enhancements to protect and comfort even the most risk-averse players and spectators.
Clean Air Strategies
Current thinking holds that SARS-CoV-2 is spread chiefly through respiratory droplets that fall to the ground a few feet after being broadcast from an infected person's mouth, which is why masks and social distancing help to prevent person-to-person transfers. There is evidence, however, that smaller droplets can remain suspended in the air for hours. If allowed to accumulate, such as when infected individuals attend an indoor sports event in a space that lacks proper ventilation, others are at an increasing risk of inhaling enough of the virus to develop COVID-19.
Professionally designed and maintained HVAC systems can reduce airborne concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 and lower the risk of transmission through the air, according to ASHRAE (formerly the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers). ASHRAE has published a host of technical guidance to help engineers and facility managers configure mechanical systems to reduce COVID-19 risks, including a building readiness guide. Management should work with a qualified mechanical engineer to evaluate the HVAC system and identify any needed changes.
In general, air-quality enhancements should maximize the allowable intake of fresh, outside air, which isn't a source of contamination and dilutes any virus-laden air in the system. The CDC's guidance for gyms and fitness center employers, for example, recommends using as much fresh air as possible while still maintaining 40% to 50% humidity.
ASHRAE and the CDC also recommend upgrading filtration in the system when feasible to remove fine particles that can carry the virus. Increased filtration requires a balancing act, because some high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can slow circulation excessively and compromise necessary airflow; an HVAC professional can evaluate how to make improvements without straining mechanical systems.
Advanced Air Purification
Air and surface purifiers are an excellent addition to elevate indoor air quality, and both the CDC and ASHRAE point to air purifiers as potential components to augment an HVAC strategy. Marketed as mountable fixtures or freestanding, plug-and-play units, most products are designed to continually treat individual rooms or are arranged in combination to blanket larger enclosures.
Air and surface purifiers are already a fixture in many professional sports organization clubhouses and locker rooms and are carried by a number of teams when they travel. The devices may use a range of technologies – some developed by NASA – and some products have been shown to destroy viruses and bacteria on a room's surfaces as well as in the air.
Hospitals pioneered the use of ultraviolet light to neutralize disease particles such as tuberculosis, and various UV devices are available for installation within HVAC systems. Expanded upon and refined over decades to use various wavelengths and materials, germicidal light science represents only a portion of the technologies that manufacturers may pack into a single air purification device.
More advanced products on the market today harness forms of bi-polar ionization, charging oxygen molecules taken from the air and redeploying them as super oxidizers, which cluster on fine particles and quickly deactivate illness-causing bacteria and viruses such as MRSA, E. coli, and C. difficile. Developments such as these have helped to elevate air purifiers from filtering devices into active cleaning systems that seek out and destroy contaminants, continually scrubbing and disinfecting a room's surfaces.
A single device may incorporate ionization, ultraviolet light, low-micron filters, electrostatic screens or other technology to produce astounding results. One product, for example, demonstrated 99.99% air and surface pathogen elimination in just 15 minutes and up to 99.9999% eradication in under one hour.
No longer exclusive to hospitals, air and surface scrubbing purifiers have grown increasingly affordable. With many models available and sized for a variety of applications, they are increasingly deployed in homes, hotels, surgery and skilled nursing centers, and professional athletic facilities.
Now is an ideal time to make needed ventilation and air-quality upgrades at indoor sport destinations. When easing restrictions allow operators to bring these spaces back online, curated air quality will not only boost safety, but will provide a powerful draw to a discerning public.