Feature Article - January 2021
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Safer Sports

The Best Ways to Keep Sports and Fitness Activities Going During a Pandemic

By Chris Gelbach


Today, the nation struggles with a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, but with the hope of widespread vaccine distribution and adoption on the near horizon. In this environment, it can be difficult for recreation managers to figure out how and when to resume sports programs in a safe manner.

According to a variety of experts in airborne diseases, sports medicine, building ventilation and other related disciplines, there is a risk continuum involved with various sports. It starts with very low risks for outdoor sports featuring ample social distancing and increases most with close-contact sports and sports done in poorly ventilated indoor environments.

All these risk calculations must also be informed by the current level of community spread. "The answer to a lot of the questions really depends on where the individual community is with respect to the pandemic," said Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist and associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Denver. "If either now or later that community is in a place where the rates are reasonably low and dropping, then it's a very different situation from most of the country right now where it's high and increasing."

Even now, however, Huffman sees little risk with socially distanced sports outside. "I would feel OK, even right now as things are out of control in most places, with socially distanced stuff outside," Huffman said. "Once we start getting into indoor spaces with a lot more people, especially if you can't respect the social distancing aspect with basketball and volleyball and things like that—that's when it becomes a different scenario. If we're doing socially distanced outside now, great. If you can't do socially distanced, outside is a lot better than inside, but still has risks to it."

The relative risks must be measured by considering the airborne nature of the virus. The consensus currently is that COVID-19 is predominantly transmitted through the air by larger particles often called droplets and by smaller particles often referred to as aerosols. According to Huffman, there's really a continuum between the two types of particles. The big difference is that people spray out the larger particles when they talk or breathe, and they fall relatively quickly to the ground. "That's where the six-foot rule came in," Huffman said.

But the plume of smaller particles that people expel can stay suspended in the air longer, much like smoke. And, like smoke, it can build up in the air in poorly ventilated spaces, mixing into the whole volume of the room's air until it gets ventilated away.

"In close proximity [with other people], you have significantly increased exposure from both droplets and aerosols and then also farther away in the room you have this aerosol spread," Huffman said. "And the closer you are, it's dramatically increasing your risk. That's why distancing and masks are so important."

While a good ventilation system helps to eliminate the longer-distance, lingering room-level aerosols, it cannot remove the transmission risks associated with close contact. "You can have the best ventilation system in the world, but if you're four feet away from somebody, that person is still basically spraying you with virus," Huffman said.

Keeping Your Distance

Sports that are outdoors and allow for ample social distancing in addition can be relatively safe even without masking. But even for these sports, like outdoor golf and tennis, it's important to minimize other interactions related to the sport itself that can put patrons at risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19.

For instance, the U.S. Golf Association's Back2Gold plan features a three-phase approach tailored to different levels of risk, with the first level featuring precautionary measures that include:

» Individual play permitted with strict social distancing with no more than four players per group.
» Walking the course or riding alone in separate golf carts.
» Restrictive course setup that features no bunker rakes, cups modified for no contact and no on-course amenities.
» Practice facilities restricted to 10 or fewer people practicing strict social distancing.
» Golf instruction and club fitting only with strict social distancing. Group teaching and coaching done virtually only.
» Closed clubhouses and golf shops with restaurants open (if at all) for takeout only.

Outdoor tennis, especially singles, can likewise be a low-risk activity even in areas with high community spread. The U.S. Tennis Association has created two Playing Tennis Safely documents, one for players and another for facilities and programmers.