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Mapping fan strategies in an era of “hygiene theater”

We’re still learning about how COVID-19 spreads in the population, and new evidence suggests that all the deep-cleaning protocols used by MLB and mandated by local health officials may just be what’s being called “hygiene theater.”

We’ve seen the announcements from the likes of the Miami Marlins and the Boston Red Sox that they would be using drones and robots to disinfect seating areas and concourses. In the latest announcement–sans drones–the Kansas City Royals are partnering with Reckitt, the makers of Lysol, to introduce enhanced disinfection protocols at Kauffman Stadium for the 2021 season and beyond. This comes as part of a larger sponsorship deal signed by MLB and Reckitt. We’re also seen other disinfectant manufacturers enter the fray: Clorox, for instance, is now the official disinfectant of Chase Center, home to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

“The health and safety of our players and fans is of utmost priority to us,” said Royals Chief Revenue and Innovation Officer Sarah Tourville. “We are excited to partner with Lysol, as their expertise and array of disinfecting products will further strengthen our efforts to play baseball at Kauffman Stadium.”

Sponsorships are good: sponsorships bring in revenue. And disinfectant sponsorships reassure fans that there’s no risk in returning to sporting events. Research consistently indicates fans place safety as their prime consideration in returning to MLB games in 2021. We would assume that polling extends to MiLB games as well.

But the newest evidence indicates the stress on deep cleaning may be more performative art than a reality-based safety measure. Earlier this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new surface cleaning guidelines, reducing the need for frequent disinfectants and proclaiming the latest research indicates the risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus from hand contact was less than 1 in 10,000. The research is also clear: COVID-19 is an aerosol-transmitted virus, which means the most efficient tool against transmission is a mask. From The New York Times:

“People can be affected with the virus that causes Covid-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., said at a White House briefing on Monday. “However, evidence has demonstrated that the risk by this route of infection of transmission is actually low.”

The admission is long overdue, scientists say.

“Finally,” said Linsey Marr, an expert on airborne viruses at Virginia Tech. “We’ve known this for a long time and yet people are still focusing so much on surface cleaning.” She added, “There’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten Covid-19 by touching a contaminated surface.”…

“The scientific basis for all this concern about surfaces is very slim — slim to none,” said Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, who wrote last summer that the risk of surface transmission had been overblown. “This is a virus you get by breathing. It’s not a virus you get by touching.”

We don’t expect MLB teams to change up their disinfectant protocols, and tools like robots and drones certainly can’t hurt. And the offseason changes outlined in MLB’s operating guidelines and implemented by many teams went far beyond just implementing fan-side disinfectants: many behind-the scenes ballpark upgrades, such as new air-filtering systems for employees, are generally regarded as being very useful tools. Indeed, the offseason changes to Yankee Stadium in achieving the WELL Health-Safety Rating from the WELL Building Institute (IWBI) had more to do with general cleanliness than specific COVID-related measures. The lesson may be that teams should continue to offer disinfection and cleanliness tools to fans–keep those wipes and hand sanitizer in place–but educate fans on the truly effective methods for preventing COVID-19 spread at the ballpark, and that includes enforcement of mask mandates and vaccines, controversial or not.

Image courtesy Surfacide.

RELATED STORIES: California MLB teams cleared for fans in the stands; MiLB teams navigate Opening Day waters; Yankee Stadium achieves WELL Health-Safety Rating certification

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