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As Ravens welcome family in stands in preparation for fans, public health experts urge caution

The Ravens welcomed spectators to M&T Bank Stadium for the first time in eight months, as dozens of immediate family members sat behind the home sideline for the team’s 34-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on “Monday Night Football.”

It was a move made possible after the latest step in Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s reopening plan, which allows up to 250 people to congregate at outdoor venues.

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And while public health experts called the Ravens’ decision to simulate admitting fans a wise step, they cautioned against moving too quickly, citing a possible resurgence of the coronavirus as the weather gets colder.

The NFL on Tuesday said the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings were suspending in-person activities after the Titans had three players test positive for the coronavirus, along with five other personnel. The league said Tuesday that both clubs are working closely with the NFL and the players' union, including their infectious disease experts, on tracing contacts, more testing and monitoring developments.

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On Monday, the family of players, coaches and other staff members sat spread apart across multiple rows with masks, eating concession food and cheering on the Ravens' failed comeback effort as stadium personnel held purple signs that read “Mask Required" in white lettering.

In a statement released Friday, the Ravens said that admitting the family members was “to prepare for the possibility of hosting fans at M&T Bank Stadium later this season.” Family members admitted into Monday’s night game were required to live in the same household as a player, coach or staff member.

“I suspect those 250 people are probably pretty low-risk because they are probably people highly motivated to avoid COVID-19,” Dr. Larry Chang, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said in a phone interview. “So I think any slightly increased risk for bringing in 250 people is probably pretty modest.”

The team continues to hold ongoing discussions around increasing the number of fans attending games, but Baltimore City and state officials did not give a timeline or any indication that the number of spectators allowed at M&T Bank Stadium will increase soon.

In response to questions about when the 250-person cap may be increased, James E. Bentley II, spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said in a statement, "The Mayor is continuing to consult with the public health experts and making decisions guided by data, which the City continues to publish and update daily on its coronavirus dashboard at www.coronavirus.baltimorecity.gov.”

Mike Ricci, spokesman for Hogan, said in response to questions that there is “no timetable, per se.”

“It’s a combination of evaluating the progress we’re making on our health metrics, and discussions with local health officials and organizations,” Ricci said. “Another thing we’ll look at of course is contact tracing, and whether we see anything notable there. To get to this point, after we updated the order for entertainment venues in early September, we took a few weeks or so to look at the trends in our recovery metrics — particularly hospitalizations and positivity rates — and then brought sports venues into line.”

While case numbers and deaths in the state have dipped in recent months, Young has typically been slower to reopen Baltimore, compared to other jurisdictions in the state. The state’s health department on Monday reported a positivity rate of 1.88% in Baltimore. Maryland’s positivity rate is 2.58%.

“That is really dependent on what’s happening in your local community, in terms of how much COVID-19 is out there, how much transmission is happening,” Chang, whose expertise is in infectious diseases, said of bringing in a sizeable increase of fans. "I don’t think we’re quite there yet, in the city of Baltimore and kind of the region. And part of that is because we’re about to enter a really potentially difficult period where there’s a lot of conditions favoring coronavirus transmission and we’re just not sure what’s going to happen with this potential fall wave.

“Hopefully it won’t be too bad but there’s a lot of things in play which could cause it to have another wave. Hopefully we can avoid that. If we can keep the infection under control, if we can maybe get a vaccine not too far away, I think it’s certainly possible that we could have fans back watching Baltimore Ravens football games before the season is done."

Maryland and global health experts have warned that the first coronavirus vaccine will not end the pandemic, and mask-wearing and social distancing will still be required.

As NFL franchises remodeled their facilities and made preparations to play amid the coronavirus pandemic, the league left decisions on fan attendance up to each respective team, allowing every team to admit as many fans as their local and state health guidelines would permit.

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Only three teams allowed fans into their stadiums at reduced capacities for Week 1, but that number increased to seven in Week 2. Across the league, tarps have been placed over the first couple of rows to separate fans from players and other personnel, and seats have been tied up to enforce social distancing.

Despite fears of these games serving as super-spreader events for COVID-19, and the report of a Chiefs fan testing positive after the team’s home opener in Week 1, there weren’t any outbreaks in NFL cities linked to games before this past Sunday.

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said she isn’t worried about people in the stadium contracting the virus, but more concerned for fans outside the stadium meeting in high-risk locations, such as restaurants and bars.

“When you have people coming from other parts of the state or other parts of the country, they may be coming from places with much higher levels of spread,” said Wen, the former health commissioner of Baltimore. “They probably aren’t just doing the one thing. They might also be going out to restaurants. They might also be going to friends' houses and congregating. And then they’ll go home from wherever they came from and potentially spread the virus.”

The Ravens in July announced that they expected a “significantly reduced seating capacity” of under 14,000. In August, a team spokesman told The Baltimore Sun that the Ravens submitted plans to Hogan and Young detailing how they could safely host 7,500 fans per game. But less than two weeks later, the team announced it would not host fans for the “initial part” of the 2020 season. The team’s next home game is Oct. 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Chang and Wen said that while 250 people can safely socially distance at M&T Bank Stadium, which can hold a maximum capacity of 71,000, there is no “magic number” for how many fans should be allowed in the stadium. Any sizable increase should be guided by local and state coronavirus numbers, they reiterated.

“Nationally, we’re not trending in the right direction,” Wen said. “We should be at a much lower level of COVID-19 coming into the fall and winter. And so I’m very concerned about what could happen in colder weather and potentially with the convergence of COVID-19 and the flu.”

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