Big Events With Big Crowds Are Back In Colorado, But The Risk Of COVID Never Left

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John Daley/CPR News
At Saturday’s Buff game against Minnesota, fans wearing masks in the stands were rare. This year, students, faculty and staff are required be vaccinated, and to provide proof of vaccination or a vaccine exemption. Besides thousands of vaccinated students, home games also draw alumni and fans from around the region, at least some who are not vaccinated.

On a glorious bluebird Colorado day, fans of the University of Colorado football team packed into Folsom Field. Ralphie the bison bounded across the grass. The band pounded out the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”

And it felt like the before times. 

You could see a face covering or two in the stands. A sign, with a cartoon Buff wearing a mask to urge mask-wearing indoors, greeted folks as they entered at an east side gate. But besides that, there were few visible signs that a global pandemic is still with us.

Same story at last weekend’s Westword Music Showcase. Tunes and beverages were plentiful, social distancing was about the distance between two seats.

Fall 2021 is the polar opposite from a year ago, but it may be the most confusing season yet of the crisis.

Colorado has relatively high vaccination rates, with 58 percent of the state’s population fully vaccinated. But that’s not yet a level to bring the virus under control and state leaders are warning about hospitals hitting intensive care unit capacity. On Monday, a quarter of hospitals reported anticipating staff shortages in the next week.

So what’s the best advice if you’re thinking of taking in a ballgame or show? Doctors and public health officials emphasize the advice that’s held true for months now: vaccinated, masked and outdoors handily beats the alternative.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Fans at the Hippo Campus show at the Westword Music Showcase in Denver’s RiNo district on Saturday, September 18, 2021.

How safe are outdoor games or concerts?

Rick Kornfeld has had Bronco season tickets for decades. He’s rarely missed an opening game, like this Sunday’s against the New York Jets. Often he goes with his 82-year-old mom.

They’re both fully vaccinated, but there is no vaccination or mask requirement at Empower Field at Mile High. Unvaccinated fans are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering, according to the stadium website.

“Not only will a lot of people not be wearing masks, but there will be a number of people in a stadium of almost 80,000 people that are not vaccinated,” said Kornfeld, who lives in Denver, where nearly 75 percent of those over 12 are now fully vaccinated.

He’s an attorney and has a 10-week trial coming up so it’s not a good time to get sick. He consulted with some doctor friends and has decided to skip it.

“None of them could say, ‘I think it's a huge risk’ or whatever, but it's just a risk. And I just decided, I can watch it on TV and not take that risk,” Kornfeld said.

Courtesy of Rick Kornfeld
Longtime Bronco season ticketholder Rick Kornfeld, with his mother Linda and wife Julie. Kornfeld plans to skip Sunday's home opener and instead watch the game on TV.

Centennial resident Greer Hancock and her husband bought tickets for Dave Matthews at Fiddler’s Green amphitheater next month. They’re fully vaccinated and have a toddler at home, but she is still concerned.

 “What is the risk to me? What's the risk to my husband? What's the risk to my child?” she asked.

As of Oct. 1, the venue will require vaccination and strongly encourages masks. 

“What if we contracted it, didn’t know it and then unknowingly passed it along to somewhere else, because we were at this live outdoor event with so many people?”

Dr. Michelle Barron from UC Health said concerned patrons like Hancock should first consider the venue and what the vaccination status might be of those around you.

“I think you have to sit down and sort of do the math in your head as to what the implication is, A) you got COVID, or B) What's the real risk?” Barron said.

John Daley/CPR News
Fans at the CU Buffs football game against the University of Minnesota, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021/

Not all Coloradans are concerned about attending events, regardless of vaccination status

Greg Krush, from Hotchkiss on the western slope, isn’t vaccinated but also isn’t hesitating to attend in-person events.

“I mean you're taking a risk, no matter what you do, unless you want to live in a bubble,” he said. “Many of the people I know feel the same way. To live your life in fear of, of something that, you know, we go skiing, we ride motorcycles, we go swimming, we get behind the wheel of a car.”

There are a lot of people like him in Colorado. As many as two million aren’t vaccinated and some of them will be at the Broncos game, maybe sitting next to you. Carrie Whittlesey from Evergreen has two elementary school kids, so they’re not vaccinated. She and her husband are vaccinated, and plan to take their kids to a Buffs game soon.

“If we are, let's say outside at this football game, should we be wearing masks?” Whittlesey asked.

Yes, Barron said, a mask will improve your odds of staying COVID-free.

“If you're fully vaccinated, you wear a mask, you bring your hand sanitizer, your risk is still going to be incredibly low. It's not zero,” Barron said.

John Daley/CPR News
As part of its COVID-19 protocols, regardless of vaccination status, masks are required to be worn in any indoor space at Folsom Field on gamedays. There is no general vaccination requirement for Folsom Field, but CU Boulder is strongly encouraging people to be vaccinated when they come to campus. Unvaccinated guests are strongly encouraged to wear a mask unless they are actively eating or drinking.

Indoor events are a totally different story

Fans of the Avs and Nuggets will have a whole different safety calculus to consider this winter if full-capacity crowds are back.

“Indoors, when you start getting into big groups, I really start worrying about, like, the airflow,” Barron said. “How close are you to people and how well are people wearing masks?”

Infectious disease doctor Sean O’Leary, with Children’s Hospital Colorado, agrees your level of risk depends on what events you’re looking to attend and your personal circumstances. When it comes to children under 12, who can’t yet get vaccinated, the risk to them of severe disease, hospitalization or death is lower than older adults. 

“But it's not zero,” said O’Leary. “It's something that I think is a very personal decision in terms of ‘are you willing to accept that risk?’” 

University of Denver aerosol expert Alex Huffman said it’s good to think about how viruses, like COVID-19, spread. 

“You can be infected if you breathe air that's directly breathed out by someone else,” said Huffman, an associate professor in chemistry and biochemistry. “Anytime you are close enough to share air with someone, then you have risk of being infected, whether you're vaccinated or not, you can pick up an infection that can be a breakthrough infection, and you can still pass that on.”

He said that’s why outdoors is considerably safer, though not risk-free, than indoors, where, like, say, cigarette smoke, “that aerosol still builds up, if the room is not ventilated properly.” 

Huffman said masks not only help protect you and people near you, they also reduce the viral load you might be exposed to if you came in contact with someone spreading the virus.

“There's data that shows that it likely reduces the severity of infection that you would receive,” he said.

But masks or no masks, Huffman said he would not be taking his three children, too young for vaccines, to any big events any time soon.

“There's no chance I would take my kids to (a large sporting event) because they're unvaccinated. I would not be taking my unvaccinated kids into any crowded environment, indoor or outdoor,” Huffman said.

More than 80 percent of 890 people currently hospitalized in Colorado with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to a new dashboard page the state launched last week. The data show breakthrough cases are rare and doctors say patients who are vaccinated who get hospitalized generally fare better than the unvaccinated.

It’s not possible to assess what share of the fans coming to stadiums and events is vaccinated. At CU for example, the university required faculty, staff and students to get the COVID-19 vaccine before the start of the fall 2021 semester and to provide proof of vaccination or a vaccine exemption.

But besides thousands of vaccinated students, home games also draw alumni and fans from around the region, at least some who are not vaccinated, and no one checks for vaccine cards at the 50,000-seat Folsom Field as you enter.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Music fans were greeted by reminders to be ready to show their COVID-19 vaccination status at the Westword Music Showcase in Denver’s RiNo district on Saturday, September 18, 2021.

What CPR readers and listeners are saying

CPR asked audience members, via the Lookout newsletter and social media platform Reddit, about how they were weighing the risks of attending in-person events. The query drew a broad range of feedback.

“I am avoiding large events, especially indoor events, as I don’t feel safe,” wrote Kathy Mallory, who lives in Westminster. “If I knew all participants were vaccinated and/or masked I might consider it. Until then I am avoiding most public indoor and large events.”

Centennial resident Loretta Kennedy weighed whether to attend last week’s Eagles concert. “You have to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask so I feel pretty safe,” she said. Afterward, she emailed to say attendants at Ball Arena did check for vaccination cards “however once inside hardly anyone wore their mask.”

Another CPR audience member who responded said she’d decided not to attend an 80-person family event in Minnesota. Dee-Dee Vallez, a vaccinated 66-year-old from Aurora, said there would be children under 12 at the party, which was outside with some indoor activities. She does plan to go to a Rockies game and a show at Red Rocks this month. 

“The distinction for me is I’m not traveling on a plane (avoiding witnessing assaults to boot), and not around family members who I want to hug,” Vallez wrote. “I'll be in a seat, with adult-aged people.” 

John Daley/CPR News
The view from the stands at CU's game versus Minnesota. CU required faculty, staff and students to get the COVID-19 vaccine before the start of the fall semester and to provide proof of vaccination or a vaccine exemption.

Getting vaccinated remains the best form of protection

A study from England of this summer’s European Cup soccer tournament found risk for fans wasn’t just at full stadiums, but via social mixing, when traveling, or carousing in poorly ventilated bars and pubs. The research spotlighted the risk of transmission from aerosol exposure related to “shouting and chanting in large groups.”

In the future, the paper concluded, event organizers should consider measures “to manage the density of crowds in areas such as hospitality and concessions on the concourses, and entry and exit points.”

In those cases, masks, which contain the aerosol spread of the virus, helped. Most of all, the scientific consensus is that the best protection is vaccination. 

Former Bronco and Altitude Sports Radio 92.5 FM host Ryan Harris has been promoting it and hopes the message sinks in. 

“I'm not going to shame or be upset with people who aren't vaccinated, you know? So I'm just trying to give the reasons why I got the vaccine and why I'm totally safe and healthy,” Harris said. “Hopefully that encourages other people to join as well.”