Nuggets and Avs fans pack Ball Arena, with few masks in sight — even though they’re required

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David Zalubowski/AP Photo
Fans walk through the team logo illuminating the floor of Ball Arena before the Denver Nuggets host the Phoenix Suns in the first half of Game 4 of an NBA second-round playoff series Sunday, June 13, 2021, in Denver.

Updated on Oct. 25 at 10:00 a.m.

The images are telling.

They show a crowd of 18,037 tightly packed into Denver’s Ball Arena on Oct. 13 for the Colorado Avalanche’s season opener. 

Outside of the goalies on the ice, few in the building are seen wearing masks. 

Ball Arena clearly states it on its website: Mask Required at All Times. The fine print in the dropdown box spells out the details: All guests older than two must wear a face mask covering (and no neck gaiters, face masks with vents and bandanas) at all times at the arena, except when eating or drinking.

And the website is clear on what could happen if you don’t: guests who fail to comply with the mask requirement may be removed from Ball Arena.

But as the Nuggets made their home debut, enforcement of the mask requirement looks to be another issue. And the city of Denver, which has at times taken aggressive approaches to the pandemic, is this time taking a hands-off approach to the arena.

“The city doesn't have a mask mandate and so it is up to the individual businesses,” said Tori Burket, the Epidemiology Program Manager with the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment. “We would recommend that they require it and that they are enforcing those requirements, that if they're asking people to wear them, that they're following up on that.”

A spokesman for the Nuggets didn’t respond to a request for comment on what fans can expect.

Ball Arena has been open to fans since March 2021, and capacity has steadily expanded since then.

The arena seats 18,000-plus fans for a sellout Nuggets or Avs game, and fans come from all over the region. Transmission levels remain elevated in Colorado as the state grapples with its fifth wave of the pandemic. Roughly 60 percent of the entire population is now fully vaccinated.

Burket acknowledged attending an in-person game in a crowded indoor setting carries the risk of catching COVID-19, especially with the highly contagious delta variant still present.

“It's possible when we have high levels of community transmission,” Burket said. “When you have any large gathering that has a lot of people, just looking at statistics, there is a chance that there could be somebody there that has COVID and could be infectious with it. And that's why we're really strong in recommending those vaccines and masks.”

In the winter and spring, the Nuggets and Avs played to reduced capacity crowds of fewer than 5,000 as the state health department tried to reduce spread while vaccines were being expanded to a growing proportion of the population. Mask requirements were enforced, with Ball Arena ushers serving as mask proctors to be sure exceptions for eating and drinking were the only exceptions made.

In May, capacity was expanded to 7,750 in a cautious move to gradually let more people cheer through the playoffs while still enforcing masks and social distancing. At the time, the state was recording about 5,437 COVID-19 cases a week.

Last week, as fans with masks around their wrists, or chins, or necks poured into the arena with no capacity restrictions, the state recorded 13,714 cases.

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Joe Mahoney/AP Photo
Denver Nuggets guard Nah'Shon Hyland shakes a fan's hand after during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game in Denver, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. Some fans are wearing masks, others are not.

A lot of Coloradans have been vaccinated in the last few months. But being unmasked indoors is still risky.

In those five months between May and now, the number of vaccine doses administered in the state has grown from 5.4 million to 7.2 million.

But while the number of people fully vaccinated has grown, experts say being in a closed environment without a face covering, vaccinated or not, is risky. Vaccination considerably reduces that risk of developing a severe case of the viral illness, but does not eliminate it. 

“Any large, in-person events definitely have increased risk of COVID-19 transmission,” said Dr. Richard Zane, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “In fact, with the current high transmission rate of COVID-19 in Colorado, I’d say some transmission is likely. Vaccination is the best way to protect fans, and even if a vaccinated individual contracts COVID-19, they will likely have a mild case without hospitalization or death.”

UCHealth's Dr. Michelle Barron said especially the unvaccinated should think twice about attending.

"I wouldn't, certainly, but I also obviously feel strongly about vaccines. And so I think you're at high risk in getting something or potentially giving it to someone,” said Barron, the senior medical director of infection control and prevention for UCHealth. “But if you were going to attend, then I would suggest you mask. I mean, that is the kind of honor system that they put out there that if you're unvaccinated, you're supposed to follow appropriate protocol, which would mean you should stay masked.”

Gov. Jared Polis echoed that at a COVID-19 update Thursday.

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David Zalubowski/AP Photo
Fans, both masked and unmasked, watch the Colorado Avalanche play the Chicago Blackhawks in the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in Denver.

“I have a very low level of concern,” for vaccinated fans to attend games at Ball Arena, he said. “I can't guarantee zero transmission, but the risk is low. The risk is tolerable. The risk is minor.”

But, Polis said, for the unvaccinated, it’s another story.

“If you haven't been vaccinated I would really want to alert Coloradans (to) the danger of attending those kinds of large indoor events,” Polis said, urging fans to get vaccinated. But until someone does, “it's really important to avoid those kinds of crowded indoor events, which you could easily contract the deadly virus, which could send you to a hospital, put you on a respirator, or even cost you your life.”

Barron said her hospital requires people to wear masks indoors and will enforce that rule by removing those who refuse to comply. 

“We mandate it and we enforce it. Why? Because you're in a really high-risk environment, right?” she said. “And so people in the hospital don't have the luxury of saying, ‘Oh, I didn't want to come into the hospital today.’”

But she said the calculation is a bit different in an indoor sporting venue where you’re choosing to attend voluntarily and hence are taking on more risk.

“I think the rules for entering the stadium is on the honor system. And if you're vaccinated, the likelihood of you getting infected is incredibly low in general,” Barron said.

But, if you have somebody who's unvaccinated in the audience and perhaps is having low-grade symptoms, then there is risk of spillover, of passing the virus on, especially to other unvaccinated spectators 

“Just because you're in tight confines and there's a lot of yelling that goes on in sports. And so there's maybe a little higher risk from that,” Barron said.

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David Zalubowski/AP Photo
A spotlight hits fans, who were allowed into Ball Arena for the first time since last year because of the coronavirus, Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in Denver.

Other arenas and venues, across the county and in Denver, have stricter rules than Ball Arena.

Elsewhere in the league, fans will face much stricter rules. At the Staples Center, where the Los Angeles Lakers play, all fans older than two are required to show either proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of a game or other event.

Half of the teams in the league will require that same rule, proof of vaccination, or a negative coronavirus test, according to Forbes, and that includes other nearby western franchises, like Oklahoma City, Utah, Portland and Sacramento. 

That’s far more than the four NFL franchises enacting the same rule.

Try as they might, professional sports leagues and teams have struggled to put the pandemic behind them, with controversies over things like vaccination rules and more positive tests. In recent weeks, Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, and one of the team’s biggest stars, Nathan MacKinnon, got sidelined with breakthrough cases.

Denver has relatively high vaccination rates, compared to other locations in Colorado. As of Oct. 14, 77 percent of Denver residents are fully vaccinated.

Its one-week cumulative incidence rate is about 150 per 100,000 people and its positivity rate is about 4 percent, as of Oct. 20, said Burket. 

But many fans are likely to attend the game from around the region where the COVID-19 rates are even higher. Colorado’s 7-day positivity rate was 7.13 percent on Oct. 20. Hospitalizations recently soared well above 1000 in the state, the highest level in nearly a year, though still well below the pandemic peak; a third of hospitals anticipate a shortage of staff in the next week.

And some parts of the state are still struggling to contain transmission. The situation has gotten so dire, with hospitals being overburdened with coronavirus patients, Larimer County’s public health department reissued a requirement that masks be worn in all indoor public spaces, starting Wednesday.

The state health department says to reduce community spread, it recommends the most protective measures, like wearing masks indoors in public places, but it leaves the details up to local communities and businesses.

Other locations in the city, like the Denver Center for Performing Arts, are requiring adult patrons to be vaccinated. According to its website, DCPA requires all patrons 12 and older to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before attending indoor seated performances at the Arts Complex. To qualify as “fully vaccinated,” a person must have completed their full course of COVID-19 shot(s) 14 days prior to an event. Kids under 12 must show a negative COVID-19 test.

A Dead & Company show at Red Rocks on Tuesday likewise required all fans to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (at least two weeks after final dose) and provide proof of vaccination. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A King Soopers-sponsored vaccination clinic at Red Rocks Amphitheatre during a Leon Bridges convert Oct. 6, 2021.

Zane said he’d be comfortable attending a game, but that’s due to his particular situation. He’s fully vaccinated, recently got a booster shot and his entire family, friends and everyone he works with are also vaccinated.

“This significantly reduces the risk for me and my loved ones,” Zane said. “Wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer are always good, though vaccination remains the number one way for people to protect themselves.”

However, he recommends any immunocompromised individuals and people over the age of 65 take extra precautions or consider avoiding large, in-person events until the transmission rate reduces in our state. 

“We’ve seen that when serious breakthrough infections occur, they are usually among seniors or immunocompromised people,” Zane said.

Berket said whether to attend a game in a crowded indoor setting is a personal decision.

“I would probably have a little bit of pause,” she said, when asked if she’d attend. She said the community’s still relatively high levels of transmission, combined with spotty enforcement of mask requirements would make her think twice.

If there was a venue that wasn't enforcing those types of policies, “that probably would feel uncomfortable.”