FORT WORTH, Texas — As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, Texas Motor Speedway will welcome thousands of NASACAR fans this weekend for a race that may be one of the largest gatherings in Texas, if not the country, since the deadly outbreak began.
The crowd will certainly lead to new COVID-19 cases, one virus expert said, but speedway president Eddie Gossage said he was more concerned about the potential for triple-digit heat Sunday than the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott’s most recent order restricts outdoor crowds to 10 or fewer, unless organizers get special permission, but motorsports have a specific exemption.
“I don’t have any concerns. I’m going to be there, my family’s going to be there,” Gossage said. “I’m not concerned about it, if everyone will follow the directions.”
Sunday’s race will be the first time Texas has allowed fans at a professional sporting event since the outbreak began. Gossage said he is confident the experiment will prove sports can go on and may become the model for how other venues operate. He downplayed the spike in coronavirus cases, saying he didn’t believe the statistics took into account the size of the state’s population.
On Monday Tarrant County reported 322 new cases for a total of 18,483. Denton County, where the race track is located, reported 112 new cases. Texas had record numbers of new cases for four consecutive days last week, including Wednesday, when a record 119 deaths were reported.
Gossage wouldn’t say how many fans he expects at the speedway. At 50% capacity, as many as 62,500 fans could show up, but he said the speedway “wouldn’t come close to that.” At one point he used 20,000 as a hypothetical number.
“This looks like a mistake in the making, and there will be consequences, I would predict,” said Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and head of Texas A&M University-Texarkana’s biology department. Neuman has studied coronaviruses for more than two decades.
Neuman said it may be impossible to estimate how much the coronavirus will spread at a gathering as large as the race since most modeling stops at crowds of 100. But he was confident the race posed a high risk.
Based on “common sense and virology, epidemiology 101,” strangers gathering in any number exponentially increases the risk of spreading contagious diseases, he said. A spike in cases after the Memorial Day weekend shows that even small holiday gatherings grew the number of positive cases.
Across the country, large gatherings have been blamed for surges in coronavirus.
Last week Tulsa City-County Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart said President Donald Trump’s campaign rally and the protest that happened along side it on June 20 “likely contributed” to a dramatic surge in coronavirus cases in the city, the Associated Press reported.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom in late June blamed family gatherings for that state’s surge in cases, according to CNN.
Two top Trump administration officials, Admiral Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary with the Department of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, warned over the weekend that the surge in coronavirus is likely to continue. Both urge hard-hit cities and states to consider closing bars and stopping mass social gatherings, The New York Times reported.
Modeling shows a one in four chance of infection after about two hours in a still air situation, said Walter Casey, an associate professor at Texas A&M University-Texarkana who has worked with the school’s Texas Emergency Management Advisory Group. Though Casey is a political science professor, his expertise is in data analysis, and he has built several outbreak models.
A model specific to a summer event outside hasn’t been done, he said, but generally the longer people spend in groups the more they risk spreading a disease. The key is time, he said. After about 15 minutes, the air becomes saturated with particles unless there is strong wind or the crowd is moving, like during a parade or protest march.
“You’re increasing your chance minute by minute that you’re going to come in contact with a particle,” he said. “Even if you have really good masks, something can still get out.”
Several steps are being taken that should limit the risk of infection, Gossage said.
There will be no printed tickets and hand sanitizer will be passed out to fans, who must wear masks when in enclosed spaces, he said.
The souvenir and concession stands will be open, but with every other kiosk closed and markers placed on the floor to encourage those in line to space out. In the restroom, water will be shut off to every other sink and every other toilet will be closed to prevent crowding.
The infield will be closed to fans.
For every occupied seat, the venue eliminated more than 20 other seats, Gossage said, in an effort to encourage distancing. He’s hopeful those who come with a group will stick together, but he admitted there’s no way to enforce social distancing.
“There’s a whole lot of reliance on personal responsibility,” he said. “It’s on the individual’s shoulders to do the right thing.”
City police and code compliance officers will be on hand to help with crowd control.
Given the venue’s massive size, Gossage said the speedway is big enough that even if 20,000 showed up, social distancing would almost come naturally.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said because Abbott’s order contained a specific provision for motor sports, the city did not play a role in planning for the event, and she wouldn’t speculate about what she would have required of the speedway if it had been up to her.
The PGA’s Charles Schwab Challenge was played without fans at Colonial Country Club in June. Price championed the event as a way to showcase the city while taking COVID-related precautions. She said she didn’t push for NASCAR to have fans in Fort Worth, but thought it may be an opportunity for national exposure again.
“We just haven’t had a big hand in planning on it, but I’m very comfortable that Eddie and his crew will take really good care to see that it’s done right,” Price said.