Less than two months after the return of full-capacity crowds at Seattle-area sporting events, the rise of the COVID-19 delta variant has forced the return of restrictions to arenas and stadiums.
"The delta variant has kind of changed the rules of the game a little bit for all of us after kind of expecting we were turning a corner for us last spring," said Dr. Janet Baseman, a professor at the University of Washington's epidemiology department.
On Aug. 18, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee brought back a statewide mask mandate and required COVID-19 vaccinations for staff at public, private and charter schools as Washington hospitals struggle with a shortage of health-care workers.
Inslee's mask mandates also apply to Washington's sports teams, which welcomed back full-capacity crowds when the state reopened June 30. On Aug. 18, the Seahawks implemented new regulations in accordance with the mask mandate.
In a team statement, the Seahawks announced they were strongly recommending that fans attending their Aug. 21 preseason game against the Denver Broncos at Lumen Field wear masks regardless of vaccinations status. Additionally, following Inslee's mask mandate, masks will be required in indoor areas of the stadium.
The team also announced that 300 hand-sanitizer stations had been installed at the stadium, along with touchless technology in bathrooms, contactless concession options and self-service kiosks. Social distancing in high-traffic areas will be expected, and cleaning and disinfection services will be increased during games.
The Seahawks were joined by OL Reign, which Aug. 19 announced that masks will be required at all indoor spaces for games at Tacoma's Cheney Stadium.
The Storm, returning from a long road trip for a home game Friday, also is requiring masks inside Everett's Angel of the Winds Arena and has gone cashless to avoid contact at concessions stands.
On Monday, the Mariners updated their policies, requiring masks for indoor areas of T-Mobile Park for fans age 5 and older. Face coverings are not required while fans are in their seats or in private suites, but the Mariners are strongly encouraging all fans to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status in all parts of the ballpark. All employees at T-Mobile Park will be required to mask up.
"From the beginning of the pandemic, the Mariners have made the health and safety of our fans, staff and players our top priority," senior vice president of ballpark operations Trevor Gooby said in a team statement. "Public health and medical experts have advised us that masks are effective against the spread of COVID including the highly transmissible Delta variant."
The Sounders announced new regulations Tuesday, ahead of their doubleheader event with the Reign on Sunday at Lumen Field. Like the Mariners, the Sounders will require masks indoors at the stadium for fans age 5 and older, and the stadium will have similar COVID amenities to Seahawks games.
"While Sounders FC has been thrilled to welcome fans back to matches this season, we recognize this pandemic has not ended," Peter Tomozawa, a Sounders owner and the president of business operations, said in a statement.
UW, meanwhile, hasn't announced any regulations for football fans attending games at Husky Stadium, but spokesman Jay Hilbrands said the Athletic Department returned to wearing masks indoors Aug. 14, when the university updated its mask policy.
And for high-school sports, masks are not required for outdoor events. Masks are required for indoor events, and fans are encouraged to sit in "family units" and be separated by 3 feet.
Baseman believes teams have been sensitive to the types of intervention they can use to protect players, but she says fans are likely at a higher risk due to their close contact, especially indoors.
She said individuals must come to terms with their own comfort level doing particular activities. Though Baseman isn't comfortable attending sporting events, especially indoors, she recommended some best practices for those who do attend.
Baseman said the best way to protect themselves is to get vaccinated. She also said purchasing a high-quality mask that fits correctly will go a long way toward protecting people and those around them.
"That can really go a long way to improving someone's safety," she said.
However, Baseman also pointed out that even with masks and vaccines, there are risks. She said children who can't get vaccinated, people with preexisting conditions who are unable to get the vaccine and older individuals are particularly at risk at sporting events.
Fans at outside arenas can be at risk of contracting COVID-19, even if it's slightly lower risk than at indoor venues. Baseman said sitting outside in a crowd brings a considerably higher risk of transmission than other outside activities, such as hiking at a local park, because of the delta variant's contagious traits. However, she said following the new guidelines will go a long way toward keeping people safe.
"We're not going to be on this upward trajectory forever," Baseman said. "But there are these things we're going to need to do in the meantime so that we can keep as many people safe as possible, keep our health-care systems functioning as best we can ... and just kind of getting us over the hump until we can be on a downward trajectory and get our cases down."