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Illustration by Security Management

Prepping for Super Bowl Sunday During a Pandemic

Super Bowl Sunday is one of the biggest annual events in the United States, traditionally spurring mass sales of chicken wings, watch parties, and gatherings of thousands of fans to the host city to watch two teams battle it out to become the season champion.

But Super Bowl Sunday in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic will look drastically different in Tampa Bay, Florida, as authorities look to balance the fan experience with coronavirus mitigation measures along with the traditional security measures required for an event with a Special Event Assessment Rating.

Originally, Los Angeles planned to host Super Bowl LV in 2021 at the stadium it’s building for the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers. But construction delays pushed the stadium’s opening date back to 2020 and NFL rules require stadiums to be open for two full seasons to host the Super Bowl, according to Bleacher Report.

That decision was made prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and while the NFL made several concessions throughout the 2020-2021 season, it chose not to move the date of Super Bowl LV back or restrict fans—entirely—from attending to see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Kansas City Chiefs. Instead, 25,000 fans will be allowed to attend the game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay—roughly one-third the capacity of the stadium, with 7,500 seats reserved for vaccinated healthcare workers.

Fans who attend the game will receive kits of hand sanitizer and K95 masks. Mask-wearing is mandatory for attendance, said NFL Executive Jeff Miller, and the league has created customized entry points for fans to enter the stadium to help ensure social distancing. The NFL also changed how it sold tickets for the Super Bowl, selling tickets in groups of two to six to allow people to sit in pods that are spaced out from one another.

Super Bowl LV Health and Safety by NFL PR

“It’s been a lot of work by a lot of people and a lot of engagement with local, state, and national health officials to do this as safely as can be done,” Miller said in a briefing with CNBC.

Additionally, the stadium itself will undergo major cleaning prior to kickoff and stadium staff will continue to undergo regular health screenings.

“We take very seriously our responsibility to model best behavior and show how we believe one can safely conduct an event of this magnitude,” said NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills.

Health officials, however, have expressed greater concern for the potential for COVID-19 to spread outside of the stadium as Americans gather to watch the game, share food, and drink.

“Yes, bars are open in Florida—and they will be during Sunday’s game,” according to The New York Times. “Some of them are advertising watch parties, though thanks to the mild subtropical winter—the low in Tampa is forecast to be 57 degrees on Sunday—at least some of the festivities can be held outdoors.”

To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the city of Tampa extended its mask wearing mandate and is encouraging people to maintain social distancing.

“Of course, you have to have a concern: We’re in the midst of a pandemic, there’s no denying that, and it’s a virus that is easily transferable,” said Tampa Bay Mayor Jane Castor. “But on the other hand, it can be easily managed if people take the simple steps of wearing masks and separating when possible.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, urged people not to attend Super Bowl parties and instead remain home to watch the game to avoid creating another spike in COVID-19 cases—similar to those seen after Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.

“You don’t want parties with people that you haven’t had much contact with, you just don’t know if they’re infected,” Fauci said in an interview on Good Morning America. “So as difficult as that is, at least this time around, just lay low and cool it.”

While COVID-19 prevention measures are receiving most of the attention this year, traditional security measures will also be paramount going into Sunday’s game. As an event with a Special Event Assessment Rating (SEAR) of 1, the Super Bowl receives “extensive federal interagency support” from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which deployed investigative teams around Tampa to identify and prevent threats to the stadium and fans.

“These teams are primarily responsible for working zones around the city and securing Super Bowl events, such as the NFL experience, different VIP events, and the game itself,” said Mike Paquin, group supervisor for the National Security Group at DHS’s Homeland Security Investigations Tampa. “Their main mission is counterterrorism and looking for anything out of the ordinary.”

One agency highly involved in this effort for DHS is the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) due to the tendency for the Super Bowl to coincide with spikes in counterfeit merchandising sales and human trafficking.

“Tampa and the Tampa Bay area is excited to be hosting the Super Bowl, and despite the challenges of the pandemic, HIS Tampa is working hard to make sure this event is safe for everyone,” said HIS Tampa acting Special Agent in Charge Kevin Sibley. “While our office supports intellectual property crime enforcement and counter-human trafficking missions all year, large-scale events like the Super Bowl typically bring specific types of increased criminal activity and HSI has been proactively working with our law enforcement partners to ensure the safety of our communities and our visitors.”

The private sector can also play a valuable role by training security staff to identify signs of human trafficking, writes Lauren Shapiro in an online exclusive for Security Management.

“Ideally, security managers would incorporate a training requirement for their personnel, particularly because sex trafficking victims are most likely to cross paths with security guards posted in locations corresponding to five critical infrastructure sectors: transportation, healthcare, commercial facilities, government facilities, and the food sector,” she explains.