They may be in the midst of a miserable 2–7 season, but the Dallas Cowboys have still managed to break some records this year. The team set a “COVID-19 pandemic attendance record” on Nov. 8, when 31,700 fans flocked to AT&T Stadium to watch the team lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a notable achievement, much like winning an award for staring at the sun longer than anyone else.
The Cowboys are one of 18 franchises that have hosted some fans at games this year, a decision that the NFL has permitted each team to make since the start of the season. Given the recent sharp spike in COVID cases and hospitalizations, some of those organizations will be decreasing or otherwise limiting attendance. Dallas, meanwhile, is not following suit. The team has had more in-person attendance than any other NFL team this season (128,750 total fans over five home games), and their plan in the face of the third wave of the pandemic is to host more people at their games.
“My plan was to increase our fans as we went through the season and move the numbers up, and we followed that plan,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told Dallas’ 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday. Those “numbers” he’s referring to aren’t the number of positive COVID cases in Texas (more than 1 million, the most in the nation), or the number of new deaths each day in the state (230 on Thursday). He’s talking about the number of people he’s allowing to come into AT&T Stadium and watch Ezekiel Elliott fumble the ball.
“That’s not being insensitive to the fact that we’ve got COVID, an outbreak,” Jones continued. “Some people say, ‘Well maybe it is.’ No, not when you’re doing it as safe as we are and not when you’re having the results we’re having. We’ve had literally, literally we’ve had no one report that they’ve had contact and gotten any contact with COVID from coming to our football games—no one.”
It took just one day for his claim of miraculous Cowboys immunity to come undone. Officials in Texas’ Tarrant County announced on Wednesday that eight people who tested positive for COVID-19 informed contact tracers that they had attended a game at AT&T Stadium in the weeks leading up to their tests. According to reports, they traced the patients to four home games:
• One person at the Cleveland Browns game (Oct. 4)
• Three people at the New York Giants game (Oct. 11)
• Three people at the Arizona Cardinals game (Oct. 19)
• One person at the Steelers game (Nov. 8)
While that doesn’t necessarily mean the patients contracted or spread the virus at those games, it does underline the fact that when you get tens of thousands of people together during an uncontrolled pandemic, the virus is going to show up too.
AT&T Stadium officials sent a written statement to Dallas’ WFAA on Wednesday saying they had not been notified by the county about its findings. Slate reached out to the Cowboys to ask if and when the team learned about the contact tracers’ report and whether they will continue to have fans at their games. We have not received a response.
The Cowboys had 21,708 fans in the stands for their home opener against the Atlanta Falcons, and attendance at AT&T Stadium has risen for each home game since. If the trend continues as Jerry Jones intends, then more than 30,000 fans will be at the next home game, against the Washington Football Team on Thanksgiving. “We’ve almost a third of the attendance in the NFL, the whole NFL, in our games,” he said on Tuesday. “I’m proud of that.”
There is no completely safe way to host fans at sporting events in the middle of a raging pandemic. As global health researcher Abraar Karan told me, “You’re going to have aerosol-based spread. Aerosols don’t respect 6 feet. They spread most effectively indoors and in crowds.” Still, Jerry Jones is confident that his arena has magical powers. “Our stadium is particularly suited for airiness, openness, air circulation, and it’s borne out,” he said.
That Jerry Jones speaks more confidently about the virus’s behavior than any epidemiologist shouldn’t be a surprise, but it should be noted that there have not been any peer-reviewed studies about the preventative power of Cowboys football against COVID-19. AT&T Stadium has a retractable roof and large, openable doors behind each end zone, but the full airflow created by those features will not reach interior parts of the stadium like concourses or bathrooms where fans congregate. The team does have a mask policy, but its website states exceptions for “when [fans] are actively eating or drinking or if under ten years of age.” And a quick photo search sows doubt on how stringently that policy is enforced. It doesn’t matter how nice the arena is: Putting 30,000 eating, shouting people in one place is a horrendously bad idea.
Ideally, these decisions wouldn’t be made by profit-hungry team owners. In the absence of a functioning federal government, it’s up to local and state authorities to put the kibosh on massive, in-person sporting events. That’s what happened in San Francisco, when the city recently rejected the Golden State Warriors’ plan to use rapid COVID testing to host 9,000 fans in their arena. But Texas allows up to 50 percent capacity at sporting events, meaning the Cowboys can have as many as 40,000 fans inside AT&T Stadium.
The NFL could intervene too, but it has demonstrated little interest in doing the bare minimum. On Wednesday, the league initiated more intensive safety protocols in response to the pandemic’s spike, but those rules only address players and team personnel. The health and safety of fans is still in the hands of people who are financially incentivized to ignore the health and safety of fans.
As such, the very-best-case scenario for the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game is that tens of thousands of people will get to watch two terrible football teams for three hours, and that none of them will contract the highly contagious and deadly virus that thrives in screaming crowds. Say what you will about the Titanic, but White Star Line never tried to force NFC East football on its passengers as they sailed through the North Atlantic.