As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rip across the country, many Americans have made the difficult decision to hunker down for Thanksgiving — eschewing their usual family gatherings, and possibly even spending the day alone.
The atmosphere at AT&T Stadium outside Dallas, meanwhile, will be markedly different.
The Dallas Cowboys are expected to host tens of thousands of fans at their traditional Thanksgiving Day game against the Washington Football Team on Thursday, possibly matching or exceeding the announced crowd of 31,700 that was on hand for their previous home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It's the type of mass gathering that makes some public health experts uneasy, particularly as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise — both nationally and locally. According to state data, the number of active cases in Tarrant County — where AT&T Stadium is located — has nearly doubled in the past two weeks alone.
"It really makes me anxious," said Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health. "… I know that they’ve done it before. And my hope is that they’ll get away with it. But I worry a lot about events like this, right now, in the middle of this surge. I wish we weren’t doing this with fans."
Cowboys fans cheer during the team's win against the Falcons at AT&T Stadium in Week 2. The Cowboys have averaged more than 25,000 fans at home games this season. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)
Cowboys spokesperson Rich Dalrymple declined to provide a crowd projection or capacity limit for Thursday's game, and a spokesperson for SeatGeek — the team's ticketing partner — declined comment when asked about ticket demand for the game.
The team has outlined a series of COVID-19 countermeasures that have been in place for its games, and touted the unique design of AT&T Stadium as an asset. The stadium has a retractable roof and massive end zone doors, which allow outside air to circulate throughout the stadium during a game. Dalrymple wrote in an email that both the roof and doors would be open Thursday.
"We are absolutely comfortable with the team’s plans (for attendance)," NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy added in an email. "More importantly, local public health experts and authorities have been comfortable with their plans."
In a league where attendance decisions have been left up to individual teams and local health officials, no team has hosted larger crowds than Dallas this season.
The Cowboys have hosted 25,750 fans per game, on average, during the pandemic and single-handedly accounted for more than 17% of the NFL's overall attendance — in just five games. And while six teams have moved to change their attendance plans amid the recent surge in cases, Cowboys officials have shown no signs of following suit.
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