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As the coronavirus pandemic forces all sports leagues to evaluate how to once again host thousands of fans at stadiums across the country, at least one prominent data scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says there are steps teams can take that will make arenas “as safe as public parks.”

Professor Alex Pentland, the head of the human dynamic lab at MIT, released a white paper this week suggesting companies can use digital tools to help create safer environments — and told ESPN there are applications to sports as well.

“The big things are distancing practices,” such as asking fans to wear masks, Pentland said.

Other steps Pentland recommends include filling only half the seats to maintain distancing (families can sit together) and checking fans’ temperature as they enter the stadium. Checking temperature “detects infection surprisingly well,” he said.

The virus has decimated the sports world with the NBA and NHL suspending seasons indefinitely and Major League Baseball postponing the start of its season. The NCAA basketball tournaments also were canceled, as were college spring sports.

Pentland said what would be perhaps the most dramatic change to the gameday experience are his recommendations on regulating pedestrian traffic flow within the stadium. Pentland suggests teams make aisles one way — think of a one-way street — so fans aren’t crossing each other.

He also recommends fans who are seated in the same location enter from one gate and then sit together, because it “helps keep outbreaks localized to one physical area.”

Any gameday staff that cut across areas should be, Pentland said, “safe,” meaning people who would not transmit the virus.

“If you can do this,” Pentland said, “then I think that sports events may become nearly as safe as public parks.”


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