By Doug Behar, Allen Hershkowitz

Guidance counselor (and Yankees fan) Lissette Gonzalez of South Bronx Prep received the 10,000th dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine administered at Yankee Stadium, from Dr. Juan Tapia on Feb. 12, one of over 20,000 vaccinations given at the ballpark to date. PHOTO: KEVIN P. COUGHLIN / OFFICE OF GOV. ANDREW M. CUOMO

Today’s guest columnists are Doug Behar, senior vice president of stadium operations for the New York Yankees, and Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, environmental science adviser to the New York Yankees.

Not since World War II has the sports industry faced a greater threat to its financial viability and operations. Now, as then, all sports organizations must join together to fight a common enemy. This time the enemy is a deadly virus that has infected more than 112 million people and killed nearly 2.5 million worldwide. In the United States, as of Wednesday, more than 28 million people have been infected, and more than a half million have died from COVID-19. Despite the recent progress, the coronavirus is still ripping across the country. In some regions, hospital beds are scarce, and while new cases are thankfully declining from last month’s peak of 200,000 daily, more than 50,000 new cases are still reported each day, and across the U.S., almost 1,500 people die daily from COVID-19.

Thankfully, progress is being made on the distribution of recently developed vaccines. On Feb. 5, Yankee Stadium opened as a vaccination location for our neighbors in the Bronx, with more than 20,000 people getting the vaccine at the facility thus far. They’re part of the approximately 65 million people who have been vaccinated across the nation, and it’s hoped that more than half of the population in the United States will be vaccinated by midsummer.

Essential though it is, a vaccine is only one of the weapons we need to defeat COVID-19. Moreover, while individual action is critical, it cannot be our only response to the pandemic. To reduce the threat of a spreading virus for the long term, all facilities should adopt the most protective operational policies, maintenance protocols, emergency plans and stakeholder education that medical and building science has to offer. Sports has a role to play here, too.

With sports venues committed to hosting at least some fans, adopting verifiable health and safety protocols is essential. Just this week in New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has allowed venues that can accommodate more than 10,000 people to open at no more than 10% of capacity. Fans who attend will need to provide a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of the event. Across the country, arenas and stadiums will increasingly have to submit venue-specific health and safety documentation to local communities and state departments of health.

The good news is that effective and evolving best practices in sports and events are readily available. The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) has established the WELL Health-Safety Rating to optimize operational policies, maintenance protocols, stakeholder engagement and emergency plans in response to the challenges posed by the pandemic. The New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Lightning and dozens of other sports organizations have enrolled, as well as Royal Albert Hall, the Empire State Building and many other venues.

In addition, the Yankees have teamed with former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona and other experts to co-chair IWBI’s WELL Health-Safety Advisory for Sports and Entertainment, focused on mobilizing the global sport sector in support of a universally agreed upon, medically informed health and safety protocol for venues and events.

As Nelson Mandela reminded us 20 years ago, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” Unfortunately, at a time when the social and economic benefits of sports are needed more than ever, access to this important outlet is heavily restricted, and will remain so until the pandemic ends.

That’s why a smart, safe return to our venues is so vital. Through national and global coordination, and given its unparalleled market influence and cultural visibility, sport can play a uniquely influential role in helping to educate the world about how to reduce the spread of the pandemic. Doing this can save thousands of lives. Nothing is more urgent to address right now, and all government efforts, however effective they might be, need to be complemented by influential private sector initiatives.

Arguably the most critical need right now is providing confidence in local communities that health and safety protocols are grounded on verifiable medical and building science and whose correct implementation is third-party verified. Imagine how influential it would be for all sports venues and events—and their sponsors—to agree on a common, independently verified health and safety platform based on the best medical and building science.

The dramatic challenges we’ve all experienced in the past few months have instigated unprecedented challenges for the sports sector, as it has for all individuals, businesses and communities. To help restore the sporting events that matter so much to people throughout the world, we encourage facilities of all types to optimize operations, maintenance, emergency plans and stakeholder education by enrolling in a third-party program like the WELL Health-Safety Rating, which can verify, review and enhance the totality of a COVID-19 action plan.

Behar has been with the Yankees since 1998 and oversaw the opening of the new Yankee Stadium in 2009. Hershkowitz was a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council for 26 years and is co-chair of the International WELL Building Institute’s WELL Health-Safety Advisory on Sports and Entertainment.

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