Virus-proofing sports facilities presents a big challenge

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The jersey-wearing camaraderie. The scent of sizzling sausages. The buzz before a big game.

The distinctive atmosphere of live sports, that feeling in the air, will return in time as pandemic restrictions are eased. But will that very air be safe in a closed arena with other fans in attendance?

The billions of dollars spent on state-of-the-art sports facilities over the last quarter-century have made high-efficiency air filtration systems more common, thanks in part to the pursuit of green and healthy building certifications. Upgrades will likely increase in the post-coronavirus era, too.

The problem is that even the cleanest of air can’t keep this particular virus from spreading; if someone coughs or sneezes, those droplets are in the air. That means outdoor ballparks have high contaminant potential, too.

“Most of the real risk is going to be short-distance transmission, people sitting within two, three or four seats of each other,” said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “It’s not really about the virus spreading up, getting into the ventilation system and then getting blown out to the entire stadium because this virus doesn’t seem to transmit that way. It doesn’t aerosolize that well.”

The three hours spent in proximity to thousands of others is part of the fan experience. It’s also why major sports leagues have been discussing plans to reopen in empty venues, for now. High-touch areas with the potential to spread the virus — called fomite transmission — are plentiful at the ballgame, of course. Door handles. Stair rails. Restroom fixtures. Concession stands.

Hand washing by now has become a societal norm, but disinfectant arsenals need to be brought up to speed, too.

“I can’t really find good hand sanitizer easily in stores. So think about trying to scale that up, so everybody who comes into U.S. Bank Stadium gets a little bottle of Purel. Things like that can be modestly helpful,” Demmer said.

There is much work to be done. Vigilant sanitizing of the frequent-touch surfaces will be a must. Ramped-up rapid testing capability during pre-entry screening could become common for fans. Minimizing concourse and entry bottlenecks, and maintaining space between non-familial attendees, could be mandatory. Mask-wearing requirements? Maybe.

Most experts, including those at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, believe the primary mode of transmission for COVID-19 is close person-to-person contact through breathing, coughing or sneezing but there’s no consensus on some of the details.

“There’s still widespread disagreement between experts on which mode of transmission dominates for influenza. So the likelihood of us figuring this out soon for this virus is low,” said Joe Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program and an assistant professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “We may never figure it out, but I also think it’s irrelevant because it’s a pandemic and we should be guarding against all of them.”

Including, of course, the air.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers designed the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) scale to measure a filtration system’s effectiveness (from 1-16) at capturing microscopic airborne particles that can make people sick. Not just viruses, but dust, pollen, mold and bacteria. Most experts recommend a MERV rating of 13 or higher, the minimum standard for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

An emerging technology in this area is called bipolar ionization. Connecticut-based AtmosAir has a bipolar ionization air treatment system in about 40 sports venues. Staples Center in Los Angeles was one of the first major sports customers. TD Garden in Boston and Bridgestone Arena in Nashville are among the others who’ve signed on.

The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority approved last year a 10-year contract for a little more than $1 million with AtmosAir to install its system in U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Vikings and the first indoor NFL stadium to use it. The building, which measures 1.8 million square feet, has 53 air handling units with AtmosAir tubes installed, including 30 in the seating bowl.

The ions act like fresh air, reducing the amount of outside air needed to be introduced for the cleansing process. The protein spikes in the coronavirus particles make them easier to catch and kill, said Philip Tierno, a New York University School of Medicine professor of microbiology and pathology.

Said AtmosAir founder and CEO Steve Levine: “We’re never going to create a mountaintop, but we’re going to put in maybe three to four times the ions over the ambient air and then let those ions attack different pollutants in the air. The ions grab onto particles and spores and make them bigger and heavier, so they’re much easier to filter out of the air.”

The next time fans do pass through the turnstiles, in a few weeks or a few months, in most cases they will probably encounter an unprecedented level of cleanliness.

“There will be some controls that are visible, extra cleaning and disinfection, but some of it will be invisible, like for what’s happening in the air handling system,” said Allen, the Harvard professor. “The consumers will decide when they feel comfortable going back, and that’s going to depend on what strategies are put in place in these venues and stadiums and arenas and, most importantly, how well these organizations communicate that to the paying public.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.