When the Phoenix Suns announced a $230 million arena renovation in 2019, a crowd of 1,500 socially-distanced fans was hardly the grand re-opening they had in mind. And yet, when attendees filed through a redesigned pavilion entrance in February after 11 months away, “it was emotional,” Suns SVP and arena general manager Ralph Marchetta said. “It was a big deal for all of us.”
Phoenix Suns Arena boasts larger, all-black seats, theater style lighting, and a video board six times larger than its predecessor. Those elements were planned. But the timing of the construction meant the Suns could easily add pandemic-related updates as well. The new HVAC system came with MERV-13 filters, which trap more particles than their lower rated predecessors. UV cleaning devices were added to the escalator handrails. Bathroom fixtures were made touchless and concession stands cashless.
Even if studies have quieted the early fears that COVID-19 was often being spread on surfaces, Marchetta said making fans feel safe as they return was nearly as important as ensuring their health. A Sportico poll found that many fans—and young ones in particular—expect to go to more events after the pandemic than they did before it. But after a year that’s “been devastating to everybody,” in Marchetta’s words, in which the live events business lost an estimated $30 billion, venue operators aren’t taking anything for granted. Twelve months after the sports world shut down, practical tech implementations, concentrated planning and a little inspiration from the health sector are helping them get back on track, with over half of the NBA now selling tickets.
This time a year ago, Ed Bosco, a managing principal at ME Engineers, was vetting a new COVID-related product a day. He laughs now about one inquiry he got about an ion-based sanitization product that was primarily used on cruise ships, as if that was something his building manager clients would get behind last April. Plenty of mists and sprays proved impractical if not ineffective. Temperature-based scans held early promise but didn’t stick at scale.
Venues with large budgets could invest in electrostatic sprayers, scanners that measure vitals, or screens that connected people at home, but with revenues in freefall, ROI was always a factor.
Sourcing also presented a challenge last year, with prices shooting up six times and wait times stretching past 20 weeks for cleaning solutions, Bosco said. Sports groups were also wary to limit hospitals’ supply. High-quality filters became particularly difficult to find when the same material was being used to create masks. Before the US Open in New York last August, Bosco was unable to find any of the top air cleaners—except for a stockpile in Connecticut that had been built backwards, with the gaskets secured to the wrong side of the filter. That could work, Bosco decided, building 57 air filtration units around the HEPA filters. They are still in use at the facility. “That’s the cleanest air in New York City,” Bosco said.
In most cases, Bosco added, low-tech solutions have won the day. Reopening proved to be more a question of math than science, calculating just how many people can fit in a space while maintaining a safe distance. Often, 25 percent capacity proved to be the answer (Houston is currently the only NBA club hitting that threshold). The other key number turned out to be something called air changes per hour (ACH), or outdoor air ventilation rate.
HKS architects, where 60% of business comes from the healthcare space, were already well versed in the stat, which measures the amount of air coming into a room divided by the size of the space. Some hospitals rooms operate at up to 20 ACH, while a stadium might traditionally have less than six. “All of us have worked on healthcare,” principal and architect Mike Drye said. “A lot of what we did … started to spill out into the rest of the world.”
Many arenas made sure their existing HVAC systems were working properly. “We were looking at these buildings at a level of detail that usually only happens when they are first constructed,” Bosco said. “We normally construct buildings, confirm their performance and assume that the performance remains constant over time.” The resulting fixes made last year as buildings lay dormant should also lead to long-term energy savings. Eventually, though, there is a tradeoff between running the systems to maximize airflow and maintaining precise conditions and/or energy costs. In that sense, responding to today’s health crisis could contribute to tomorrow’s climate catastrophe.
One product Bosco has been evaluating has been around—literally—for years. Nearly 60 year-old chemicals company Grignard has been making theatrical effect materials since 1999, and a number of NBA arenas have used a fluid in vapor form that is naked to the human eye in the air but accentuates lighting effects. In 2015, Grignard learned that the product happened to have anti-microbial properties.
Since last April, it has tested its solution against a virus similar to COVID-19 with promising results. Doctors from Harvard and John Hopkins came aboard for further research. “The application is new, but there have been 100 million exposures without a single health event,” CEO Etienne Grignard said. “People have been utilizing this product at concerts, broadway shows, and houses of worship for over 20 years.” Recent tests have found the chemical could be effective when added to an HVAC system, costing less than $1,000 an event. Grignard has received EPA approval for use in specific locations in Georgia and Tennessee for further evaluation. “This product is not fairy dust,” Grignard said.
Whether it’s a product like Grignard’s or just time that allows buildings to fill up again, plenty of updates from this last year could stick around, including streamlined concessions processes and even apps that tell fans where bathroom lines are shortest. Drye said stadiums will likely also have to meet a pandemic code going forward, providing a plan like they do for fires, hurricanes or mass evacuations. The darkest days of COVID-19 are likely behind us, but health-centric thinking won’t disappear.