Ahead of Super Bowl, Californians more cautious about COVID-19

Super Bowl LVI is arriving as a nationwide coronavirus surge wanes, yet Californians are feeling more cautious about game-day protocols than much of the rest of the country. Some fear the massive sporting event in Inglewood could spark a new outbreak and set back the region’s progress against the pandemic.

“I hope it’s not a ‘Super-spreader Bowl,’” Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said during a news conference this week. “Because that would be very upsetting to all the work that we’ve done, all the sacrifices that people have made — that one game on a Sunday afternoon in L.A. County could in any way negatively impact our progress.”

Many Californians are taking measures to keep that from happening: 52% of Golden State residents who plan to watch the Rams-Bengals showdown say they’ll do so alone or with fewer people than normal because of COVID-19 concerns, compared to 41% of people nationwide, according to a new L.A. Times/SurveyMonkey poll.

In the Bengals’ home state of Ohio, the number was even lower, 32%.

The finding highlights how California’s approach to the pandemic has diverged from much of the rest of the country, including some of the strictest protocols in the nation. It also indicates that the state’s measured approach has trickled down to many of its residents.

“The results of the poll are encouraging to show that Californians, on the whole, are still taking this seriously and trying to do their part in making their own home gatherings such that they are safer environments,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

The survey, which was conducted between Feb. 1 and Feb. 7, also marks the culmination of a long, fraught road to Sunday’s game, which arrives only weeks after the highly contagious Omicron variant nearly crippled Southern California’s healthcare system as it ripped through the region.

At the end of last month, a firestorm over photos of maskless politicians and celebrities — including Gov. Gavin Newsom and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti — during the NFC championship game at the stadium sparked outrage among residents and prompted one L.A. official to call for a review of the county’s strict mask mandates.

Yet despite some cries for looser protocols, the poll revealed that many Californians — and Angelenos, in particular — are feeling hesitant about the game, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area.

Almost two-thirds of people in the Greater Los Angeles area expressed some concern that the Super Bowl will lead to an outbreak of the coronavirus, the poll found, with 36% saying it’s “somewhat likely” and 27% saying it’s “highly likely.”

West Hollywood resident Charles Gardner was one such person, noting that he thought the event could be a “super-spreader” in the county.

“We are one traveler away from the next big outbreak of a new strain,” said Gardner, 48.

City, county and SoFi Stadium officials have said they will require Super Bowl attendees to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test result in order to enter the stadium, and guests must wear masks at all times except when eating or drinking.

Many of the locals surveyed expressed faith that the measures — if followed — will have a positive effect on public health: 44% of L.A.-area residents and 42% of Californians said masks and other game-day protocols at the stadium will have a “major impact” on controlling the spread of the virus.

Only 35% of respondents nationwide and 31% of Ohioans felt the same way.

But even some Angelenos were skeptical about the likelihood of following through with those plans.

“Every week for the last 20 weeks, SoFi has hosted a football game,” said Marcus Frye, a 35-year-old resident of downtown Los Angeles. “Masks are encouraged, and ‘proof of vaccines’ are needed. But once people get inside the stadium, 80% of the fans have their masks off.”

Kim-Farley, the epidemiologist, said that all of the safety measures will provide added layers of protection, but that “it’s really, in a sense, also up to the individuals who are participating in the Super Bowl to also follow that guidance.”

And though COVID-19 outbreaks were recorded after the Dodgers and Lakers championship wins in 2020, Kim-Farley noted that those events happened before the emergence of vaccines and booster shots — and before many people developed immunity from contracting the disease.

“Therefore, the number of susceptible individuals still in Los Angeles is much reduced compared to what it was two years ago, so that one would not anticipate any major surge,” he said.

More than 70% of L.A. County residents and 69% of Californians are fully vaccinated, according to The Times’ tracker.

Still, L.A. County officials are banking on residents sticking to the protocols, both at home and in the stadium. More than half the nation has indicated plans to watch the game.

“We have survived the past two years by taking care of each other and using the tools available to reduce spread of this damaging virus. We can do the same for the Super Bowl,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said, adding: “Let’s rely on each other to stay safe by taking those small steps that make a difference.”

But while Californians as a whole displayed more faith in masks and vaccinations — and more concerns about large gatherings — not everyone was on the same page. The survey revealed some notable divergences along party lines and other groups within the state.

While 57% of Democrats polled in California said they will watch the game with fewer people due to COVID-19 concerns, only 26% of Republicans said the same. Republicans also were more optimistic about viral spread: just under half said an outbreak is somewhat or very likely, compared to about 80% of Democrats.

Women, too, were more likely to say they would watch the game with fewer people, as were college-educated people and people between the ages of 35 and 64, the poll found.

Nationwide and in the L.A. area, people of color also were more likely to say that the pandemic was having an impact on how they would watch the game. Across the country, 63% of Black respondents, 54% of Latino respondents and 68% of Asian American respondents said they would watch either alone or with fewer people than normal, compared with 30% of white respondents.

State and county officials are in some ways similarly conflicted about what comes next. California officials this week announced plans to lift indoor mask mandates for vaccinated residents on Wednesday, three days after the Super Bowl, but L.A. County said it probably will keep its mandate for several weeks longer.

And while different states have taken different approaches to the pandemic, the outcomes haven’t always been that far apart.

Florida’s approach to the pandemic has been generally more lax than California’s, but in a news conference after Super Bowl LV in Tampa last year, Hillsborough County epidemiologist Michael Wiese said only about 57 cases were officially linked to that game.

However, he noted, case rates did increase in the weeks following the game, probably because of people gathering in homes, bars and restaurants. The stadium also was not filled to capacity.

“We didn’t really have a lot that was associated directly with the Super Bowl,” Wiese said. “We do know that the community kind of celebrated and got together in response to the events, which did show some increase in the transmission during the weeks afterward.”

While some on the West Coast may be taking more precautions this weekend, most won’t be sitting out the game altogether. According to the poll, 47% of Californians and 58% of people nationwide said the pandemic has had no impact on their Super Bowl plans whatsoever.

Times staff writer Luke Money contributed to this report.

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