Indoor Venues a Danger for Tokyo 2020

(ATR) Two eminent engineers say the indoor-heavy nature of the Olympics and Covid-19 make for a terrifying combination.

(ATR) Two eminent engineers say the indoor-heavy nature of the Olympics makes Tokyo 2020 a terrifying scenario.

Yugou Li, Professor and Head of Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Hong Kong, has studied the indoor transmission of Covid-19 and said in a series of emails with Around the Rings, there is no way to safely stage the Olympics.

"I really do not know how to make the Olympics safe," was his blunt assessment.

Securing the Olympic Village is the biggest concern for Li. There, too, he has little optimism.

"I really do not know how [to protect athletes]. Perhaps by then, we shall learn more about the virus and get to know how – but I cannot see anything like that right now."

The novel coronavirus spreading the Covid-19 disease is most-readily spread by humans expelling the virus while breathing--a process known as aerosolization. The human capacity to aerosolize the germs is why global public health authorities have urged citizens to wear masks and adopt social-distancing measures.

"My own expertise is about environmental control in indoor settings, and I really do not have a way to keep so many people away from close contacts on their way to the competition city, local travel and living together," Li warned.

Pratim Biswas, the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering chairman at Washington University in St. Louis says there’s another challenge with indoor venues and it is all but impossible to solve for an Olympics.

"Typically in homes and stadiums we don’t have such a high ventilation rate," Biswas said.

Ventilation is critical for safely removing airborne particles potentially carrying the SARS-Cov2 virus or other diseases transmitted through the air. Biswas’ research into the coronavirus afflicting the world found that a particle expelled in activities such as yelling extends the lifetime of the particle from 8.3 minutes to 12 hours.

Having large crowds at venues, Biswas intoned is "very problematic--that would put it very mildly.

"The same rules of physically distancing, wearing masks becomes very important even then."

Smaller venues, warns Biswas, pose a greater risk from an environmental engineering standpoint.

"Proximity is the dictating factor," controlling the spread of the coronavirus. "If I maintain physical distancing of 10 feet but in a smaller arena it needs to be bigger."

Unfortunately, Biswas said there are no guidelines to say just how much distance should be maintained.

"It depends on the size of the room, it depends on the ventilation."

Biswas said he is a big Olympics and basketball fan. He started graduate studies in Los Angeles before the 1984 Olympics where he saw the opening ceremony ("of course India still had a good hockey team" lamented the Indian-born Biswas) and took his children to the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.

Merely having spectators in attendance for events is "a tremendous risk" and Biswas recommends restricting spectator size during the Games. Should fans be allowed, Biswas says organizers need to erect barriers to the field of play as a way to protect athletes and support staff.

In the Olympic Village, Biswas said it’s "feasible" to design a system whereby Olympians and their entourages have safe air. But, introducing spectators into the mix could undermine the best-laid plans to keep Olympians safe.

"That becomes extremely complex and high risk," Biswas said of spectators.

"Let’s just hope that there is a vaccine by then."

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