Around 40,000 youth cheerleaders, coaches and spectators from across the country are expected to attend — prime conditions, according to CDC guidelines, for a possible Covid-19 superspreader event.
The Cheersport National Cheerleading Championship will be held this Saturday and Sunday at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), a 3.9-million-square-foot facility in downtown Atlanta.
“This weekend’s event will bring an estimated 40,000 attendees, which will be our largest event held in our building since the start of the pandemic (using March 12, 2020, for reference as the start date),” GWCC manager of marketing and communications Randy Lieberman said in an email.
The GWCC also hosts a center for Covid-19 patients in one of its buildings.
According to Varsity Spirit, the company that runs Cheersport competitions, no one attending the event will come within a quarter of a mile of the Covid-19 facility, which houses Covid-19 patients with mild to moderate illness.
But because it’s an indoor event with tens of thousands of participants, attendees “assume all risks related to exposure to Covid-19” by taking part, Varsity Spirit said in its guidelines for the weekend.
Varsity Spirit has put restrictions in place to limit or stop Covid-19 transmission.
According to guidelines Varsity Spirit provided to CNN, all coaches and cheer performers are required to wear a mask to enter the building and “during the transitions” between practice and performance. The cheerers don’t need to wear masks during their performance.
The company recommends spectators are capped at two per athlete, but it’s asking spectators to leave the facility once the team they’re supporting has finished performing, according to the company’s Covid-19 guidelines for the event.
The guidelines don’t mention testing or screening attendees, but the company asked anyone with Covid-19 symptoms like a high fever, cough and loss of taste or smell, among others, to stay home.
Another national cheerleading competition hosted by Varsity Spirit, the National Cheerleaders Association All-Star National Championship, is scheduled for later this month — but the Dallas event is a virtual one. Competitors will upload videos of their performances to be viewed by judges, who will award awards virtually, too.
A spokesperson for Varsity Spirit told CNN that “every event is reviewed independently,” and decisions to hold a live event versus a virtual one depends on guidance from local health authorities and the venue, among other considerations.
A GWCC spokesperson told CNN that “While we cannot guarantee someone’s safety, we are confident that we are doing all that we can to create a safe environment.”
In a statement, the GWCC said its “first priority is the health and safety of our team members and guests. We are adhering to all recommended CDC guidelines and executive orders as well as implementing a comprehensive mitigation strategy designed to meet the health and safety challenges presented by COVID. We are confident that our efforts, combined with those of our customers, are creating safe environments for events on our campus.”
Based on the expected number of attendees, many of whom are traveling to Atlanta from across the country, the Cheersport event is considered to have the “highest risk” of possible Covid-19 transmission, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC warns that the more people someone interacts with at an event and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the risk of getting infected with Covid-19.
That risk is heightened in an area with high levels of community transmission, the CDC said. Fulton County, the part of Atlanta where the cheer event is taking place, has seen a 9.8% Covid-19 positivity rate over the last two weeks, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s most recent report.
And since the start of the pandemic, Fulton County has seen over 71,000 Covid-19 cases, according to the county’s Covid-19 dashboard. Only nearby Gwinnett County has seen more cases in the state, at over 77,000 cases.
Mercer University School of Medicine assistant professor Amber Schmidtke told CNN affiliate WXIA that timing plays a part here, too — the event is taking place just as the new, more contagious Covid-19 variant is becoming more widespread in Atlanta.
“The fear is that these people will gather and then take the variant home with them to their communities and plant the seed,” Schmidtke told WXIA.
A CDC study from October found that indoor sporting events — even those with far fewer players than the cheerleading competition — can easily turn into superspreading events.
The findings were based on cases linked to a Florida ice hockey game, where 22 players participated and 13 ended up testing positive for coronavirus. Players breathing heavily and coming within close proximity of each other likely contributed to the wide transmission, the CDC researchers said.
CNN has contacted Fulton County health officials and the Georgia Department of Public Health and is waiting to hear back.