COVID-19 rates spiked in county NASCAR race had 20,000 fans. But officials don't blame the gathering.

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Three weeks have passed since roughly 20,000 fans sat sprinkled throughout the grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway to watch NASCAR’s All-Star Race. The race marked the largest sporting event with spectators since the pandemic shuttered the sports world in March.

In Tennessee’s Sullivan County, where the speedway is located, there has been a spike in positive COVID-19 cases in the weeks following the July 15 race, but public health officials said Wednesday that they have not identified an association or cluster linked to the NASCAR event.

“We were seeing an upswing prior to the race and that upswing has continued at a pretty steady rate,” Dr. Andrew Stephen May, the medical director of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department, told The Charlotte Observer. “But we didn’t actually identify a spike related to the race.”

May said Sullivan County is using a methodology that involves a case investigation and contact tracing. Individuals who test positive are asked to quarantine and complete a questionnaire provided by the CDC that includes two important questions: Have you traveled in the last 14 days? And have you been to any large gatherings or activities in which you could have been exposed to COVID-19?

The questionnaire does not specifically ask whether individuals attended the NASCAR race, but the county was able to earlier identify clusters linked to travel to East Coast beaches, which May said accounted for local increases in positive coronavirus cases in early July. Two weeks after the All-Star Race, which was moved from Charlotte Motor Speedway to Bristol in order to host the event with fans, Sullivan County saw its highest daily number of positive coronavirus tests (60 new cases). As of Tuesday, the county reported 861 cases of COVID-19.

“Back even before the race, we were picking up a bunch from travel associated to the beaches,” May said. “We did identify that, but that was before the event. We did have a problem, but now we’ve got such widespread community transmission. It doesn’t matter where you are here now. The disease is established well within the community.”

May also noted that positive cases are investigated in individuals’ respective home localities. If someone from outside the county tests positive, the case is sent to the jurisdiction where the individual resides. If a NASCAR fan from Charlotte attended the All-Star Race and later tested positive, that would show up in Mecklenburg County data, but not Sullivan County.

May said there is a “complex network of communication” between state and county health departments, but Sullivan County has “not received any notifications” from other jurisdictions about a cluster related to the All-Star Race.

A spokesperson from the Virginia Department of Health confirmed to the Bristol Herald Courier last Friday that it had not received any reports of cases linked to the race.

Following the All-Star Race at Bristol, NASCAR held its O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 race at Texas Motor Speedway with just fewer than 20,000 fans in attendance on July 19. FOX Sports reported last Monday that Denton County, where the speedway is located, had not found an association between positive COVID-19 cases and the NASCAR race. Nearby Tarrant County did not respond to The Observer’s requests for information about whether any coronavirus cases had been connected to the race.

Denton and Tarrant counties saw an increase in positive coronavirus cases in July. The spike in new cases in Tarrant County came the week of July 5, while the spike in Denton occurred on July 22, according to data posted by the respective health departments.

Sullivan County, with a much smaller population (158,348 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) than both Texas territories, is now seeing 25 to 28 new cases daily on average over the last week, according to May.

“And it has not let up,” May said. “If we go back to before May, we were only dealing with three to five cases (per day).”

While factors such as more availability of testing and increased willingness to test have likely contributed to more positive cases nationwide, May said he primarily attributes the rising number of cases in his jurisdiction to reopening and travel. And even though Sullivan County did not find a link to NASCAR, that does not necessarily eliminate cause for concern, especially since NASCAR is expected to race at both Bristol and Texas during the playoffs with limited fan attendance. The sanctioning body is also expected to release an updated playoff schedule this week.

“When initial planning for the race had started, we had very, very low levels,” May said. “Now, in the heat of battle, I don’t think any big gatherings are good.”

May recommended that if NASCAR continues to host events with fans, it does so with limited attendance, six-foot spacing and mandatory mask-wearing, as has been standard protocol at all speedways hosting fans so far.

Sunday, NASCAR held a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in which New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu said he expected 12,000 fans to attend; official attendance has not been disclosed. Limited fan attendance will also be permitted at the Daytona races in August. Spectators will not be allowed at upcoming races at Michigan International Speedway nor Dover International Speedway this month.

And if IndyCar is any indication of how the motorsports world is adapting to reports of more positive coronavirus cases, its sanctioning body announced Wednesday it would no longer host its most hallowed event, the Indianapolis 500, with fans in attendance this year after COVID-19 trends in the speedway’s home of Marion County, Ind., worsened. The speedway had previously said it would host the event with 25% fan capacity, a plan that included the submission of an 88-page manual to government and health officials.

“Since our June 26 announcement, the number of cases in Marion County has tripled while the positivity rate has doubled,” a statement from IMS said. “We said from the beginning of the pandemic we would put the health and safety of our community first, and while hosting spectators at a limited capacity with our robust plan in place was appropriate in late June, it is not the right path forward based on the current environment.”

Although links between fans at NASCAR races and increasing positive coronavirus tests in those locations have so far not been identified by health officials, the sport has said it will continue to adapt its policies to “ensure the safety of our competitors, officials and all those in the local community.”

What that looks like could change, and the speedways and NASCAR will have to confront two tough questions regarding fans at races: What is allowed and what is right? The answers might not be the same.

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©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)