Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford, Conn., is fitted with touchless systems that can help prevent the spread of viruses. (Courtesy Pendulum Studio)

Alternatives to stainless steel surfaces, adjustments to buffets may lie ahead, they say

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, architects are having internal discussions about how things will change in the design of sports and entertainment facilities to provide greater protection for spectators and venue workers.

Expanding touchless technology in suites and clubs, restrooms and office spaces; using materials other than stainless steel to build hard surfaces that are more resistant to germs; and embracing security-related systems such as thermal screening are a few examples that designers are talking about as additional layers of protection.

Operationally, expect to see changes in food preparation and presentation and cleaning procedures, they added. 

It’s all in the concept stage at this point, but the virus has people talking about what’s next to help make fans feel more comfortable once sports, concerts and other events fill event calendars again, according to designers.

“Automation is kind of the low-hanging fruit,” said Jonathan Cole, founding principal of Pendulum Studio, a firm specializing in minor league baseball and MLB spring training facilities. “What we’re going to see is a lot more touchless everything. We’ve seen it as a norm in the industry as far as how we deal with washing hands and things like that. Same with automated door openers.”

As a result of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Cole said, federal, state and local municipalities will most likely increase the requirements tied to mechanical systems for ventilation. Those standards are already at a high level for air exchange in locker rooms, for example, to keep damp air out of those areas, he said.

The view in from an outfield party deck toward home plate at Dunkin’ Donuts Park. (Courtesy Pendulum Studio)

Pendulum Studio designed Dunkin’ Donuts Park, which opened in 2017 as the home of the Hartford (Conn.) Yard Goats, the Colorado Rockies’ Class AA affiliate. Touchless systems are distributed around the 6,121-seat facility.

Energy cost savings initially drove the use of the technology, but now it can help reduce the risk of spreading infectious diseases.

“When we were working at the ballpark just before the (shutdown), we were so appreciative of the hands-free lights, sinks, soap dispensers and hand dryers,” team President Tim Restall said. “You realize how much you (would normally) touch these things. One thing we did was go around every morning and prop all the doors open.You don’t want to touch the door handles.” 

In that respect, the number of automated doors at public assembly venues will most likely increase beyond those already in place to assist physically disabled patrons with a push of a button. In the future, cabinet doors and drawers could also feature the technology, Cole said.

Touchless technology comes at a higher cost. In the restrooms, the premium runs $150 to $350 a fixture, depending on whether it’s battery powered or hard wired, he said. In the past, those items may have been dropped from projects due to the greater expense. Now, with the pandemic, the tradeoff is saving lives, architects said.

“That will change now,” said Don Dethlefs, a principal with Perkins & Will in the sports, recreation and entertainment group. “Remember that movie with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt (“As Good As It Gets”) where he plays a germaphobe? It’s not so funny anymore. We want faucets, soap and paper towels that you don’t have to touch.”

As part of facial recognition and thermal screening technology, additional steps could be taken to alert venue officials to patrons carrying contagious disease, given the resolution of privacy issues, according to architect Matt Rossetti.

One company, Boston-based True Tickets, which is working with the ticketing arm of Broadway theater operator the Schubert Organization, is developing such a system tied to blockchain technology.

“We’re all dying to get rid of the paper ticket and have everything on our hand-held (devices),” said Rossetti, president of Rossetti. “There’s no reason the hand-held couldn’t provide a medical analysis at the same time. It would go against all HIPAA regulations, but so be it. Maybe that’s what it takes. One of the things that may happen … is places of congregation become their own totalitarian regime. If you choose to join one of these concepts, you write off any of those restrictions.”

“You don’t let strangers into your house,” Rossetti said. “I’m not so sure it can’t apply to public assembly.”

Food service is another concern in terms of the buffet-style presentations vendors operate at arenas and stadiums.

Bill Johnson, design principal with HOK, had a call scheduled this week with Levy senior vice president Denise Gaffney-Nawrocki as part of checking in with industry contacts on a periodic basis.

“The thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is just all of the food and beverage in general,” Johnson said. “We’re all going to have to rethink a lot of it. In any concourse, there are concession stands with open condiments such as relish, onions, mustard and ketchup, and those are things that probably aren’t going to survive (the crisis). Plus, there’s been a shift to more self-serve soda systems and that’s where most germs hang out.”

For Johnson, the biggest concern are the premium clubs that feature display cooking and action stations where the food is prepared in front of the guest in an open setting compared with private kitchens and commissaries.

“I can’t imagine we’re ever going to go back to open buffets of food,” he said. “We’re seeing a shift to all-inclusive. The whole idea was people love being in these clubs where you can graze and pick and choose things to eat. All those things have to be re-considered now.”

In Hartford, Professional Sports Catering, which is part of Levy, will have its staff members serve items from buffets in the picnic areas and party decks. The change takes effect whenever baseball season starts, Restall said.

“One person will be using tongs now instead of 300 people,” he said.

Buffets may not go away completely, but adjustments will be made with further layers of protection, food consultant Chris Bigelow said. In addition, health departments and food providers will adopt more stringent guidelines for health screenings of employees, Bigelow said.

“Short term, until the vaccine is developed, readily available and administered, you will see self-service options closed,” Bigelow said. “Once the banquets return, there will be no preset salads, desserts, bread and butter, water and other beverages.” 

There could also be a shift in the materials used to build countertops and other surfaces. The COVID-19 strain reportedly survives longer on stainless steel than on copper and brass surfaces, which could potentially affect decisions made in the design phase.

“Concession stands have steel countertops where everybody leans their hands on as they’re getting their food,” said Nate Appleman, HOK’s director of sports, recreation and entertainment. “You start to think about where those touch points are, not only for spectators but the workers. It goes both ways.”

In the end, stakeholders must do the research to make the buildings as safe as possible, Dethlefs said.

“It’s ironic because everyone thinks stainless steel is easy to clean and it’s used in kitchens over and over,” he said. “The real question is whether it holds up to chemicals. Until you hit the bleach on it, you don’t really know.”

The crisis will most likely result in upgraded sanitation standards for sports and entertainment facilities, said Gerardo Prado, HNTB’s vice president and sports group director.

“There will be more sensitivity to bacteria, which may require stadium and arena operators to provide an increased number of hand sanitizers, allocate more cleaning staff and outsource it with more frequency,” Prado said. “It’s hard to determine what will change until we get past this time and come together with our clients to assess areas for improvement.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since it was originally posted.