“I feel super comfortable with being here,” says Linda Royer, 57. Linda is with her husband, Chris, also 57, and about 1,500 other fans to watch the Miami Heat play the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 28, the first time season-ticket holders will be allowed back in the AmericanAirlines Arena since March 11, 2020.
The reason for Linda’s comfort? A team of dogs being used to detect Covid-19 as fans enter the arena, a first-of-its-kind innovation from any franchise in sports.
The process is simple. Fans line up outside of the arena while wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing. They are ushered by line into a screening area where a dog briefly sniffs each person. If the dog keeps moving, nothing was detected. If they sit down, that’s a signal for a potential carrier of the virus, and that person, along with all members of their party, are issued a credit for their purchased tickets, information on next steps and then asked to leave the facility immediately.
The Miami Heat have used bomb-detecting dogs for years to search the arena before any major event. But to employ them for the detection of Covid-19 was the result of months of considering various alternatives, while adhering to local and state guidelines regarding large gatherings in Miami-Dade County, where the arena is located. “We didn’t want to pretend that sports were going to come back to any sense of normalcy,” says Matthew Jafarian, Miami’s Executive Vice President of Business Strategy. “But we kept coming back to the fact that we are in a strange position where we want to provide a service but we also want to go above and beyond the standard where if you fly an airplane or go to a restaurant, people are sitting in close proximity and taking their masks off and you’re not being tested. We wanted to go above that standard and create a safer environment.”
And that’s when Aron Shteierman and his company, SNIFF, stepped into the picture. Shteierman recalled reading reports in May 2020 about a man who had begun the process of training dogs to detect Covid-19 through sweat or urine samples. Shteierman began working with companies based in Israel to further expand the process so it could be implemented at a much larger scale. While dogs were in use at airports in Finland and the United Arab Emirates by late 2020, SNIFF was the first company to train dogs to be able to smell people directly, not just collected samples. Comparing results of their proprietary methodology to standard PCR testing, the numbers were comparable and favorable: roughly 92% accuracy.
But while Shteierman refers to working with the Heat as “the best honor of my life,” it was a relationship formed almost by coincidence. He had reached out to Nick Arison, the team’s Chief Executive Officer, regarding the potential for using dogs on cruise line passengers. Nick’s father, Micky, chairs Carnival Corporation’s
Arison put Shteierman in contact with Jafarian soon thereafter, even as the Heat continued to look at “a variety of solutions,” according to Jafarian. They explored the use of PCR and rapid antigen testing, or even breathalyzers that are currently in various stages of development around the globe.
Ultimately, the speed and accuracy of the detection process, in combination with the team’s history of using dogs, won out over other potential options. “We wanted to come up with innovative solutions,” says Jafarian, “but we want to start educating people on exactly how effective these dogs can be. The idea of working dogs is certainly not a new one, as they have been supporting the military and law enforcement agencies for decades. We’re just taking that same concept, and a dog’s amazing abilities for detection, and applying it to Covid.”
Training the dogs isn’t very different from other forms of detection, according to Michael Larkin, SNIFF’s Vice President of Commercial Services. Dogs brought in by SNIFF’s facilities vary in levels of training and experience. But even a dog that has no experience – “a green dog,” says Larkin – will typically take around eight weeks for imprinting on a number of detection services, including Covid-19.
Environmental training is a significant component of how the dogs will be prepared for the unique circumstances of working outside the arena, where traffic, noise, and perhaps even a wayward cat, could theoretically impede detection. “We call them distractors,” says Larkin, “and we add these training components to ensure the dogs stay on task. It’s a unique process but one that has been time-tested on a fundamental level. But when it all comes together, it works very well.”
That was the case on January 28, when Miami welcomed fans back into the arena. Jafarian is quick to point out that the dogs, innovative as they may be, are not a true diagnostic test, but rather just one of many other safety methods being employed by the team.
Additional forms of testing are available on site, if a fan elects to use them, say in the case of an allergy to dogs or in case of phobia (entry is denied unless there’s a negative result and the entire process could last 30-45 minutes, well over a quarter of on-court action). While some retail outlets are open, the arena has converted to a completely cashless system of processing payment, as well as its paperless entry protocols. Guests are encouraged not to bring bags. Sanitizer dispensers are placed throughout the arena, and a new air filtration system has been added. Masks must be worn at all times, and to ensure that, all food and beverages must be consumed outdoors at a covered terrace that faces Biscayne Bay. “We had to find a way to balance these things out,” says Jafarian, “because while we do want to create a good fan experience as best we can, health and safety go well above that.”
By almost any measure, that first night with fans in attendance was both good and safe. “From an operational standpoint, it’s been really, really successful,” says Jafarian. There were no incidents, no signals from the dogs, and while the Heat lost their fifth-straight game, everything else went as expected.
Miami is one of a handful of teams that are currently allowing fans of varying amounts but the first to implement Covid-detecting dogs. Shteierman is confident their trained dogs can be seamlessly incorporated at any other facility. And while working with other NBA teams is a goal, he ultimately sees the service expanding to other industries, as well.
“Any commercial space could utilize this, just as with any security aspect, like the bomb and drug work that gets done in almost every arena, in almost every airport, everywhere, any place that you have mass crowds,” explains Shteierman. “This is our goal, to be deployed in all of those spaces as quickly as possible.”
Jafarian and the team are fully aware that they are being watched closely. But if the environment within the arena was any indication, it was the first step toward certain expansion. Snapshots from the team’s initial rollout weren’t unlike any other home game. Families walk excitedly past the dogs and toward their seats. Fans dance during stops in play, still looking to see themselves on the large jumbotron at center court, and more than the occasional selfie is taken to commemorate the event. The Heat expects to increase the amount of dog teams from four to 10. Up to 3,000 tickets, double the current capacity, will be available for purchase by the end of February.
The Royers plan to be there. “This is the safest place you can be,” says Linda.
Adds Chris, “We love the precautions. It shows that the Heat takes this very safely. And it’s always nice to have a dog’s little wet nose bump up against your hand, too.”