One week from first kickoff of season, COVID threat still looms

Eric Prisbell27 days
Aritcle written by:Eric PrisbellEric Prisbell

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One week before the first kickoff of the 2021 college football season, the sport once again is colliding head-on with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Circumstances are different this season — a vaccine is here … but so is the more contagious Delta variant

You don’t have to traffic in epidemiology to see that the region of the country where fans are most zealous about college football also is the area with some of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates. What does all this mean for autumn Saturdays in packed stadiums? Well, it’s complicated.

Dr. Zach Binney, a noted epidemiologist at Emory University, stopped short of calling SEC games potential super-spreader events, even if played in 100 percent capacity stadiums without mask mandates. A percentage of fans in attendance will be vaccinated, and transmission of even the Delta variant is more difficult outdoors. That said, he added that it’s quite possible that some case clusters will emerge from packed stadium environments and “bordering on likely” that some spread will occur in the actual game-day environment. 

“I am of two minds: I am very concerned that we will see some cases, and some number of people will get very sick or die due to COVID-19 at full capacity, mask-less college football games this fall,” Binney told On3. “Am I worried about the impact on population scale? Do I think thousands and thousands of deaths will be traced to these games? No, I don’t. So I am mixed.”

Binney’s advice to administrators at schools in communities with the highest rates of spread would be to consider reducing the attendance capacity threshold to 75 percent and/or issuing a mask mandate for fans (ideally, both safety measures, he said). He said a stadium mask mandate should be enforced with security and an “absolute ironclad will to throw someone out of the game if they refuse to wear a mask.” He also made clear his recommendations to schools would vary based on COVID data in the respective communities.

One athletic director who wished to remain anonymous told On3, “We’re hoping the vast majority at our events will be vaccinated. What I don’t want to do is penalize those that have done everything we’ve asked them to do — get vaccinated and wear masks. By saying, ‘We’re not going to have fans or we’re going to limit fans,’ I feel like I’m punishing the ones that have done the things we’ve asked them to do.”

A source in the ticketing space whose company partners with high-profile schools has said “everyone is bracing for what may come.” That source said in a text message Thursday that while concern is “low” at the moment that schools will begin limiting capacity, the next two weeks are critical. If some schools return to social-distancing measures in seating configurations, it will have a significant impact on gate receipts for already cash-strapped athletic departments.

COVID protocols different everywhere

Hawaii announced Friday that fans will not be allowed to attend UH sporting events to begin the 2021-22 school year. Early this month, Tulane became the first known FBS school to require proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test within 72 hours to attend athletic events. Oregon and Oregon State announced the same policy Friday for fans older than 12. Protocols elsewhere run the gamut. For instance, Los Angeles County is requiring masks for all large outdoor events; masks are not required at Arizona home games; and fans are encouraged but not required to wear masks in outdoor areas of Michigan Stadium.

Weddings and indoor dining are larger overall concerns, Binney said, but college football environments — especially packed venues — happen to be the most visible each Saturday on national TV. Last season, without the Delta variant and without vaccines, Binney said there is strong evidence that with limited venue capacity there was not a substantial contribution to community transmission. 

In an Associated Press-NORC poll released Friday, a majority of Americans (56 percent) favor requiring people to be fully vaccinated against COVID to attend crowded public events, such as movies or sporting events. In the entertainment space amid rising infection rates, Garth Brooks has canceled his next five stadium tour dates, while Stevie Nicks, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Limp Bizkit and Korn also have announced cancellations. At this point in college football, it’s play on. 

“I think we are going to have to learn to live with COVID,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown told the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum on Wednesday. “And we can’t just shut everything down, so let’s be safe, let’s be smart. I don’t like wearing a mask, but I need to. My age group is at risk, obviously. So our players have bought in. … I’m really hopeful that we have fans in the stands and fans have to be responsible, make sure we continue to keep it that way.

“Hopefully we can get back to some of the pageantry and traditions with our bands and cheerleaders and walks, all of those things, and have a more normal year, even though it looks like for the near future, for sure, we are at least going to be wearing masks.”

The five games involving FBS teams next Saturday:

Nebraska at Illinois, 1 p.m. ET, Fox

UConn at Fresno State, 2 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network

Hawaii at UCLA, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

UTEP at New Mexico State, 9:30 p.m. ET, Bally Sports Arizona

Southern Utah at San Jose State, 10 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network