In two weeks, the small college town of Oxford, Miss., will do what it does best. It will host a party.
This isn’t just any old soiree—it’s the largest social affair in the state in six months. More than 15,000 people are expected to attend, all gathering on the Ole Miss campus at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, presumably in masks and socially distanced. The Rebels football team will provide the entertainment, colliding with the Florida Gators to kick off the SEC’s 2020 season with a nationally televised 11 a.m. start on Sept. 26.
But while the party rages inside, signs of a pandemic bustle outside. Over the last week, Oxford holds the distinction of producing more new cases of COVID-19 a day (85 per 100,000 people) than any other college town whose school is playing football this fall. The state of Mississippi, in fact, has one of the highest seven-day positivity percentages in the U.S. and owns a higher daily infection rate than all but two states. Those two: Louisiana and Florida, also college football hubs planning to soon host games with as many as 25,000 people present.
According to data from the CDC, seven of the top eight states in highest infection rates are home to at least one SEC team, and nine of the league’s 14 college towns are producing enough cases daily to be deemed sites with “uncontrollable spread,” according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. Harvard’s metric uses a seven-day rolling average of daily new virus cases per 100,000 people. Anything over 25 cases is considered uncontrollable.
If the SEC is bad, the Big 12 is worse. Four of the 10 Big 12 college towns are generating a daily infection rate of at least 50 cases. In data collected from Sept. 1-8, Big 12 college towns have a combined average of 35.8 new cases a day to the SEC’s 35.6, dwarfing all other leagues.
What are the two conferences planning to allow the most fans for home games this fall? The SEC and the Big 12.
“It’s really dangerous,” says Thomas Huard, chief clinical laboratory advisor at the Texas-based Campus Health Project. “It’s going to create spread. People don’t social distance even though the seats are spread apart. You go to the bathroom, hot dog stand, beer stand.
“I think it’s a disaster.”
SEC stadiums will have an average capacity of 22.8% this fall, or about 19,400 per home game. The Big 12 is at 21.6%, or roughly 13,400, but that number is likely to rise. The data incorporate Kansas and West Virginia, which are operating without attendance for the season opener, with plans to potentially allow fans later in the year.
Of the 68 FBS programs that have announced capacity plans this fall, 17 of them will play without fans for at least the first home game of the season. Of those, 10 are planning to re-evaluate the issue as the season progresses, leaving open the door to some form of attendance.
Forty-three of the 68 will have at least 20% capacity. That’s much higher than their professional brethren. Just six of the NFL’s 32 teams will open their season with fans present, and only three of those—the Jaguars, Chiefs and Dolphins—will allow at least 20% capacity.
In the college ranks, capacity doesn’t appear to be determined by local community virus rates. For instance, as recently as 10 days ago, Iowa State planned to have 40% capacity while Ames has a daily infection rate of 61 cases—the eighth-most of any college town that plans on hosting games this fall. The school announced last week it would go fan-less for the season opener after its plan drew scrutiny from local public health officials. Georgia is scheduled to welcome in more than 23,000 fans, seventh most nationally, as Athens holds a whopping 70-case infection rate. Florida State will seat 19,900 despite Tallahassee’s infection rate of 64.
Meanwhile, because of state government restrictions, schools like North Carolina, Wake Forest and North Carolina State will play at least the first few home games with no crowd despite local virus rates at 10 or less. For perspective, no SEC college town has a rate below 14.
“I would not recommend fans be in stadiums,” says Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard. “That would be a disaster.”
But not everyone agrees.
“If you have an outdoor stadium and fans wear face coverings and are six feet apart and are careful about common areas and restrooms, the risk could be mitigated significantly,” says Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the infectious diseases department at the Utah School of Medicine and a member of the Pac-12’s COVID-19 advisory panel. “I think given the right circumstances, that would be managed, but it would require a great deal of discipline and enforcement.”
College programs have invested thousands of dollars in virus-proofing their stadiums, equipping the venues with hand sanitizing stations, prepackaged concession food and extra staffing to police protocols. Some even used drones to blanket seating surfaces in disinfecting chemicals.
Several programs hired architecture firms to create reopening plans. Clemson, for instance, worked with the engineering firm AECOM out of California, and at least 10 more college programs struck agreements with Kansas City-based design firm Populous, says Scott Radecic, one of the company’s founders. Radecic created a new division at the company this summer, College Think Tank, with the sole purpose of crafting venue-readiness plans for clients.
Both AECOM and Populous used computer simulation technology to generate behavior patterns of fans during a typical college game. This crowd-modeling software tracked fan movement in various digital versions of specific venues, identifying areas with the most foot traffic. Simulated fans were encircled by a six foot bubble, their avatars changing colors—from green to yellow to red—depending on how many others interfered with their bubble. The companies used behavior patterns to devise reopening plans.
“One of the keys was how can we try to eliminate as many contacts as we can?” says Radecic. “Every stadium is unique. Concourses are different widths and seating is a different size.”
Still, even with these thoughtful plans, there are doubts. Will fans really obey? Last Thursday in the FBS season opener, Southern Miss welcomed about 9,000 fans into its stadium for an eventual loss against South Alabama. While the school encouraged fans to keep on their masks throughout the game, it permitted them to be removed while seated. A large portion took advantage, eschewing the face coverings immediately upon sitting.
A Populous survey earlier this summer found that 87% of college basketball and college football fans and concert-goers want to return to live events, but only 47% of them were “comfortable” in returning, the survey said. Just two-thirds of those polled said they would follow mask and distance regulations, says Sherri Privitera, who specializes in college projects at Populous. “That was in June,” she says. “We’re hoping that more people, if polled today, would feel differently.”
At South Carolina, athletic director Ray Tanner says he’s confident that the some 20,000 fans he’ll permit into Wiliams-Brice Stadium will adhere to the protocols. Why? “Because they want to watch football,” he says. “They’re excited there’s some live sports going on and in order to continue watching, they’ll have to follow the rules.”
But there is concern, even from those who helped create stadium reopening plans, like Jon Niemuth, director of sports for AECOM. “I’d love to go to see a live music event, but the biggest challenge for me—I’ve got a kid in high school and in college—is peoples’ behavior,” he says. “It’s what other people are doing that makes me anxious and not the environment. I’m confident in the ability of people to run an event safely, but what I can’t control is what everybody around me is doing.”
The community is at stake, too. Some medical experts believe stadiums will become super spreaders of a virus that is already impacting a community or state. Take for instance Alabama, which has the potential to produce some of the biggest crowds in America this fall. Three of its five FBS programs are allowing per-game capacities of 36,000 (UAB), 20,400 (Alabama) and 17,500 (Auburn). Though not expected to max its capacity, UAB is allowing 50% attendance after moving its games to the 71,600-seat Legion Field.
Meanwhile, games in Tuscaloosa and Auburn are expected to reach the 20% threshold, which could produce some issues. The state’s department of health is ready.
“It will challenge our system, but we’ve been actively involved in this since March,” says Karen Landers, the state’s assistant health officer. “When we have a case, and we will, we’ll do contact tracing to the best of our ability.”
The Alabama health department recently added about 100 contract tracers to increase the total to 400, Landers says. She’s advising game-goers to download the GuideSafe phone application to track their movements and later help with potential contact tracing. She has another word of warning for all fans: “Don’t take off your masks,” Landers says.
The state of Alabama has the fifth-highest infection rate total in America. Its border neighbor to the west ranks third. That said, Mississippi schools are permitted to seat one-quarter of their stadiums. “I’m worried about 25%, but I’m very glad it’s not 50%,” says Thomas Dobbs, the state’s health officer.
Like many states, Mississippi has a restriction on outdoor gatherings—a max of 20 people, Dobbs says—but a special executive order from the governor allows Ole Miss and Mississippi State to seat over 15,000 people. For Dobbs, the worry isn’t the game. It’s house parties hosted by those who can’t get into the game. “Being indoors and inviting friends… even if there are only 10 or less, it’s these social gatherings where we’ve had the majority of cases.”
Fans or not, college athletic departments are expecting to lose millions of dollars because of attendance limitations. For Power 5 programs, the primary revenue-generators are ticket sales, donations and television contracts, oftentimes each accounting for 25-35% of a department’s budget. The vast majority of donations are usually tied to ticket sales, increasing their value even more.
The losses are steep. In limiting its capacity to 23% this year, Clemson will be out roughly $40 million, says athletic director Dan Radakovich. And he’s one of the lucky ones, having the advantage of a behemoth for a stadium. Ross Bjork, athletic director at Texas A&M, has a similar luxury, with 102,733-seat Kyle Field. But that’s not the case for his old school, Ole Miss, where he served as athletic director until leaving last year.
In an interview over the summer, Bjork says a 25% or less attendance model could be “devastating” for programs with smaller stadiums. While Ole Miss and Texas A&M are permitted to have a similar percent of capacity, the Aggies can seat about 10,000 more fans, roughly one-third more revenue than Rebels AD Keith Carter can generate.
But not all is lost. Many season-ticket holders are not asking for a refund of their purchase, instead permitting the school to keep the money as a donation. That’s happened at Ole Miss, says Carter. It’s happened at Texas, too. “Speaks volumes for the passion people have for their institution,” UT athletic director Chris Del Conte says.
That’s not the only good news for Del Conte. Texas is in one of the best positions of any college program. Austin has an infection rate of just 5, the fourth best among college towns with schools playing this fall.
Across the nation, though, that’s not the case. About half of the 77 teams planning to play this fall are located in towns with an infection rate of 15 or more, which Harvard describes as “dangerous levels” of spread. With students returning to campuses and in the wake of the Labor Day holiday, more spikes are expected, medical experts say.
So about that party in Oxford...
“It’s a huge challenge,” says Dobbs. “From a health perspective, there is a lot of benefit to delaying. Would it have been preferential to delay? Yeah, of course. Certainly, since it’s something we decided to pursue and it’s a priority, we are going to try to do it in the safest way possible.”