By Eric Levenson, CNN
At Virginia Tech last Friday, the packed crowd bounced to “Enter Sandman.” At the University of Wisconsin the next day, fans jumped around to “Jump Around.”
College football and its crowd traditions are back to their full glory like they were in 2019, before Covid-19 restrictions sharply limited fan attendance in 2020.
Some of the country’s biggest powerhouses — including Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma, to name a few — are hosting games to full capacity on Saturday. And fans who attend these games won’t have to prove their vaccination status, won’t be required to social distance and won’t have to wear masks in their seats.
The return of college football and its unique cultures, which began in earnest last week, are a source of communal bonding for sports fans, yet they also represent a source of anxiety for others.
Generally speaking, large gatherings with people in proximity come with a higher risk for Covid-19, though the stadium’s outdoor settings mitigate that risk. The level of risk also depends on each person’s vaccination status, mask usage and the health of their own immune system. Health experts recommend that anyone attending a sports event try to avoid crowded tailgates, concession stands and other packed indoor areas.
The University of Georgia football team, now ranked No. 2 in the country, is set to play its first home game Saturday at the 92,746-seat Sanford Stadium in Athens against University of Alabama-Birmingham.
Last year’s home games were held with about 20-25% capacity, but there are no such limits on this year’s home games. The university system has also not required vaccines for students and the state is one of the least vaccinated in the country — issues that have added concerns for high-risk community members.
“The football season descending upon us is a cause for a great deal of terror,” said Usree Bhattacharya, a UGA assistant professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education, whose 5-year-old daughter has a rare health issue.
In an interview with CNN, she began to cry as she called on the University System of Georgia to mandate masks and vaccines to better protect people like her daughter, who wears a mask while others are not required to.
“I don’t understand why little kids are being asked to take on responsibilities that adults are not in our community,” she said.
The two sides of the return of sports
Georgia’s general lack of Covid-19 rules is in line with most of its fellow schools in the Southeastern Conference, which are spread across the states with some of the lowest vaccination rates in the US. In the SEC, only Louisiana State University is requiring game attendees over 12 to provide proof of Covid-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test to attend in person. Vanderbilt is the only SEC school with a vaccine mandate for students, faculty and staff on campus.
Both the SEC and NCAA deferred to schools to make their own decisions — based on local and state requirements — when asked what each was doing to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 at football games. Both do have Covid-19 protocols for student-athletes.
“My ask of our fans is to try to take advantage of what science has done,” Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner, said last month.
Georgia’s plan to host such a large crowd comes as the state has fully vaccinated about half of its residents 12 and older, one of the 10 lowest vaccination rates among all states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Athens-Clarke County, where the Bulldogs play, has a “high” rate of Covid-19 community transmission, the CDC says.
Last week marked the full opening of the college football season, and stadiums across the country were packed with fans eager to rejoin the communal sports experience.
In Georgia, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta hosted nearly 72,000 fans for an Alabama-Miami game on Saturday and hosted about 31,000 fans for the Louisville-Ole Miss game on Monday. At both games, the stadium roof was open and masks were required in enclosed spaces but not in open-air areas, and there were no vaccine requirements.
A number of the universities that have packed fans into seats this season require students to be vaccinated, including at large Big Ten schools Michigan (109,000 in attendance), Maryland (44,000) and Illinois (41,000).
These schools are hardly breaking new ground by holding packed games. The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have similarly held full capacity events this summer, and the National Football League will do so when the season begins later this week.
No vaccine or mask mandates at UGA
The University System of Georgia, which runs the state’s colleges and universities, has urged all students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated and encouraged people to wear a mask while inside campus facilities. But it has stopped short of requiring vaccinations or masks.
The system has followed the general policy put forth by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, who has resisted mandating vaccines or mask usage.
UGA’s football team has had its own issues controlling the illness as well. Coach Kirby Smart said last month more than 90% of the team is vaccinated. Still, he said this week the team had its “highest spike” in Covid-19 cases and that several vaccinated players and staff had been diagnosed with breakthrough cases.
“This is the highest we’ve been since fall camp right now,” he said, according to CNN affiliate WXIA. “I think there’s this relief that you guys feel like everything’s back to normal, well it’s really just not for us right now.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday he didn’t think it’s “smart” to attend a crowded sports event.
“Outdoors is always better than indoors, but even when you have such a congregant setting of people close together, first, you should be vaccinated, and when you do have congregant settings, particularly indoors, you should be wearing a mask,” he said.
He encouraged people to get vaccinated and said he expects more local communities will mandate vaccines.
“There are going to be sports events, travel events, where the rule is going to be if you want to participate, you get vaccinated,” Fauci said. “If not, sorry, you’re not going to be able to do it. And I think when we get more and more of that, I think we’re going to start seeing a great diminution in the number of cases.”
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CNN’s Kevin Dotson, Virginia Langmaid and Amir Vera contributed to this report.