As football season kicks off this weekend, stadiums across the Southeastern Conference (SEC) return to full capacity with eager and nostalgic fans who might have missed games due to the pandemic.
Dania Kalaji, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Georgia, told CNN that one of the reasons she chose to attend UGA was the atmosphere and intensity of SEC football games.
“The feeling of being in that stadium with all your peers, all of your friends, even professors. It’s great to see everyone sitting in the stands cheering on one team,” she said. “Every single seat is filled, and it’s great to know everyone is just in one place together and you really feel united with your school.”
Over the next few weeks, many students will gather at stadiums and fans will travel out of state to their alma maters to support their teams, even as the highly contagious Covid-19 Delta variant continues to spread. To complicate matters, the southern states that make up the SEC have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the US — with states like Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi having only 37% to 41% of their population fully vaccinated, according to a CNN data analysis. In comparison, states like California and New York, each have more than 55% of their populations vaccinated.
Officials tell CNN while they’re concerned about some spread of the virus, they are not worried about these games becoming superspreader events.
“If I wanted to be responsible and careful, I would be drawing back on attendance just a little bit, maybe kick it down to 75%, spread people out a little bit so they’re not shoulder to shoulder for hours at a time and/or I would be saying wearing a mask,” said Zach Binney, a sports epidemiologist at Oxford College at Emory University.
Many teams — including the No. 1 ranked University of Alabama — have touted having at least 80% of their team vaccinated, a rule set by the conferences. An Alabama spokesperson told CNN their entire football staff and all but one player are vaccinated.
Fans, however, are not held to the same standard. Kalaji went to every home game her freshman year in 2019, but only went to one game her sophomore year. She plans to attend games again this year, and while she’s vaccinated, she plans on wearing a mask and social distancing when needed.
“It’s awful that it’s come to this, but at this point, I’m just trying to make the most of it and have a positive outlook on it instead of living my life in fear,” she said.
As of Tuesday, only Louisiana State University in the SEC is requiring game attendees over 12 to provide proof of Covid-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test. The 13 other schools in the SEC have not publicly released how they plan to handle full capacity stadiums this fall.
“With nearly every person in our football program vaccinated, we strongly encourage everyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Individuals must mask while indoors or on campus transportation. Anyone who is COVID positive, symptomatic, or subject to quarantine/isolation should not attend games,” Jessica L. Paré, deputy director of athletics at the University of Alabama, told CNN in a statement.
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,” said Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner, earlier this month.
Studies examine Covid-19 spread at games
Throughout the pandemic, researchers have been studying athletics in order to understand how much the coronavirus spreads when fans gather.
One study published this month in the journal JAMA Network Open found that NFL and NCAA football games with limited attendance, social distancing and masking were not linked to a rise in Covid-19 cases in the surrounding community. The authors noted that most of the games were held outdoors or in stadiums with retractable roofs, which improves ventilation and decreases the chance of spread.
Another study — completed in March — looked at Covid-19 cases following NFL home games; some games had fans in attendance and some did not. The study, which is a preprint and has not been peer-reviewed or published, found cases rose after games attended by fans, particularly for crowds larger than 20,000. Games with fewer than 5,000 fans weren’t linked to spikes in cases or case rates. The researchers suggested “that return to sporting and other mass gathering events should be handled with extreme caution and may indeed be premature,” and a plan to phase-in crowds may be needed.
Both studies considered games that took place before the highly transmissible Delta variant dominated in the United States.
Alex Piquero, a sociology professor at the University of Miami and co-author of the preprint study, said risk for Covid-19 spread was highest at games with the most number of people.
Neither Piquero nor Binney, the Emory professor, thought football games should be considered superspreader events.
“I don’t think these (games) are going to be biological bombs, or super spread events,” Binney said.
“I don’t agree about the word ‘super spreader event’ because I don’t see, at least as of now, enough evidence that they are super spreaders. Is there going to be spread at large-scale, in-person events? I’m going to predict that there will be some spread,” Piquero said.
Attendance at major sporting events “is in a period of constant evolution” because of vaccination rates, restrictions on large gatherings and mask mandates, said Dr. Michael Rubin with the University of Utah in Salt Lake City wrote in a commentary accompanying the JAMA Network Open study.
Piquero said that continuing to wear masks and getting vaccinated will help mitigate spread at not only football games, but everywhere else as well.
“The more people get vaccinated, the better off we’ll all be to congregate in large events again,” he said.
Schools differ on how to handle crowds at games
LSU made their announcement Tuesday requiring fans to show proof of vaccination or a negative test saying, in part, that as the flagship school of Louisiana, they are responsible for the safety of students, fans and the community.
“While we are aware of the diverse perspectives across the nation regarding masks and vaccinations, we must take all reasonable measures to protect our campus and community, not only on game days, but long after guests have left Tiger Stadium,” LSU President William F. Tate IV said in a statement. “The current threat to our lives, our health, and to our medical systems due to COVID-19 is overburdening our hospitals, and we must do our part to stop the spread.”
Vanderbilt has also singled itself out among the SEC schools as the only institution to have a vaccine mandate on campus. School officials did not respond when asked if the campus vaccine mandate would affect how the school conducts football games.
SEC spokesperson Herb Vincent told CNN that “due to the various state and local guidelines across the 11-state SEC footprint, the Conference cannot mandate vaccines for athletics events so those decisions must be made locally.” They have, however, launched a pro-vaccine education campaign.
The NCAA also did not comment on fan attendance, but has launched a social series to promote vaccine education.
The other Power Five conferences — Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12 and ACC — have released statements on how games will be handled if teams can’t play due to Covid-19 or other circumstances, but again, have not addressed fan attendance at these games.
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