COVID-19 affects college football powerhouses and their fans

AUSTIN, Texas —

With the Texas Longhorns hosting the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns for their season opener Saturday, it didn’t matter to Orlando Candelaria that hospitals across the state are packed with COVID-19 patients, that just 47% of Texas residents are vaccinated and that the governor, who’s recovering from COVID-19, has banned mask mandates.

Candelaria, 37, just had to suit up — maskless — in his burnt orange jersey and sunglasses, get to the Bevo Boulevard tailgate area outside the stadium and shout “Hook ‘Em, Horns!”

“We’re trying to get back to normal: The game, the fans, Bevo Boulevard, seeing the crowd start coming together,” Candelaria, who has been vaccinated, said as he stood amid the pregame throng. “Once you get those 100,000 people in that stadium, crowded, cheering, it’s an experience that will never get old.”

Orlando Candelaria and friend Evelyn Salcedo gesture horn signs while wearing Longhorns shirts.

University of Texas Longhorns Fan Orlando Candelaria, and Evelyn Salcedo of Austin Texas.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Last year, college football was disappointing for fans across Texas and the country. COVID-related cancellations in the five elite college football conferences, known as the Power Five, meant 285 games compared with 453 in 2019. Many of the games were cancelled due to capacity limits, leaving students, alumni, and other football fans desperate for tailgating and other traditions this weekend.

But COVID-19 still complicates game day, nowhere more than in the South. COVID-19 vaccination rates have lagged and hospitalizations have surged, filling intensive care units in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas and other states that are home to powerhouse college football teams. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people not to travel for the holiday weekend without vaccination, many ignored this warning. Though football conferences consulted medical advisors during the pandemic and responded to varying degrees, Southern schools in the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference are home to some of the least restrictive tailgating and in-stadium practices in the country.

Candelaria is acutely aware of the risks: A medical assistant, he got vaccinated after surviving a bout of COVID-19 last year. He said he planned to wear a mask inside the stadium’s enclosed hallways, bathrooms and concession areas, but with temperatures outside expected to climb to 100 degrees, it would be difficult to wear a mask among outdoor crowds, he said.

Kari McKenzie traveled from east Texas to attend her first Longhorns game with her husband, a University of Texas alumnus, or “Texas Ex,” and their two daughters. Both parents were high school teachers and had been vaccinated. However, the girls, ages 8 & 4, are too young to receive the shots.

“Our families are not happy with us,” said McKenzie, 45, wearing a Longhorns jersey and game-day hat as her family explored attractions along Bevo Boulevard, named after the University of Texas mascot, including a zip line and Ferris wheel geared toward children.

She said her mother had asked, “Why are you taking my babies around all those people?”

A COVID-19 vaccine clinic on a street near other displays

COVID-19 has complicated college football’s opening weekend.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Texas has seen a rise in pediatric coronavirus cases, particularly since returning students to school. McKenzie has students and teachers who have been infected this year.

” Our children are at school everyday alongside other kids, and they don’t have to wear masks — they’re more inclined to get it there,” McKenzie stated. “We can’t live in a bubble. We did bring our masks, and if we’re crammed in with people, we’ll put them on.”

Along the nearby pedestrian boulevard, between barbecue stands, an enormous inflated longhorn and a mechanical bull, there was a new feature: a COVID-19 vaccination site. Amid pregame updates, an announcer could be heard reminding fans via outdoor speakers that “masks are strongly recommended for unvaccinated individuals.”

“I would gladly get vaccinated to support my team,” said Mark Fontenot, 37, a Ragin’ Cajuns fan who’d been vaccinated before traveling from Lafayette, La., to attend Saturday’s game because, he said, “we can’t live in fear.”

Lily Moreman, right, secures a prime tailgating spot Friday with her friend, Rylan Mayberry.

Lily Moreman, right, an 18-year-old freshman at Auburn University, secures a prime tailgating spot Friday with her friend, Rylan Mayberry.

(Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

In Alabama, where less than 39% of residents are fully vaccinated and many hospitals are overwhelmed with more than 880 COVID-19 patients across the state in ICUs, many Auburn University fans and alumni were joyous as they pulled their RVs and pickup trucks into a field south of the stadium in Auburn on Friday afternoon ahead of the Tigers’ game against the University of Akron Zips. Last year, tailgating wasn’t allowed on the college campus due to the pandemic, and the 87,400-seat stadium was limited to 20% capacity.

“Just being around all these people who care about the same thing as much as you, it’s just so exciting,” said Lily Moreman, an unvaccinated 18-year-old first-year student guarding a prime tailgating spot for the Tiger Prowler fan group.

Moreman said she might wear a bandanna inside the stadium. However, she was not too concerned. She had tested positive for coronavirus two weeks prior to becoming ill during sorority recruitment. Since then, she has tested negative.

Ginger Davis, a retired lawyer from Ooltewah, Tenn., had mixed feelings about attending the game.

A man takes a picture of two people in front of a giant inflatable Longhorn on the street

The University of Texas at Austin hosted Saturday’s season opener complete with an inflatable Longhorn in the middle of the stadium.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

” “It’s great that we’re back — last year was a complete miss — but it’s very nerve-wracking about the stadium,” Davis stated as she decorated her RV with orange and blue solar lights.

Both she and her husband, Neil Davis, 64, a retired economist, were vaccinated and planned to wear masks to the game. Ginger stated that she was concerned about her elderly parents and didn’t want to put them at danger. Ginger said she would arrive at the game early or late, avoid the elevators and wear a mask throughout.

Larry Molt, an associate professor and director of Auburn’s Neuroprocesses Research Laboratory, said he and other tailgaters had replaced their traditional barbecue potluck with wrapped sandwiches and eliminated the frozen drink machine they used to make “Tiger-ritas.”

But Molt was not vaccinated, and he planned to wear a face mask inside the stadium. He wasn’t certain if it was safe.

Larry Molt reunites ahead of Saturday's Auburn-Akron game with tailgating friend, Cindy Terry.

Larry Molt is an associate professor at Auburn University and the director of its Neuroprocesses Research Laboratory. He reunites with Cindy Terry, his tailgating friend.

(Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

” This has the potential to be a superspreader-level event.” he stated. “If it looks like it’s risky, we’ll come back here and watch it on TV.”

Many universities are not requiring proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test to enter stadiums. A handful of institutions, such as Oregon, Oregon State and Louisiana State, are requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for those older than 12 to attend football games, said Rylie Martin, assistant director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson University in North Carolina. Other colleges require masks in stadiums, including restrooms, retail areas and public areas.

Nationally, about 70% of colleges, universities and community colleges are requiring, incentivizing or encouraging students to get vaccinated, said Chris Marsicano, the director of the Davidson initiative. Marsicano stated that only about 25% of institutions require students be vaccinated.

A man takes a picture of two people in front of a giant inflatable Longhorn on the street

The University of Texas at Austin hosted Saturday’s season opener complete with a midway outside of the stadium.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske/Los Angeles Times)

Colleges were prohibited from requiring vaccinations and masks by legislators in Florida, Oklahoma and Texas. In Louisiana, Tulane University required those attending the season opener against Oklahoma to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test and to wear masks. It was forced to relocate its first game to Oklahoma by Hurricane Ida. Oklahoma does not have such a mandate.

Football powerhouses such as Texas and Auburn were taking a cue from Republican state leaders and leaving it up to fans to decide whether to protect themselves. Although the University of Texas encourages people to be vaccinated and wear masks indoors, it is not mandating any specific requirements.

“Our strategy all along has largely been one of focusing on individual responsibility for all of our community members,” said professor Art Markman, who leads the university’s COVID-19 planning group.

Markman said that, in part “because of the broader political context in Texas, we’ve never been about heavy rules with a lot of punishments.”

Instead, Markman said, the university has been urging those on campus to protect each other.

“We’re going to reinforce those same messages of protecting the Longhorn community among those coming to the games,” he said. “College football at schools like the University of Texas is an integral part of the memories of our students while we’re here. So to the extent we can do this in a safe way, I think it’s important.”

Fans pose for photos outside the Texas Longhorns' stadium.

Fans pose outside the Texas Longhorns stadium prior to Saturday’s season opener.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

It is also crucial to the school’s bottom-line after last year’s abbreviated football season, according to Victor Matheson of the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass.

“The typical team played fewer games and attendance was way down, mainly because of restrictions on capacity, including a bunch of places that let no one in the door,” he said, decreasing overall attendance at top-level college football games by 85%.

Before the pandemic, Texas was the top-grossing college football program in the country, with $200 million in revenue in 2019. That was probably reduced by about $75 million last year, Matheson said, while smaller schools lost about $40 million on average. Texas’ athletics department just announced more than $13 million in athletic department cuts, layoffs and furloughs last week to offset pandemic revenue losses.

As long as schools don’t impose restrictions on their fans, Matheson predicted that they will continue to attend this season.

“The majority of the big college football programs tend to be in places where we’ve seen the general public not caring about [COVID-19] restrictions or vaccine requirements,” in the South and Midwest, Matheson said, with the exception of California schools.

In the South, Matheson said that “people will go out to see the games regardless of whether COVID has erupted or not.” That’s not good for public health, but it’s good for Texas and Alabama’s bottom line.”

Some public health experts said such college football games put fans at risk, even those in open-air stadiums.

” When you pack people together like sardines the risk of transmission increases substantially,” said Jason Salemi (an associate professor of epidemiology) at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, Tampa.

The risks were magnified in states such as Alabama and Texas with relatively low vaccination rates, Salemi said.

Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease doctor at Duke University who chairs the Atlantic Coast Conference’s medical advisory team, said the conference is trying to “be sensible stewards of people’s interest in sports and still be conscious that we’re in a pandemic that’s rising in many parts of the country where our healthcare infrastructure is struggling.”

Wolfe said when patients ask him whether it’s safe to go to college football games, he tries to gauge their comfort level in unmasked crowds, and also where they plan to watch the game.

“Sitting outside in a sunny stadium worries me less that hundreds of people crowded into a bar,” he stated.

Longhorns fans pass a packed tailgating tent on their way to Saturday's game in Austin, Texas.

Longhorns fans walk past a packed tailgating pavilion on Saturday, in Austin, Texas.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

On his way to the stadium, Benjamin Lara Jr. — fully vaccinated with a mask in his pocket — passed a tent packed with scores of unmasked fans and called to his friends and family, “Superspreader!”

Then he spotted a cousin in the tent, and had to stop and chat — without masks as the temperature approached 100 degrees.

“I’m still wary,” said Lara, 35. “It’s tricky, being so hot.”

“The mask thing is over!” shouted a man passing him.

Lara shook his head. His uncle died of COVID-19 last year, and his mother was hospitalized with the virus. Lara, who works as a beer distributor, still wears the mask when she visits bars.

For some, he said that “Reality doesn’t set in until your family member has died of it.” The world is still divided .”

Some of the fans who entered the stadium’s halls and toilets were not vaccinated. Few inside, especially in the concession areas, were wearing masks.

Near the concession counters, Jessica Patterson, 33, an unvaccinated Army veteran, sipped a beer with her husband — a soldier who was required to get vaccinated — and their two children, ages 12 and 9, who were also unvaccinated.

Patterson said she hadn’t been vaccinated because “I’m skeptical. I’m waiting for more information.”

“We take precautions,” she said.

They had masks, although only her 12-year-old was wearing his.

Next to them, Frances Trimble, 78, also had her mask off to eat a hamburger. To attend the game, she had driven four hours from east Texas and remembered her husband, an alumnus who passed away last year.

“This is where he would want me,” she said. “I love my Longhorns.”

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