For many UF freshmen, their experience on Saturday felt similar to many of those who passed through the gates of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for the first time.
At the end of the third quarter, the crowd of 15,120 still swayed side-to-side to “We Are the Boys” and belted out the lyrics to Tom Petty’s classic “I Won’t Back Down.” And following the Gators’ win over South Carolina, the team traveled to the band on the northeast side of Steve Spurrier-Florida Field to sing UF’s alma mater.
Laurie and Julian Andrews, 54 and 59, of Jensen Beach, Florida, have a daughter who is a senior at UF. They said they have gone to games for years and wanted to see Florida play one last time before their daughter leaves.
“It’s nice to see that students are still able to get that experience and see what it is like to be a Gator when so many places are allowing no fans,” Laurie said. “Especially when there is so much negativity in the world. When you come here, everybody has one point of view — Gator Nation, and all the politics goes away and all the negativity goes away and you just enjoy a nice day.”
But even though there was some consistency, every fan and cardboard cutout at The Swamp for Saturday’s home opener encountered something different from their predecessors.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still ravaging the nation, Florida’s home football season began Saturday with 17% of its maximum stadium capacity and enhanced COVID-19 protocols.
The first changes presented themselves on the drive to the stadium. Areas of campus that are usually filled with tailgaters, such as those in the vicinity of Southwest Recreation Center and Fraternity Row, were eerily quiet an hour before kickoff. Florida announced Sept. 3 that all on-campus tailgating would be banned for the 2020 season.
Closer to the stadium, it felt more like a typical gameday. Even preachers were seen maskless on Gale Lemerand Drive, explaining where non-believers would go if they didn’t convert to Christianity.
It was hard to miss the clusters of 10 or more fans trying to locate which gate they should enter through or just mingling with each other. While many fans outside were wearing masks, nearly half were not, and there was virtually no social distancing going on.
Inside the stadium near the Official Gator SportShop, Florida fans gathered around a rack of Gators merchandise with no stadium staff members to ensure they were socially distanced.
Despite the booming voice heard every five minutes from the public address announcer telling fans to social distance and wear their masks — as well as the signage posted warning them about COVID-19 — clusters of fans could be seen all around the stadium.
Face coverings at the student entrances were abundant, as UF requires. There were markers telling fans where to stand to remain six feet apart when fans were approaching security for entrance to the game.
Across the stadium, chair backs set up in groups of two to four were six feet apart from other seats.
Last Sunday, The Alligator reported that the University Police Department wasn’t in charge of social distancing. But during the first half, the Security, Athletic Facilities & Events (S.A.F.E) management were quick to tell any fan not wearing a mask to put it on. However, some fans promptly removed their masks when S.A.F.E wasn’t looking.
As Florida’s lead over South Carolina diminished, so did the enforcement of safety regulations. By the fourth quarter, with UF up 14, S.A.F.E. employees seemed to look the other way. More face coverings came off, and by the end of the game, it looked as though nearly half of the attendees remaining in Section 45 were maskless. Policies further unraveled once fans started making their way to the exit.
UF did not seem to have a plan in place to alleviate the avalanche of people leaving The Swamp at the same time. The concourse and ramps were filled with fans crammed in like sardines. All the good work the university did during the three-hour-plus game fell by the wayside in just five minutes.
Outside the stadium, the scene was similar to the crowd before the game, albeit a little worse. Numerous members of the orange-and-blue faithful congregated along University Avenue to celebrate the double-digit win. The bars of Midtown were jammed with even more maskless customers who stood close together in long lines to enter famed establishments such as Fat Daddy’s and The Social at Midtown.
This had been the concern of Justin Horbacz. The 22-year-old is a first-year grad student at UF who graduated from the university in August and is an employee at the O’Connell Center. He liked how the protocols were being followed during the game but was worried about everything that happened after the game.
“You have 15,000 people coming from around the state and staying in our hotels and eating in our bars and restaurants,” he said. “I haven’t seen it yet, but I was looking at pictures of Midtown this weekend and it was disgusting. I was planning on taking a drive tonight, and I’m afraid of what I am going to see.”
Horbacz’s fears seemed to have been realized, as Midtown and Downtown Gainesville were loaded with students, seemingly returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Two UF freshmen Justin Bailey and Aidan Henriksen enjoyed themselves, despite their first game being so abnormal.
“I can only imagine how fun it would be if it was packed,” Bailey said. “There’s not as many people here, but it’s still a fun experience and we’re still doing all the same traditions.”
Horbacz also would come again but would like to see another venerable event take place in The Swamp.
“They are doing this, but took away our graduation,” he said. “There are so many kids that wait their whole life. They're first-generation students, they just want to walk that stage, and they didn't get the chance to, and I understand why they're upset seeing a lot of fans here today.”