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Friday, April 19, 2024

Gator fans and students await first full capacity home game while COVID-19 surges

UF allows full capacity for first time since Nov. 30, 2019 game against Florida State

Florida football players celebrate with fans. The Swamp will see full attendance return in 2021
Florida football players celebrate with fans. The Swamp will see full attendance return in 2021

Three months ago, Brandi McElvain Fisher scoured Ticketmaster. Glancing at the screen, her eyes paused on the event she yearned to attend with bated breath.

Florida Gators vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls. Sept. 4. 7:30 p.m.  

The Louisville, Kentucky, traveling nurse didn’t fret about cheering alongside 90,000 fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. To her, the COVID-19 pandemic looked like it would soon be nothing more than a section in a history textbook. 

As access to vaccines rose throughout the spring and summer, so did her hopes. Many eagerly lined up for their jab, sacrificing minutes of their time in exchange for something resembling life before March 2020. COVID-19 hospitalizations slowly dwindled. 

Everything aligned for Fisher’s first ever Gators home game. The Jacksonville native was thrilled to finally watch the team she grew up rooting for in The Swamp. 

But now, she has a few doubts.

“The numbers were so high in Florida, so I became worried,” she said.

UF announced May 17 the return to full capacity sporting events in the Fall semester. Despite the surge in Delta variant cases, the University Athletic Association plans to move full steam ahead without a mask or vaccine mandate.

LSU announced Aug. 24 fans need to be vaccinated or submit a negative test within 72 hours of kickoff to enter the stadium. The UAA didn’t respond to multiple attempts for comment about the policy potentially being enacted for future games. 

UF Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said the university doesn’t have the authority to mandate vaccines but didn’t comment about a negative test option during an Aug. 25 radio appearance on Sportscene with Steve Russell.

At the frontlines, Fisher witnessed the devastating toll the virus left on patients and their families. If she still worked with them, she would’ve canceled her trip entirely, which includes the game and a visit to Spurrier’s Gridiron Grille beforehand.

For Fisher, memories of her sick COVID-19 patients are hard to disregard. She hoped for a day of tailgates and football but ultimately plans to attend the game wearing a mask. 

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Mask usage, she said, is the simplest thing attendees can do to protect themselves and other Gator fans.

“You’re doing it, not only to help yourself but to help your fellow man,” she said. “It’s selfish not to wear a mask.”

Football games and tailgates can become potential superspreaders, said Dr. Kathleen Ryan, a UF Health pediatrician and expert on Alachua County’s COVID-19 advisory committee.

Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance acknowledges the virus spreads less easily outdoors but emphasizes that individuals should consider masking up in crowded outdoor settings regardless of their vaccination status.

“There’s a lot of people coming from Gainesville and around the state,” Ryan said. “Cases are going down slightly but could rise again.”

Still, she doesn’t feel comfortable attending games. If she had to, she would 100% wear a mask.

“Going to games this season is still safer than last year, but only if you are vaccinated,” she said. “I would have felt a lot more comfortable if this game was [in] late June or early July.”

Children under 12, who are still ineligible for the vaccine, shouldn’t catch Florida’s games at The Swamp, Ryan said.

“If they have to go, they should wear a mask,” she said. “They can get it from an adult and spread it in school, where we have tremendous outbreaks.”

For other fans, the lure of the opponent is too much to keep them away.

Anthony Palmer, an army veteran from Orange Park, Florida, plans to slip on a mask for the two games he will attend this season: Alabama on Sept. 18 and Tennessee on Sept. 25.

The Alabama game roped Palmer in a year ago. He plotted his journey to Gainesville after missing the Gators battle the Crimson Tide at the SEC Championship last December in Atlanta. 

Palmer, on average, attends two games each year but wasn’t able to in 2020 because of work obligations. 

He returned from serving in Afghanistan last month and noted people overseas don’t hesitate to sport masks.

“In the United States, we are saying we’re losing our rights, but I can tell you from being overseas, it [COVID-19] is bad,” he said. “It’s bad here, too, but people don’t want to admit it.”

Palmer posted on the Florida Gators Facebook page Aug. 22 in an effort to encourage fans to don a mask in addition to their orange-and-blue gear.

Backlash scattered the comments on Palmer’s public plea and other posts that advocated for similar practices.

“I don’t let it get to me,” he said. “People can do what they want, and I can’t tell them how to live their lives. People don’t know what it’s like until it affects them directly.”

Despite Fisher’s and Palmer’s reluctance, ticket sales skyrocketed this offseason.

The season-ticket renewal rate rose by 90% this season compared to the 2019 season, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The school sold an additional 5,400 season tickets. The allotted 16,642 student tickets sold out Aug. 17.

Alexis Sturm stood in the student section surrounded by masked spectators after she won tickets through the raffle last season.

The 19-year-old UF sophomore couldn’t wait to experience normal college life. She plans to trek to every game and the tailgates that couple with them while wearing a mask.

“I was a little bit worried about going to games last season, but now I’m fully vaccinated and feel a lot better,” she said.

Jake Connery, a 21-year-old UF senior, yearns to enjoy his last season staring at the field from the student section and isn’t worried about the virus.

“I’m vaccinated, and there’s only so much you can do,” he said. “Life’s too short. College is only four years. I will wear a mask, however.”

To Connery, the argument to reduce capacity makes sense, but he disagrees with it. 

He said he doesn’t support a policy like LSU’s — get vaccinated or show proof of a negative test.

“I feel like there’s not much we can do at this point,” he said. “It’s best to just go on with life and return to the norm.”

Nicolas Hayford, a 19-year-old UF junior, doesn’t subscribe to LSU’s train of thought either. 

“A lot of people from my hometown aren’t vaccinated, and it wouldn’t be fair to them to not attend games,” he said. “They are upset about being pushed to the vaccine.”

But Hayford’s background pushes him to reconsider masking guidelines. 

He got a notification a few days ago stating that his hometown, Okeechobee, is being ravaged by COVID-19, and so he plans to slip on a mask during games. 

As the clock winds down to Saturday, Fisher looks at her ticket as she experiences a flurry of emotions. Fear, concern and, ironically, glee. Her lifelong dream — her first home game — in the middle of a mulish pandemic.

Contact Noah Ram at Follow him on Twitter @Noah_ram1

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Noah Ram

Noah is a third year journalism-sports and media student from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He has been with The Alligator since Spring 2019 and has covered men’s and women’s tennis, gymnastics and volleyball. When he isn’t on his beat, Noah is usually sadden over his beloved South Florida sports teams, such as the Heat and Dolphins.

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