More than 200,000 Americans are dead and the U.S. president is in the hospital with COVID-19, but UF students partied on.
From morning past midnight, UF students, alumni and Gator football fans alike celebrated the first home game by throwing crowded house parties, tailgating and filling up bars.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Florida’s Phase 3 reopening plan Sept. 25, prohibiting local governments from closing businesses or enforcing capacity restrictions. Florida has more than 700,000 positive cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday morning, and more than 14,000 deaths.
Floridians, national visitors celebrated game day
Fans from Texas to New Jersey and everywhere in between traveled to the Swamp to see the Gators face off against the South Carolina Gamecocks. UF opened a fifth of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium’s seats, but fans overflowed into Gainesville’s backyard tailgates and watch parties at off-campus houses.
People walked around Gainesville maskless in bright blue and orange jerseys, hats, beads and shirts. Some fans didn’t wear their masks until they stepped through the stadium’s metal detectors.
Grace Mullen flew from Columbia, South Carolina, the opposing team’s city, with her sister to support her team and party. The University of South Carolina has had 2,414 positive COVID-19 cases since Aug. 1, according to the university’s website.
The pair started their day drinking at 9 a.m. before going to a party at The Standard, an apartment complex on University Avenue. They watched the game in an off-campus house and later ended the night at Fat Daddy’s, a bar and restaurant at Midtown.
She came to Gainesville last year to tailgate and said the parties were smaller this year.
“They made it the most fun it could be,” she said. “It’s more tame this time. It’s a lot more cautious this year.”
UF students already stationed in Gainesville also celebrated the win.
Nick Weber, a 19-year-old UF mechanical engineering sophomore, hosted a watch party of about 20 people, where fellow students drank and watched the game outside around a TV he set up in the trunk of his van.
This was his first game day at UF after moving there for the semester, he said. Most people at the party were from UF’s surf club, which he joined last Spring.
“We’re pretty far from the beach, so it’s more of a social club than a surf club,” Weber said.
Other parties grew to hundreds of people.
Off-campus houses pumped music, cheers and bodies into the street. Cars lined the road and scooters zipped around pedestrians.
Tarps hiding crowds of partygoers hung over outdoor gates, and blankets covered house windows on Ninth Road south of Sorority Row. Below the tarps, hundreds of sneakers and heels crowded together while beer cans dropped to the ground.
At another outdoor house party on Southwest Sixth Avenue, students stood on rooftops singing along to an EDM remix of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the thumping bass could be heard from blocks away.
GPD’s Party Patrol
The Gators’ wins come with consequences for the rest of the college town outside of the university.
Despite DeSantis’ orders, Alachua County’s mask ordinances are still in place, said Graham Glover, a Gainesville Police Department spokesperson. A volunteer police task force known as the GPD Party Patrol continues to enforce county protocols.
Although GPD has power over Gainesville’s public businesses, it’s less likely to take action against mask violations on private residences, said Lt. Michael Schibuola, an officer who has been a part of GPD’s Party Patrol since it was created.
GPD founded the Party Patrol almost 20 years ago in response to game day parties that resulted in fights, Schibuola said. The effort is an extra duty assignment on weekends that officers can volunteer to help out with.
The patrol responds to noise complaints and reports of late-night parties, he said.
Last weekend, there were close to 20 complaints reported to GPD, Glover said. A majority were noise complaints as opposed to parties, and no arrests were made by GPD officers on the party patrol.
For the Gators’ first game of the season, a win in Oxford, Mississippi, on Sept. 26 over the Ole Miss Rebels, Fat Daddy’s and Tatu Restaurant and Bar reached capacity by 9:30 p.m. Bar-goers stood in an hour-long line for Fat Daddy’s.
It’s up to bars to require masks inside or keep patrons from moving between tables and dancing on the dance floor. Only half of the bar-goers wore masks on the sidewalks. Inside the bars, people packed together on the dance floor, holding their drinks without masks on. One patron hugged the bouncer without a mask on.
The officers both agree that this number is higher than usual. However, Glover said he’s unsure if this can be attributed to game day.
During a home game, the party patrol usually notices an increase in complaints and reports, Schibuola said. The first football weekend of the season was busier than normal as officers patrolled apartment complexes and the nightlife in Downtown Gainesville and Midtown.
Even after the first home game against South Carolina, Glover said he’s confident that future home games will be different and doesn’t anticipate a significant increase in complaints or reports.
With reduced capacity in the stadium and no tailgating, he said the circumstances are different, but the party patrol’s role will stay the same.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” Glover said. “We don’t know what will happen until we see it.”
Students cluster at bars in Midtown and Downtown
The partying didn’t end after the Gators’ win.
As the sun set, students climbed — and fell — over fences to escape dying house parties, leaving backyards full of empty beer cans. A trail of cans and masks led to the crowd’s next stop: the newly reopened Midtown and downtown bar scene.
Sweaty partygoers in mini skirts and orange-and-blue jerseys blew vape clouds while they waited in sardine-packed lines.
By 10 p.m., cars filled with more passengers than seats honked and revved their engines at stumbling students. Passengers, some with their legs hanging outside of windows, kicked the night air as they screamed slurred hellos and other inaudible chants at passersby.
Downtown, about 40 mostly unmasked people stood outside White Buffalo and about 50 outside DownTown Fats. More than 20 people approached by The Alligator did not speak or want to be identified because of fear of social retribution.
A partygoer who was overheard said the party scene was hectic as they stood in a line with six other friends.
They said the scene was definitely not “COVID conscious” and felt like partygoers should be wearing masks.
People inside the bars weren’t respecting the recommended 6 feet distance from one another.
“But everyone’s trying to live their life the best they can and still be as safe as they can without losing sight of what life is right now,” a partygoer said.
At 11 p.m., about 150 people clustered around UF Plaza, located across the street from campus. Very few people near JJ’s Tavern and The Rowdy Reptile wore masks and an even smaller number of those wearing masks had them over their nose. Partiers toppled and broke traffic signs, barriers and newspaper boxes.
This was similar to last weekend, when students made their way to the Midtown bar scene to celebrate the win against Ole Miss Sept. 26.
Carlos Daireaux, a 23-year-old UF general business senior, came out to Midtown bars at about 10 p.m.
“I live at the bars practically,” he said. “Now that they’ve reopened, we’re coming out again.”
Daireaux said he supports wearing masks and temperature checks but thinks they won’t be enough.
“Realistically, there will be another outbreak,” he said. “But if we’re all responsible, we can make it through.
Alan Halaly, Asta Hemenway, Thomas Holton, Lianna Hubbard, Jack Prator and Thomas Weber contributed to this report.
Correction: This article was updated to reflect that Downtown Fats is located on Main Street. A previous version of this article reported otherwise. This article was also updated to more accurately reflect a quote attributed to Nick Weber.