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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
CNN’s Gregory Lemos, Jennifer Bernstein, Jessica Firger, Kimberly Johnson, Jill Martin, Kay Jones, Jamie Gumbrecht and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.