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At the University of Florida, the prospect of a full football stadium on game day brings cheers — and fears

The Gators will host up to 88,000 fans Saturday in the ‘Swamp.'

Students wear face masks while carrying a mural outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on the University of Florida campus Wednesday, in Gainesville, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Come Saturday night, college football fans will converge on the stadium here known as the “Swamp” in numbers not seen since 2019.

For the first time since the pandemic began, the University of Florida will let up to 88,000 people into the stands to watch their beloved Gators take on Florida Atlantic University in the season opener. These fans can watch the marching band actually take the field for a halftime show. They can sing the Tom Petty anthem “I Won’t Back Down” between the third and fourth quarters, a recent home-game tradition honoring the late rocker from Gainesville.

They won’t have to be vaccinated and won’t have to wear masks. They will be outdoors but packed close together. This spectacle and others like it around the country are stirring passions for the resumption of a fall pastime with major cultural influence — and with it fears about what could happen next on campuses.

Skeptics wonder if the full return of college football — the pregame tailgates, the mingling of home and visiting fans, the postgame partying and barhopping — will spread the coronavirus and jeopardize the reopening of colleges amid another dangerous wave of infections.

“A lot of people are anxious and worried — myself included,” said Amanda Phalin, a senior lecturer in management at Florida who is chair-elect of the faculty senate. “I was just driving into campus today, and they’re setting up all the tents and porta-potties for all the events they’re having outside the stands.” She was troubled. “We’re going to see another spike in cases.”

Others yearn for experiences they have missed in the chaos of the past year and a half, especially the ritual of bonding with tens of thousands in a loud and sweaty stadium.

“I’ve gotta go to my first UF football game,” said Luke Gilboy, 19, a sophomore from Jacksonville Beach, Fla. He is vaccinated and trusts the campus community can navigate the event. “We go here. This is our school. We want to protect everyone who is here.”

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To reduce the risk of game day becoming a superspreader event, Louisiana State University announced last month that people age 12 or older who come to Tiger Stadium this fall for games will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative test for the coronavirus. The University of Oregon and Oregon State University had imposed similar entry requirements for football games. But LSU’s protocols commanded outsized attention because the university is a recent national champion in football and member of the powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC).

So far other SEC schools, including Florida, have not followed suit. The conference does not intervene in stadium entry policies. “Those are local decisions,” SEC spokesman Herb Vincent said.

Florida’s athletic director, Scott Stricklin, applauds LSU.

“I think there’s a lot of benefits” to the entry-screening policy, he said in an interview inside what is formally named Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. But Stricklin noted that SEC universities answer to various local and state authorities. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and others overseeing public higher education in the state have opposed vaccine and mask mandates.

Stricklin said he believes the home opener will be safe. Vaccine promotions will appear in the stadium during the game, he said, and there will be tents outside for people who decide, on the spur of the moment, to get inoculated. The athletic director said he is proud that 92 percent of Florida’s football players have been vaccinated, as well as all of the team’s coaches. The University of Mississippi set the SEC standard on that metric, recently announcing all of its football players are vaccinated.

Across all varsity sports at Florida, Stricklin said, the vaccination rate is 85 percent.

“We’re working on the holdouts,” Stricklin said. Every chance he gets, he reminds athletes that hospitals are filling up with covid patients — “and they’re not full with vaccinated people.”

Colleges want students to get a coronavirus vaccine. But they’re split on requiring the shots.

The Gators finished 8-4 last year when they played in front of limited crowds. Seating in their home stadium was capped then at around 20 to 25 percent capacity. Full crowds this fall will mean more ticket revenue for a team crucial to marketing the university. The Gators, who won their most recent national championship in 2008, are ranked No. 13 in the AP preseason poll.

In this city of more than 133,000 in north-central Florida, much more is at stake this fall than gridiron glory. The 52,000-student university wants to avoid health troubles, teach in person and maintain the campus routine even though — unlike hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide — it does not mandate vaccination or mask-wearing.

The challenge is even steeper here with the highly transmissible delta variant tearing through the state. As of Thursday, Washington Post analysis found that 70 out of every 100,000 Floridians were hospitalized for covid — the highest rate in the nation. Florida also had the highest rate of daily reported covid deaths and the sixth-highest rate of daily reports of new coronavirus cases.

University data shows the virus is circulating on campus. Out of 655 people tested Tuesday, 35 were positive for the virus. About 360 students were in isolation or quarantine. Eager to know more, officials are expanding viral testing. State restrictions on information gathering have left them unable to calculate how many students have been vaccinated, except for athletes. University officials believe the campus’ vaccination rate is higher than the state’s. (More than 53 percent of Floridians were fully vaccinated as of Thursday.)

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“I’m kind of blind,” said Michael Lauzardo, an associate professor of infectious diseases and global medicine who helps with the university’s covid-fighting efforts. “Not having the vaccine data makes us less efficient.” Lauzardo said it is “indefensible” for the university to be unable to mandate vaccination against the coronavirus in the same way it mandates vaccination against diseases such as measles and mumps.

University President W. Kent Fuchs declined to comment. A university spokesman, Steve Orlando, wrote in an email that the school does not have the power to require coronavirus vaccinations. “Only the state has that authority,” Orlando wrote. He also wrote that the school’s mask policy follows state law and guidance from the state university system’s Board of Governors. A board spokeswoman did not respond to questions but sent copies of board statements this summer which included urging vaccinations and sharing updated CDC guidance on mask-wearing.

DeSantis has called arguments for vaccine mandates “very unscientific,” contrary to what many public health experts say. His office told The Post in a statement that the governor supports voluntary vaccination but is opposed to “the idea of a biomedical security state.” Regarding the governor’s aversion to indoor mask requirements, the statement said “the evidence for universal forced masking is weak at best.” Public health experts disagree with that assessment, too.

Within these constraints, the university has developed a dual strategy: Promote vaccination relentlessly and post signs everywhere declaring that indoor masks are “expected” (although not required).

Student leaders are on board. “The right thing to do,” said Cooper Brown, 23, the student body president, from Winter Park, Fla., “and the important thing to do right now is not only to get vaccinated but also wear your mask indoors.” Students and faculty say mask use is high, especially in classrooms.

In one lecture The Post observed Wednesday, for a geology class, two or three students were unmasked out of more than 30 in the room.

“My students are really taking this seriously,” said the lecturer, Anita Marshall, who was masked. They’re trying to do what they can, she said, to keep the semester on track.

But there are still plenty of students who remain unvaccinated. Chey Magloire, 21, a senior in biology from Orlando, said she is unsure whether to get a shot.

“I’m still doing my research,” Magloire said. She was outside the campus student union Tuesday afternoon with several peers promoting a Caribbean student group. Magloire said she wants to know how effective vaccines are. “The thing about college students, you can’t just tell them, ‘Hey, do this, do that,’ ” she said. “We’re going to question everything.”

Others have made up their minds. Maggi Hall, 19, a sophomore from Bel Air, Md., studying health education and behavior, was among more than 170 who got vaccinated in a campus garage Wednesday. She said she did it in solidarity with her lacrosse teammates.

“I was a little on the fence about it,” Hall said. But she was glad that she wasn’t forced. “I love that I had a choice. I took my time with the decision and didn’t get penalized for it.”

Hall said she did not plan to go to the football game. Like some students The Post interviewed, she said she would avoid stadium crowds for now.

Lauzardo said he is “not terribly worried” about viral spread in the stadium. He is more concerned about unmasked crowds in restaurants, bars and other indoor settings.

Other experts have flagged potential risks at stadiums.

“The thing I worry about personally as school comes back” is the return of sports, said Michael Saag, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“Cramming a lot of people into a football stadium,” he said, could have consequences, especially if there is not much wind and people are yelling a lot and sitting or standing close together. “It’s very possible that transmissions will be profound.”

At Duke University in Durham, N.C., where students are required to be vaccinated, officials announced Monday that spectators must wear masks at all athletic events, indoors or outdoors, regardless of vaccination status. The mandate covers “all areas associated with game day,” the university said, including “fan zones, premium/hospitality areas, etc.” People can remove masks when “actively eating or drinking.” Duke’s campus testing has found the virus circulating significantly among vaccinated students.

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In Gainesville, students are eager to do whatever it takes to keep the virus at bay and resume fall pastimes on a scenic campus with red brick academic halls, palm trees and live oaks adorned with Spanish moss. That includes getting pumped for game day.

The Fightin’ Gator Marching Band drilled one sweltering afternoon in anticipation of its first full-dress, on-field halftime show since 2019. The band, with 410 members, is the largest ever. It plans to play “Happy Together,” by the Turtles, “Come Together,” by the Beatles, and “Sweet Caroline,” by Neil Diamond.

Last school year, the band practiced under extraordinary distancing rules that impeded marching. Members wore specialized masks and placed nylon bell covers on woodwind and brass instruments to limit viral spread. Delegations from the band played in the stands at home football games. This year, they are elated to be allowed back on the field.

“It felt like college was being taken away from me, and now it’s back,” said drum major Lauren Mizell, 21, a senior from Marietta, Ga., studying music and arts in medicine. Mizell said she is vaccinated and ready to perform.

So is snare drummer Carter Kaplan. “I’m so excited to feel the energy of the Swamp,” said the 19-year-old sophomore from Oviedo, Fla., who is majoring in music and business. “It gives a whole different kind of vibe to everything, when there’s a bunch of people yelling, to feel the wave of sound coming back to you.” His father, too, played in the Florida drum line back in the day.

Kaplan knows there will be more than 80,000 people packed into one place Saturday in the midst of the pandemic. Whatever might spread in the air there, he is unconcerned.

“Everyone I know is vaccinated,” he said. “No worries. Seriously.”

Svrluga reported from Washington.