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U of Michigan hit with emergency stay-at-home order amid coronavirus spike. But the football team will play on.

The University of Michigan football team will still hold its home opener later this month even as rising coronavirus numbers forced health officials to issue an emergency shelter-in-place order to students. (Paul Sancya/AP)
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As health officials in Washtenaw County, Mich., recorded hundreds of new coronavirus cases in recent weeks, they found a common thread: the University of Michigan campus, where officials have blamed the rising infections on students ignoring coronavirus restrictions.

On Tuesday, local health authorities issued an emergency stay-at-home order for the campus in Ann Arbor, Mich., mostly restricting undergraduates to their residences unless they’re getting food, doing an essential job or going to class.

Athletics, though, are exempt — meaning that the Wolverines’ football team will keep preparing for a road game in Minnesota on Saturday and an Oct. 31 home opener against rival Michigan State University. Although the Michigan stadium won’t feature a large crowd, some officials worry that the home game will fuel new cases anyway because of Spartan fans who travel to Ann Arbor and Michigan supporters who gather for watch parties.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 college football season is still pressing on. Here's where we are. (Video: The Washington Post)

“The problem is going to be that people are going to gather, most likely indoors,” Linda Vail, health officer in Ingham County, Mich., which includes MSU’s campus, said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters. “You’re going to have a lot of indoor gatherings, which could result in another spike in transmissions.”

After the order landed, some students lashed out at classmates for not following bans on large gatherings and mandatory mask rules.

“Very disappointing to see your fellow students not being able to control themselves and completely disobeying what we’ve been told is good for our community and good for our own health,” Alex Hutchinson, an undergraduate student, told WDIV.

The emergency order came as cases have risen steeply in Washtenaw, a southeastern Michigan county that has had more than 4,200 cases during the pandemic, according to county data. Just since Oct. 12, the county has recorded 600 new coronavirus cases. Health officials traced 61 percent of those cases back to UM, which has had more than 1,000 cases since students returned for the fall semester.

Most of those cases, health officials said Tuesday, came at “social events and gatherings.”

Tuesday’s order, which will stay in effect until Nov. 3, is less strict than a quarantine. In addition to class and food, students can still leave their homes to exercise in small groups, vote and see a doctor. But ending large get-togethers is critical to slowing the disease’s spread, health officials said.

“The situation locally has become critical, and this order is necessary to reverse the current increase in cases,” Jimena Loveluck, the health officer for Washtenaw County, said in a news release.

The county did carve out an exception for UM’s athletic teams, though, provided the school has medical workers in place for all activities and the athletes are routinely tested under Big Ten guidelines.

Unlike its rivals in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12, the Big Ten initially postponed the fall football season before backtracking and allowing an abbreviated schedule to start this month. Michigan’s athletic department recorded 11 positive coronavirus test between Oct. 10 and Oct. 16 out of 1,559 total tests, ESPN reported. No football players are sidelined by infections, football coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters.

Although the Big Ten has strict guidelines for canceling games based on players and staff members testing positive for the coronavirus, health officials urged the league to adopt similar policies based on how widely the virus is spreading in a school’s community.

“We would like them to set that benchmark,” Vail said. “So that basically the Big Ten has established that if a community, if a locale, that this game is to be played in exceeds these metrics, then that game can’t be played in that community.”