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The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has met a sobering reality: A pandemic

Fans participate in tailgating activities in the parking lot before the 2015 Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville, Fla. You'll need a game ticket just to get into any city-owned lot Saturday. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
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A few weeks ago, Ed Witt told a bus company he wouldn’t need to rent a motor coach this fall. College friends, neighbors and clients usually meet at Witt’s house in Jacksonville, Fla., and ride into downtown the morning of the Florida-Georgia football game. Witt has missed the rivalry game only once since 1985, and many of those years he rented a bus so his crew of about 50 fans had easy transport to and from the stadium that hosts the game and an all-day behemoth of a tailgate party.

Witt’s plan for this year? “Nothing,” he said. He’s attending the game, but he plans to drive there in the afternoon once his 14-year-old daughter finishes soccer practice and return home immediately after. Witt hopes for a Florida win, but apart from that, his expectations are low because the game known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party must heed to a raging pandemic.

“It’ll be kind of dead,” Witt said, forecasting the game-day atmosphere. “Everybody will be going about their business. I’m sure there will be some people having fun. It just puts a huge damper. It’s like a wet blanket on everything.”

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College football games have carried on through the coronavirus pandemic, but the matchup between Florida and Georgia found itself particularly susceptible to change because it’s more an event than a game. The weekend-long party brings thousands into the city, even if they don’t have a ticket. Some fans arrive on boat via the St. Johns River. Students flock to the coast, turning south Georgia beaches into a daytime version of a crowded fraternity house. Four quarters of football occupy a few hours of the affair, but for many fans, the rivalry has deep ties to all these ancillary activities.

“It’s a real carnival-like atmosphere,” said Glenn Champion, a 71-year-old Georgia fan attending the game for his 51st consecutive year. “It’s just a lot of fun.”

“It kind of reminds me of a family reunion of sporting events,” said Lee Thomas, who owns a mobile party company that will hold a tailgate in Jacksonville even though he doesn’t expect it to turn a profit.

As host of one of the few neutral-site rivalry games in college football, TIAA Bank Field seats fans of the Bulldogs and Gators on separate sides of the stadiums, with the red and blue attire meeting behind the goal posts in each end zone. Apart from a two-year hiatus for stadium renovations, Jacksonville has hosted this game since 1933. According to the city’s office of sports and entertainment, last year’s matchup brought in 160,000 out-of-town visitors and generated an economic impact of $33 million.

The rivalry has provided a stage for Lindsay Scott’s miracle touchdown in the Bulldogs’ 1980 national title-winning season, Florida’s 1995 rout in Athens, Georgia’s planned excessive celebration penalty in 2007 and then the Gators’ two late timeouts in 2008 to let their victory ruminate. In the past 12 years, each team has won six times, and the game often has a significant role in deciding the champion of the SEC East. This year’s edition pits No. 5 Georgia against No. 8 Florida, but with social distancing protocols, only about 18,000 fans will watch from inside the stadium.

To discourage gatherings, only ticket holders are allowed in stadium lots, and the city is prohibiting tailgating — though it cannot impede events on private property. RV City, where some fans live in a makeshift neighborhood of motor homes for days leading up to the game, will not exist this year, and other events, such as the Hall of Fame luncheon, were canceled.

For nearly three decades, this game has been held on the weekend closest to Halloween, but when the SEC announced updated schedules because of the pandemic, the matchup moved back a week.

University of Georgia students usually have a day off from school the Friday before the game, and en masse, they drive to the Georgia coast. They crowd the shores of St. Simons Island, temporarily known as Frat Beach. Peter Murphy, the commissioner of Glynn County’s district that includes these barrier islands, said up to 10,000 students have taken part in the Friday event. They carry plastic jugs of alcohol, wear Halloween costumes and write hotel information or a friend’s phone number on their arms in hopes of making it home safely.

But this year Georgia’s fall break came a week ago, the Friday before the weekend the game would usually take place, and Glynn County has banned alcohol on the beach to discourage students from congregating.

“From a public health and a public relations point of view,” Murphy said, “we do not want to be seen by the rest of the state and the Southeast region as tolerating a potential superspreader event.”

Eric Santana, a senior at Georgia, has gone to Frat Beach the past three years. Only once did he have a ticket for the football game. Santana dressed up as Jar Jar Binks from “Star Wars” and watched a stranger hurl a waterlogged cellphone into the ocean. Santana found a ticket for this year’s game through a friend. They’re staying in St. Augustine, Fla., and have no plans to party on the beach. Santana is on the executive committee of his fraternity, Sigma Pi, and usually everyone goes to St. Simons. In previous years, “let’s say I know 500 people here,” Santana said. “I’d say probably 460 of them are going.” This year, he knows about only 10 other students making the trip.

“I feel like the pandemic completely curbed any potential for Frat Beach,” said Santana, who plans to attend medical school. “It would be absurd if anything close to that magnitude happened.”

For many, the pandemic has halted attendance streaks and scuttled long-standing traditions. Kelly Butterfield, a Florida graduate, hadn’t missed the game since 1988. With a group of college friends, she travels to Jacksonville by boat. Some years, they’ve chartered a yacht and hosted huge tailgates in the marina. “It’s just one big party for the whole weekend,” she said. But for this weekend, she invited a group of about 15 to her home north of Orlando instead.

The area around the stadium this Saturday won’t be quiet and deserted. Thousands will make their way into the game, and others won’t let the pandemic lessen their desire to be nearby, even if they can’t watch from the stands.

Pregame events will carry on at private businesses. Dean McQuiddy, a 1983 Florida graduate who has missed this game only once since he began college, will tailgate at Adams Street Station, then watch from a stadium suite. The Georgia Bulldog Club of Jacksonville — which takes its role for this weekend “very, very seriously,” past president Mary Daniel said — still will hold a tailgate and watch party near the stadium.

“Even under these circumstances,” Daniel said, “we didn't want to just shut down and interrupt what we do.”

The Bulldog Club usually parks 500 cars and serves barbecue to 2,000 people. This year, Daniel expects 150 cars and 300 fans at the watch party. Saturday will be the 32nd consecutive Florida-Georgia game Daniel has attended. She said she doesn’t wrestle with health concerns. She attended a watch party at an Irish pub for Georgia’s game last weekend.

“We all need football season,” Daniel said. “For us that are so invested and love this team and this game so much, we feel for our well-being that we need some normalcy. And watching Georgia football brings that to us.”

So the club will host a scaled-back version of its kickoff party Thursday evening. The fans will gather in a private lot Saturday, preparing for the game as they usually would but with limited tickets and extra space between cars. The organizers considered the public health guidelines, and “we’re doing those things,” Daniel said. “But the party is going to go on.”