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In a Pandemic, Athens’ 2020 Football Season Won’t Be the Same

Will gamedays be as crowded as it was in 2019? Let's hope not. Credit: Whitley Carpenter

As a lifelong Georgia Bulldogs fan, Madison Weathersbee chose to study at the University of Georgia, hoping to experience the camaraderie and fanfare found in the packed student section in Sanford Stadium. But like many people in 2020, her plans changed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

UGA Athletics announced guidelines for the upcoming football season—assuming there is one—on Aug. 19. Sanford Stadium will be limited to no more than 25 percent capacity, which would mean only about 23,000 fans would fill the stadium’s 92,746 seats. In addition to spaced-out seating in blocks of four, anyone entering the stadium must be masked for Georgia’s four home games.

“I don’t think the experience will be the same at all, and I don’t think it’s worth it,” said Weathersbee, a criminal justice major from Augusta. “I always wanted to have game days, but I would rather be able to stay on campus and keep my parents and grandparents safe when I go visit them than have football or the same freshman year experience I wanted.”

While normally 16,000 tickets go to students, only 3,000 will receive tickets this season, Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said on a video call with reporters. Between the seating arrangements, masks and limited capacity, the stadium will look starkly different from home football games in the past.

While restrictions may be in place for limiting exposure inside Sanford Stadium, it’s still expected that fans will cheer Georgia on by crowding into bars and tailgating across town. McGarity said Georgia won’t make a decision whether or not to allow tailgating until closer to the first home game against Auburn on Oct. 3. In regard to limiting exposure around Athens on potentially busy game days, the Athens-Clarke County Commission has little local jurisdiction for enforcing anything beyond the current statewide order issued in June. Gov. Brian Kemp’s emergency order requires restaurants to space seated parties six feet apart from one another, and it limits capacity in bars to 50 people or 35 percent of total capacity, whichever is greater.

“If the current statewide order remains in place, they can’t be as packed as they have been in the past,” Mayor Kelly Girtz said. “But as one public health faculty member [at UGA] told me a couple of weeks ago, expecting a group of drunk and largely young people to space out in a bar environment would be [like] expecting that from 3-year-olds.”

The ACC Commission moved to change last call in bars from 2 a.m. to 10 p.m. in late July to prevent large gatherings of drunken students and visitors, but bar owners brought a lawsuit against the city. The commission reached a settlement with the bar owners on Aug. 14, whereby last call was set at 11:30 p.m. instead. In addition, under Kemp’s order, bars and other businesses are allowed to opt out of ACC’s ordinance requiring masks in public indoor places. Masks are still required outdoors when social distancing is not possible. The commission is also starting a “parklet” pilot program, allowing downtown restaurants to set up outdoor seating areas in parking lots in the open air where the transmission risk for COVID-19 is lower. 

“If you think about the governor saying, ‘Well, all counties aren’t the same,’ I get that. That’s why he’s not doing some state-level changes, but people who want a party atmosphere are coming to Athens because we have that,” said Commissioner Allison Wright. “We should be able to do what’s needed for the health and safety of our community, because we are a destination.”

Something that hasn’t changed since the pandemic is local businesses’ reliance on UGA football. After a slow summer and spring with students away and many full-time residents sheltering in place, football games may help many businesses regain their financial footing, Wright said. The boost in sales from game days would especially be advantageous for businesses this year, since public health measures put in place to lower the transmission of COVID-19 limited their opportunities to bring in money.

To help bars survive the lean times, the commission lowered alcohol license fees and waived penalties for late excise tax payments. Wright also said she’s interested in helping all types of businesses—as well as struggling tenants, landlords and homeowners—by delaying the October property tax deadline until December, if the county can afford it.

As much as Wright said she would love to see it, she’d be surprised if Georgia does have a football season, citing the decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in March, when the level of COVID-19 cases was much lower. As there’s still another month before the first home football game, there’s always a chance that plans will change, whether it’s switching to a game with no fans in the stadium, postponing the season until spring or canceling it altogether, as several conferences have already done.

“We learn different things every day,” McGarity said. “I don’t think there is a drop-dead date. We don’t have one designated… But I just think we look at the information daily and listen to what our other peer institutions are doing, as well as the Big 12 and the ACC, the AAC [American Athletic Conference] and everybody else that is playing, and keep tabs on everyone else.”

Whether or not Georgia plays as currently planned, Girtz said there’s no doubt that “it’s going to be a very different football season for hotels, bars, restaurants, caterers and everyone in between” in the Athens community.