To celebrate their city’s ranking as top in the nation for new COVID-19 spread, Iowa State University announced plans today for a possible superspreader event next week.
Okay, that’s not how they phrased it, but it’s essentially what is playing out today in the current global epicenter of coronavirus spread. ISU Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard put out a statement this morning saying that 25,000 attendees would be allowed in for ISU football’s home opener next Saturday, Sept. 12 against Louisiana. That’s about 40% capacity of Jack Trice Stadium.
“During the past several weeks, we have been working closely with university officials as it relates to having fans at home football games,” Pollard wrote. “As a result of those discussions, we have decided to provide fans, who purchased season tickets, the opportunity to attend our opener on Sept. 12 vs. Louisiana.”
He notes that seats have been “strategically reassigned” for social distancing, but adds that it’s prioritized by how much ticket-holder club boosters have given financially and the prices of other season tickets.
A look at their seating chart for the game certainly shows that the strategy is focused on money and maybe TV shots instead of the safety of the attendees. In the sections behind the end zone, where premium reserved seats are located for club members, attendees will still be packed in with one another.
For their seating charts, white dots are where people will be sitting. Red dots are empty seats. Here’s the end zone area:
Special club seating for larger donors will also take no distancing precautions for COVID-19. In the Club 34 section, 90 people will be sitting elbow-to-elbow in a confined space. Meanwhile, seats in the upper stands are much more sparse.
In other areas of the stadium, entire long rows will be filled.
However, there will be other measures taken by the athletics department that seem like they could have an impact. Face coverings will be required for all attendees at all times, both while heading into the game and during it. Pollard warns that anyone who takes theirs off will be removed from the stadium.
No tailgating will be allowed, and attendees are encouraged to go directly from their cars into the stadium with no socializing in the parking lots. Gates will open early to allow more time for people to enter without getting into crowds.
And, to their credit, Pollard gives an ultimatum that has been lacking from many leaders during the pandemic: if things don’t go well this time, the other home games will have empty stands.
“If we determine that mitigation measures were not followed adequately at the first game, we will have no fans at future games (beginning with Oklahoma),” Pollard writes.
He adds that the team needs “full buy-in from everyone.”
“Every person has a unique perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Pollard says. “Some are fearless, others are cautious. Our measures will be too restrictive for some and too lenient for others. All we ask is that you respect others, follow our guidelines and support the Cyclones.”
The university will also monitor the situation over the coming days, with the possibility of revising their plan or cancelling in-person attendance altogether for the first game.
It’s hard to imagine how things could get any worse for ISU and the surrounding Ames area. After a massive “801 Day” party before classes resumed this month helped spark an outbreak on campus, Ames and Story County has seen their COVID-19 cases skyrocket, turning it into one of the worst hotspots on the entire planet currently.
Given the amount of spread both in Story County and the entire state (Iowa currently has the worst per capita spread of any state), there would likely be at the very least dozens of people in the 25,000-person crowd that has the virus. If everyone follows the rules laid out precisely by Pollard, there’s a chance that spread could be minimal, but there’s also the very real possibility that it could turn into a superspreader event. Why the risk of that is necessary when Iowa — and Ames in particular — is struggling so much to get the pandemic under control is questionable at best.
This home game would also represent one of the largest in-person gatherings in the country since the start of the pandemic. Back in mid-July, a crowd of about 20,000 attended a NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. COVID-19 cases spiked in the county soon after, however, officials weren’t able to tie the cases directly to the sporting event.
Late last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered the closure of bars in six counties, including Story, well after the damage had already been done.
While Reynolds and university officials have tried to pin the blame on the outbreaks solely on students’ reckless behavior, many are pointing to the failure to plan adequately for students’ return and the poor leadership and examples shown by Iowa leaders.
Bringing 25,000 people into a stadium during a massive local outbreak of COVID-19 sure seems like one more sign to young people that Iowa isn’t taking the pandemic serious, so they shouldn’t either.
by Pat Rynard
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