South braces for Friday football crowds in coronavirus era

This weekend, the annual kickoff between top Arkansas high school football teams will include a tradition the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have thus far banned: real, live fans in the stands.

As many as 12,000 mask-clad football enthusiasts, friends and family members will be allowed to attend the Salt Bowl at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. POLITICO reported Tuesday that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson would perform the pregame coin toss, donning a custom face mask.

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For many, the matchup is more than just a big game: It’s a return to whatever normal is left amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed thousands of Americans and infected nearly 6 million. Promoters say it will be the state’s largest outdoor event since the pandemic began.

Arkansas has not implemented many of the stringent health measures imposed in other states and Hutchinson has repeatedly defended his decision not to lock down cities.

Nevertheless, according to White House documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, the Natural State is listed as a coronavirus red zone.

More than 100 new cases were reported per 100,000 people over the last week, putting Arkansas at the 13th-highest rate in the country for cases.

So far, however, neither the infection rates nor anecdotal accounts of super-spreader events have changed the position of the governor, who on Tuesday rejected a White House task force’s recommendation that the state shutter bars and tighten safety measures.

Meanwhile, even without fans, Major League Baseball — a generally socially distanced sport — has suffered outbreaks that stymied its reopening plans.

If Salt Bowl fans are infected with the virus and carry it back to their communities, the risk of spread may be significant. Before the pandemic, the game drew a crowd of more than 30,000.

And Arkansas isn’t the only state that packs high school and college football stadiums as if they were hosting NFL events.

In the Southeastern Conference, which consists of teams from schools in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, football is a way of life.

Davis High head coach Mitch Arquette, center, fist bumps Herriman High’s Brock Hollingsworth (5) during the coin toss before the start of a high school football game on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Herriman, Utah. Utah is among the states going forward with high school football this fall. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The conference is calling for an altered stadium experience: one with face masks, plexiglass, distanced lines, single-serve condiment packets and hand sanitizer.

But there are other clear ways to spread the virus, fans screaming among them. That’s why Japan’s Fuji-Q Highland amusement has requested its roller coaster riders “scream inside [their hearts].”

For stadiums at schools such as Auburn University — which plans to open Jordan-Hare Stadium to roughly 20% of its capacity like the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium — and Georgia Tech’s 11,000-seat Bobby Dodd Stadium, proposed coronavirus safety protocol may be enough to get the OK to play.

That wasn’t sufficient, however, for the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences, which postponed their fall sports schedules earlier in the month.

At the Salt Bowl, attendees will have to wear masks except when eating or drinking prepackaged items, and signs will instruct fans to socially distance.

Gameday staff will also be expected to enforce the rules. The question is whether those admitted will listen. While outdoor activities are notably safer than indoor events, they still carry risk and a vaccine may not be available for another year.

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There are now more than 5.7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States and the death toll is steadily approaching 179,000 Americans.