When the Longhorns play their football season opener Saturday, UT Austin will be tested on the field by UT-El Paso — and off the field by whether or not its COVID-19 protocols are enough to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
With an expected crowd of around 25,000 people, the game will be the first mass gathering in the city since a Post Malone concert at the Frank Erwin Center six months ago. And despite all that we know about distancing, masks and cleaning, there is a likelihood that COVID-19 will find new hosts at Saturday’s game.
UT is limiting attendance to just 25% of stadium capacity. The university had the option of raising it up to 50% capacity under Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders. There is currently a ban on gatherings in Travis County of groups larger than 10, but that does not apply at the university. State rules supersede local enforcement on state-owned land, like Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, meaning Abbott controls the maximum size of crowds at any state university sites.
To reduce clustering, fans can only enter at the assigned gate on their contactless, mobile-only ticket. Face masks are required for all spectators and staff. Fans will be grouped by party and spaced for social distancing.
Even with those protocols in place, statistically speaking, dozens could still get the virus. There are still snack runs, bathroom lines and other interactions to contend with. Dr. Mark Escott, Austin Public Health’s interim medical director, said one upside here is that the local transmission rate has been lowered to 5%.
“Before, we were looking at 100 potential positives at a capacity of 25,000,” he said. "Now, we’re looking somewhere of the order of around 40 to 50.”
He said he'll have a good idea of how many were affected in two weeks. To mitigate some of that spread, UT is testing students before they go. They will have to undergo a COVID-19 antigen test and get a negative result before receiving one of the limited number of student tickets. No other ticket-holders or visitors will be tested to attend.
The football team and staff will also be tested prior to the game, as will the UTEP Miners. Texas has managed to limit COVID-19 cases among its team since July. The Longhorns will be using Big 12 Conference protocols, testing athletes three times a week this season. Three other Big 12 football teams have already had to cancel or postpone their season openers because of COVID-19 cases. The opening opponents Baylor and Oklahoma State had outbreaks on their respective teams, while TCU is contending with one internally.
To keep the team shielded from potential spread, access to the field during games is tighter than normal. The Longhorn Band will not perform, and there will be no on-field presentations or promotional giveaways.
Texas could be a contender for a title in what will be an odd year for college football. Two of the five major conferences, the Pac 12 and Big 10, have decided not to play their seasons in the fall.
That leaves the Big 12, ACC and SEC to likely determine a national champion — if the season can be completed during a pandemic.
UT senior defensive back Chris Brown said he understands that, with the pandemic, not everything will be in the team's control.
“You know, with everything going on, it’s like, ‘Hey, you never know when your opportunities are going to be snatched from underneath you, so when you do get one, you have to take full advantage,’” he said.
College football played a shortened season through the 1918 flu pandemic. Determining a consensus champion was a lot different then, but Pittsburgh and Michigan were declared national champs after playing just five games.
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