UF Health and the Florida Gators’ athletic department are offering football fans a chance to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before Saturday’s game against Florida Atlantic University.
The new delta variant of COVID-19 surfaced just as mask mandates were dropping in popularity and prevalence across Florida this summer. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ July 30 executive order prohibited the enforcement of mask wearing in schools, and state universities have followed by saying masks are expected but not required.
Just over half, or 53%, of Florida’s population is fully vaccinated, putting it in line with the national average but below some of the nation’s other most populous states of New York , at 60%, and California, at 56%.
The combination of an unvaccinated population and surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths during the summer provides the backdrop for a fall football season rife with concerns of additional virus spread. Attendance at Gator football games was limited last season to 20%. There are no such limits this season.
For these reasons, UF Health Screen, Test & Protect is providing two vaccination sites from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Saturday. One will be at the Stephen O’Connell Center and another at Gate 12 of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
How many fans take advantage of an opportunity that’s been available to the entire adult population since early April remains to be seen, but every shot matters at this stage in the pandemic. Immunity from the worst effects of the virus requires several weeks following the shot and its booster.
“I think it’s a great thing that they’re giving people another opportunity to get the vaccine,” 19-year-old UF student Owens Parker said. “I think that can do nothing but good, especially with how many people are going to be in the area for game day.”
Louisiana State University last week announced its plans for keeping the surrounding community safe in a time where COVID-19 is still prominent. LSU plans to require guests age 12 and older to provide either proof of vaccination or a recent negative test in order to attend their games.
According to the UF Athletic Director Scott Stricklin, however, UF has no authority to do the same thing.
“Florida will not be requiring vaccines or a negative test to attend any event on campus, whether it’s classes or a football game,” Stricklin said Aug. 25 on Sports Scene with Steve Russell on ESPN Gainesville. “That decision’s already been made above us.”
Instead, UF has opted to offer those on-site vaccinations, along with placing hand sanitizing stations, bar codes for mobile ordering concessions and “Face Masks Expected” signs around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“I am, of course, fully vaccinated,” UF student Maria Knauff said. “I will also be wearing a mask as well as carrying hand sanitizer with me.”
DeSantis signed Executive Order 20-52 on April 2, prohibiting businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers in order to allow them to enter or be served in section two.
Still, the Tampa Bay Times published a story on Aug. 20 explaining that there are loopholes that can allow institutions to request such documentation.
The article states that a concert for Dead & Company playing at MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa on Oct. 7 will have an alternate viewing location for those who do not bring proof of vaccination or a negative test.
Although not required for entrance at the football stadium this weekend, masks are still required on public transport.
Thomas Idoyaga, a transit community service specialist for the City of Gainesville, said the Regional Transit System requires masks on their buses because of section two of Executive Order 13998 issued by President Biden in January, which states that anyone traveling using public transport will be required to wear a mask.
“There are signs inside the bus that say to wear a mask,” Idoyaga said. “We provide them free of charge.”
At the high school level, the picture will be similar, at least for outdoor events like football.
Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson said their high schools are filling outdoor events at full capacity and indoor events at 25% capacity. Johnson said the school board’s best guess on where to go next in terms of safety precautions will be based on the first few games.
“We are encouraging masks for outdoor activities and for indoor activities we are requiring them,” she said.
Students can opt out of mask requirements with a parent signature.
Brady Ackerman is Belleview High School’s new football coach in Marion County.
“I love coaching young men and helping them be successful,” he said.
With the new variant of COVID-19 comes more motivation to stay protected.
“You could lose a couple of players on game day,” he said. “There are schools that haven’t been able to play this week because of contact tracing.”
Contact tracing is a method schools have been using to ensure a slower spread of COVID-19. If a student has been in contact with someone who tested positive, the student will be sent home.
Ackerman said they’ve been using what he called an upgraded sanitizing spray that is used to clean locker rooms before and after practice.
He also has separated varsity and junior varsity meetings and has limited the meetings to about 10 minutes before having his players space out. Players are required to bring an individual water bottle, a small nod to how contagious the virus is and how easily it spreads.
“We are being as safe as possible,” he said, noting that attendance on Friday marked one of the biggest crowds the high school football team had seen in five or six years.
“I think the community is excited,” he said. “I think they’re ready to get back to some normalcy.”