College football tailgates, frat parties are 'major risk factors' for COVID-19 spread this fall, experts warn
It’s not just the action on the field that poses health risks as the college football world mulls how to put on a season.
Game days, often packed with frat parties and tailgates, are worrying health officials who say such events could spark outbreaks of COVID-19.
Concerns abound about whether young people, who have been a catalyst for the surge in coronavirus cases this summer, will abide by social distancing guidelines as they return to campus in the fall. And when it comes to college football Saturdays, not much about the normal game day tailgating scene is social distancing-friendly.
Are fraternity brothers and sorority sisters going to put parties on hold in the name of containing the spread?
"Absolutely not," predicts Zulema Avila, a rising junior at Louisiana State University who is worried about the student body returning to campus in the fall.
"Even if they don't allow spectators inside the (stadium), there's still going to be tailgates, there's still going to be apartment parties and Greek life parties," Avila, a member of the Delta Zeta sorority, told USA TODAY.
Game days are nothing short of a cultural holiday for many college towns. And while the parking lots outside the stadium are often filled with alumni and families equipped with grilled meats and IPA's, the backyards of frat houses look much different, where crowds of students come together at early hours of the morning to put down mass amounts of cheap vodka, beer, and – a more recent trend – spiked seltzer.
Avila said she doesn't plan on partaking in the festivities this fall, but she's concerned about how fellow LSU students will navigate the tailgate scene, particularly after several months of not seeing their friends.
Game days, quite possibly the mecca of the college party scene, could be headed for a rude awakening this fall – and not the kind that can be quelled with sunglasses and ibuprofen.
Avoiding 'super-spreading' events
Schools are planning for restrictions like one-way hallways in class buildings and mask mandates on campus, but if students flock to frat parties and tailgates on Saturdays, then what?
One slip up can trigger a “super-spreading event,” which is essential in sparking outbreaks, said Dr. Stephen Kissler of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The chain reaction that could be set off by a busy tailgate or lively frat party is why Kissler views the social activities surrounding college football as "major risk factors" for the spread of COVID-19 this fall.
They're a chief concern for Dr. David Aronoff, too. The Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center said he doesn't see how the season starts on time, barring a reversal in infection numbers.
Positive cases have already begun to mount in some Greek communities. As of July 10, at least 136 fraternity house residents at the University of Washington tested positive for COVID-19, the school said. Meanwhile, the University of California at Berkeley attributed a recent spike in cases to a series of parties linked to the school’s Greek life.
Bars have been breeding grounds for an outbreak as well. A pub just off of Michigan State's campus in East Lansing was tied to 158 coronavirus cases in 15 different counties this summer.
Social distancing in an inherently social environment
Following distancing guidelines would mean sacrificing many social benefits that come with being on a college campus, but it's a practice that could be essential in preventing outbreaks.
Kissler suggested that people should keep their social circle – as in, the number of people someone physically socializes with – at no more than five to 10 people. But as far as how that suggestion translates to tailgates and watch parties this fall remains to be seen.
Penn State's vice president of student affairs wrote a letter to Greek organizations, warning that "the parties you may be accustomed to simply can’t happen," but didn't say what punishments would look like.
Kissler's suggestion would also mean no more game day pregames for fraternities at the University of Washington, where upwards of 100 students would normally gather at various chapter facilities, Erik Johnson, president of the school's interfraternity council, told USA TODAY.
Tailgate parties fall under the social moratorium placed on Greek organizations at the school, which prohibits social events through at least the end of 2020. Johnson, a senior from Camas, Washington, said he'll instead watch the games on TV with a few of his fraternity brothers if he can spare the time.
Students who violate social distancing measures at the University of Florida will be educated on the importance of the policies, but they won't face "enforcement" from the office of student conduct unless they continue to violate them, Vice President of Student Affairs D'Andra Mull said, but she did not specify what enforcement would look like.
Mull said the school believes it can still hold student events safely. She hinted at plans for a tailgate experience where some students watch Florida Gators football games from inside the stadium, while others watch at physically distanced chairs and tables under a large outdoor tent on campus.
She was hopeful that students would follow health ordinances, citing a survey done by the school in late June in which 88% of student respondents said they planned to wear a mask in the next two weeks. Meanwhile, 5% of students surveyed said they planned to attend a social gathering of more than 10 people in the same time span.
At LSU, on-campus events are held to a maximum of 100 attendees, while all events of more than 10 people will need written approval, according to the school’s plan for the fall semester. The document, however, does not lay out how the school will enforce the events, nor does it specifically mention how tailgates or other game-day festivities will be handled.
Regardless, the Greek community intends to safely play a role in the game-day experience this fall, said Marshall Lee, the president of the school's interfraternity council, though he didn't specify how.
Schools like the University of Texas at Austin have off-campus Greek houses, which can limit the extent to which a school can enforce health protocols. For instance, if an off-campus frat party violated social distancing ordinances, the participants would be subject to enforcement by the city, the county and the interfraternity council at the school, but not the school itself, explained Sara Kennedy, a UT-Austin spokeswoman.
Fall without football:High school coaches want to play. Epidemiologists say it's unsafe.
Amid health concerns, a push for football
College football is still on for this fall as of now, though some conferences have canceled all non-conference games in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The Ivy League canceled football season altogether.
The MLB started its season with no fans in attendance, but more than a dozen members of the Miami Marlins' clubhouse tested positive for COVID-19 within the first weekend of games. That gives a grim outlook for college football, a sport with dozens more teams competing and rosters that are more than twice the size.
Already, many college football programs have announced positive cases among players and staff as they've returned to campus this summer for workouts.
But pressure has come from the game’s biggest names to push forward with a fall season.
“We need football,” LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said at a roundtable this month, calling the sport the “lifeblood of our country.”
"I don't think we can take this away from these players, take this away from our state and our country … It gets everything going, it gets the economy going, the economy of Baton Rouge, the economy of the state of Louisiana," the defending national champion coach said.
And he’s not wrong about the economic impact.
The 50-plus public schools in Power Five conferences have at least $4.1 billion in fiscal-year revenue tied to football, according to a USA TODAY Sports analysis.
Yet many of those same economic impacts, particularly the ones felt by restaurants and bars, go hand-in-hand with the social risks of having a football season.
Avoiding the "pinch points and bottlenecks" of crowds will be essential if college football takes the field this year, said Dr. Aronoff.
"If the priority is the sporting event itself, I think some of the peripheral activities will need to be put on hold."