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Friday night frights: The South braces for fall football crowds

Alabama officials plan to open Bryant-Denny Stadium to 20 percent of its capacity — still more than 20,000 people — for the Crimson Tide’s Sept. 26 match against Missouri. Other schools in the Southeastern Conference are following similar protocols as they press ahead with a season this year, some with the blessing of their governors.

An executive order from Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, allows colleges to hold games with fewer fans and under strict conditions. “Some states have opted not to make any effort to play. I believe we have to try. We can’t just abandon athletes and culture,” Reeves tweeted.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s order, signed last week, gives sports conferences and associations sole authority to dictate schools’ competitions and stadium conditions.

“I do think that having a packed college football stadium with college student fans that are likely to be screaming and yelling — and likely in some degree of intoxication, so unaware of the degree of social distancing they’re doing — all of that is going to lead to cases and clusters and outbreaks,” said Adalja, a member of the NCAA’s coronavirus advisory panel.

“That’s a foregone conclusion,” he said.

Masks, phone apps and fewer concessions

The Salt Bowl’s plans for fan safety, and those of football-hungry colleges, showcase the near-future look for stadium life. It’s part social distancing, mask requests and a dash of what some observers describe as “security theater.”

Arkansas high school fans will have to wear masks at all times, except when eating or drinking. War Memorial’s concession menus will feature only prepackaged items. Signs will remind fans to follow health department guidelines allowing single household family groups to sit together but 6 feet from all other groups.

Alabama and its athletic conference feature the more sophisticated side of stadium disease management: mobile-only tickets and parking passes, Plexiglass shields for ticket scanners, frequent restroom cleaning — plus a new phone screening app that asks fans to document their contact information, symptoms and exposure risk before entering stadiums.

The Miami Dolphins plan similar game day routines at Hard Rock Stadium, where as many as 13,000 fans will be able to watch them play Sept. 20 against the Buffalo Bills, which has barred fans at home.

‘You can’t take the risk to zero’

The best-laid plans rely on a compliant public, sufficient game day staff to enforce the rules, hospital capacity to address outbreaks that could ensue and low virus levels in the surrounding area.

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