College football is back and that means packed stadiums at home fields for the first time since 2019.
While gridiron fans flocked to their favorite team’s home field on Saturday for the first week of the 2021 season, public health experts were warning that now was not the time to get back to pre-pandemic business as usual.
The Indian Delta variant continues to fuel a surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths nationwide, particularly in the South, where tens of thousands of rabid college football fans came out to cheer on their heroes on Saturday.
Michigan fans in the student section of Michigan Stadium cheer in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Western Michigan in Ann Arbor on SaturdayInsurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
Purdue Boilermakers fans celebrate during the first quarter against the Oregon State Beavers at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana on Saturday
Auburn mascot Aubie leads the fans in a cheer during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Akron on Saturday in Auburn, Alabama
Last season, teams played college football games, but attendance was limited in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines put in place by local and state governments.
This year, however, restrictions have been lifted. Fans in many stadiums - including the Swamp in Gainesville, Florida, home to the Florida Gators - were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with no masks.
They were also not required to show proof of vaccination.
Florida is in the grip of its deadliest wave of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, a disaster driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
Texas Longhorns fans hold up a fan in the second half of the game against the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin on SaturdayInsurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
Texas A&M fans cheer as the Aggies take the field against Kent State before the the start of an NCAA college football game on Saturday in College Station, Texas
Fans cheer before the Good Sam Vegas Kickoff Classic between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Arizona Wildcats at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday
While Florida’s vaccination rate is slightly higher than the national average, the Sunshine State has an outsize population of elderly people, who are especially vulnerable to the virus; a vibrant party scene; and a Republican governor who has taken a hard line against mask requirements, vaccine passports and business shutdowns.
As of mid-August, the state was averaging 244 deaths per day, up from just 23 a day in late June and eclipsing the previous peak of 227 during the summer of 2020. (Because of both the way deaths are logged in Florida and lags in reporting, more recent figures on fatalities per day are incomplete.)
Hospitals have had to rent refrigerated trucks to store more bodies. Funeral homes have been overwhelmed.
In a positive sign, the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 in Florida has dropped over the past two weeks from more than 17,000 to 14,200 on Friday, indicating the surge is easing.
Overall, more than 46,300 people have died of COVID-19 in Florida, which ranks 17th in per-capita deaths among the states.
The majority of the deaths this summer - like last summer - are among the elderly.
Of the 2,345 people whose recent deaths were reported over the past week, 1,479 of them were 65 and older — or 63 percent.
Not all schools are following the University of Florida’s lead.
Louisiana State University announced last month that all fans over the age of 12 who attend home games at Tiger Stadium this fall will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.
The Florida Gators had 88,000 people in the stands on Saturday for their season opener against Florida Atlantic University in Gainesville.
The Gators, who are ranked 13th in the country, defeated FAU 35-14.
LSU lost in their season opener, which they played on the road at the University of California, Los Angeles.
UCLA prevailed over LSU 38-27. The school’s athletic director said that there were 68,213 fans in attendance at the game, which was held at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena.
As vaccine distribution ramped up earlier this year, California loosened restrictions on theme parks and stadium attendance.
The Rose Bowl Stadium can hold up to 91,000 spectators.
Schools that play in the powerhouse Southeast Conference saw attendance figures skyrocket on Saturday.
The University of Alabama crushed Miami at the kickoff event in Atlanta on Saturday. The game drew nearly 72,000 fans.