What had the looks of a return to normalcy for college football has taken on a new twist. The increase in Delta variant cases, the overwhelming of hospital ICUs, and the lack of control in many parts of the country has caused some areas to go on what would best be described as modified shutdowns. Mask mandates are now common for indoor facilities. And that is just the basics. Entertainment companies like Live Nation are now requiring proof of vaccination or recent negative Covid tests to enter any of their events. There is a growing number of NFL teams with the same mandate for fans. Show proof or there is no entrance to the game. This brings us to UCLA’s Covid quandary.
UCLA’s Covid Quandary
The football season is just over a week away. And in two weeks comes a team from a state with one of the worst infection rates, and lowest vaccination rates, in the country.
Just more than a month ago UCLA announced that it plans to welcome back any and all fans to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for home games for the 2021 season. This coming less than a full year after playing all its 2020 home games in an empty stadium. The Covid virus seemed to be subsiding in the greater Los Angeles area. Mask mandates were being reduced throughout the county.
And then just as quickly as the foot came off the brakes, it needed to be slammed back on. As of the writing of this article, the seven-day average for LA County is 3,477 new Covid cases per day. That is a mere one-fifth of what they were in mid-January of this year. But it is the highest number in the last eight months and is on the rise.
LA County recently issued a mask mandate for all mega events…5,000 people indoors, and 10,000 outdoors. Late Wednesday night, the city of Pasadena confirmed the LA County edict for all UCLA home football games this season.
First line health care workers are being mandated to get the Covid vaccine. Private businesses are doing the same. Being a reporter covering UCLA athletics requires having your vaccination card on file with the athletic department, as well as wearing a mask. But the county, overall, still sits at only 61% of the population fully vaccinated. Sixty-nine percent is partially vaccinated, according to the Department of Health. Yet those numbers far outpace Louisiana.
The University of California system now mandates that students be vaccinated before returning to school for the Fall term. There are of course religious and health exemptions available. UCLA head coach Chip Kelly says approximately a dozen of his players filed for, and were granted, the exemption. The rest of the 115-player roster are vaccinated, according to Kelly, as is the entire staff.
A State With A Lot Of Questions
Nowhere in the state of Louisiana is there a mask mandate of any kind. LSU does not have a vaccination mandate for its students. The school estimates that 97.4 % of the team is currently vaccinated. The entire coaching staff is vaccinated.
Let’s Do Our Part pic.twitter.com/UmXL1fszav
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) July 30, 2021
But LSU has sold thousands of tickets to fans to travel to the September 4th game at the Rose Bowl. It is a highly anticipated match-up. The two schools have never met in the 100+ year history of both programs. The problem is that East Baton Rouge Parish has a population roughly 25% that of LA County, yet its current infection rate is about 20% higher. The rate of those fully vaccinated is also a full 30% lower than LA County. The players may be vaccinated. But the fans are significantly less so. And with very few airlines requiring vaccinations to travel, the potential of a spread is large.
At a time when venues and athletic teams are now mandating proof of vaccination in order to attend games, it is not unreasonable to ask if UCLA, the County of Los Angeles, the City of Pasadena, and/or the Rose Bowl Operating Committee, (RBOC), are exploring such options.
A Complex Relationship
The relationship among all vested parties is complex. The Rose Bowl was hit hard financially during Covid. With UCLA playing in an empty stadium, there was no game day revenue. The venue was also dark for the more than a dozen major events it routinely holds on an annual basis.
Likewise, the city of Pasadena suffered from a lack of tourism, hotel, and restaurant revenue when last January’s Tournament of Roses Parade was cancelled because of Covid. A quick glimpse through downtown and Old Town will also find some closed-up businesses that did not survive the pandemic regulations. That means less business tax revenue for the city. On top of that, the city has twice floated millions of dollars to the Rose Bowl Operating Committee to help offset its losses.
Ironically, the city and the stadium operating committee found themselves facing off in court against each other earlier in the year over ownership rights of the annual New Year’s Day game and the rights to the name. Last year, because of the pandemic, the Rose Bowl game was moved to Arlington, Texas.
Questions Remain Unanswered
UCLA is the Rose Bowl’s largest tenant but is just that, a tenant. The school pays a lease to play its games there. It has no ownership rights in the property at all. Yet, when we reached out to RBOC spokesperson Meredith Thomas, she felt obliged to defer to UCLA athletic department spokesperson Scott Markley for the answers to our inquiries.
The questions were direct and to the point. In light of the Delta variant spread, are there any current talks or reconsiderations on the fan participation/attendance levels? Is the stadium/school/city of Pasadena engaging in talks about requiring vaccinations? And how would that work for those who have already purchased tickets? In light of the spread particular to the state of Louisiana, has any specific concern been expressed about the LSU game on Labor Day weekend and the thousands of fans expected to come from Louisiana for the game? Are any contingency plans being drawn up?
With RBOC’s Thomas deflecting to UCLA’s Markley, we got the stock response from the school. “We are excited to welcome back students, alumni and fans to the Rose Bowl on August 28 against Hawaii, and we will continue to follow local and state health and safety protocols in order to maintain a safe environment for our everyone,” said the email reply from Markley.
Skirting The Rules
While UCLA may think the answer is definitive, it couldn’t be less so. Even though the county issued its mask mandate, and the city confirmed it, it is only a step. Pasadena has its own department of health. It has often bucked county guidelines during the pandemic when it comes to local businesses. However, in this instance, the two sides concurred. But we are just weeks away from a visit from thousands who have had no mask mandate for months and have little inclination for vaccinations.
After weeks of sleuthing through LSU social media boards, it is clear that there is a desire for those coming from Baton Rouge to avoid LA County protocols. A poster who goes by the name “SDwhoodat” who has been a member of the LSU fan site, Tiger Droppings since 2007, is advising visiting LSU fans to, “Drive a little south to Orange County and you will not run into this issue…at least not yet.” That poster is not alone. We found dozens on various LSU fan sites giving advice about where to go in order to avoid the LA County Covid mandates. Entire threads are dedicated to helping people find “Covid-flexible” locations to stay, dine, and have entertainment.
Health vs. Business
We reached out to the LA County Department of Health for their insights. County Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer has not been shy in the past with her thoughts on sporting events during the pandemic. We did not get an official response in time for publication. We did however speak with one senior staffer who talked with us on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak officially on this subject. “There is concern in the department,” the staffer said. “We would prefer if these large-scale events are going to go forward, they do so with a vaccination mandate like what has happened with other concerts and some NFL teams. But we cannot impose that mandate. It takes the cooperation of all involved. It would be good if they got there sooner rather than later.”
Earlier this week, we reached out to the city of Pasadena for any insights on planning that could be in the works for elevated Covid protocols at games. A senior aid for Mayor Victor Gordo connected us, via email, to Rose Bowl Operating Committee CEO Darryl Dunn. A day later, in a similar e-mail chain, Dunn hooked us up with RBOC COO George Cunningham with assurances he would be in touch with us. As of our final publication deadline, we had no new insights from anyone at the city or Rose Bowl.
On Thursday, the state of Louisiana started sending emergency military doctors and staff into hospitals in areas throughout the state. According to the Army Times, five teams of roughly 20 doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists will soon be dispatched into parishes throughout the state, including East Baton Rouge. The surge is that bad and the vaccination rates are that low. And now thousands will be headed to Southern California in a matter of two weeks. The LA County Department of Health seems to want some solutions. The city of Pasadena and the RBOC have delivered no concrete information specific to that issue. And UCLA provided the same answer, nearly word for word, that they have given to every Covid question in the last several weeks.
A return to normalcy may be headed right for the ledge already.