ATLANTA — For the second time this week, the Southeastern Conference has postponed a college football game because of the coronavirus pandemic, unnerving the league less than a month into its season and escalating the threat to one of the South’s economic and cultural juggernauts.
The decision to postpone Saturday’s game between No. 10 Florida and Louisiana State came after 21 players at Florida tested positive for the virus. The university’s athletic director, Scott Stricklin, said Wednesday that the test results were central to why the Gators would have had fewer than 50 scholarship players available for the game in Gainesville, Fla., below the league’s 53-man threshold. At least two assistant coaches also tested positive for the virus.
“We’ve reached a point where we don’t think it’s appropriate that we try to play the game this weekend,” said Stricklin, who added that football activities at Florida had been suspended indefinitely.
Since August, 29 games in the Football Bowl Subdivision, college football’s premier tier, have been canceled or postponed because of the pandemic. Before the decision on Wednesday, two other high-profile games that had been planned for this weekend were postponed because of increases in virus cases: a Big 12 Conference matchup between Baylor and Oklahoma State and an SEC game between Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Officials said Wednesday that it was not clear whether Florida’s next game, a contest against Missouri, would take place as planned on Oct. 24. The L.S.U. game, though, was tentatively rescheduled for Dec. 12, a week before the league championship game. Florida, currently second in its division, could be in contention to play in that game.
Florida officials believe their team’s outbreak could be linked to last weekend’s trip to College Station, Texas, where the Gators narrowly lost to Texas A&M. Stricklin said Wednesday that some players had mild symptoms — congestion, headache and the like — during the trip, but attributed them to allergies and did not tell the team’s medical staff about any concerns.
Stricklin said he learned early Monday that some players had reported symptoms. He said the university had moved to daily virus testing for its football program.
The postponement was a landmark in a convulsive 96-hour stretch for Florida that prompted questions about its commitment to public health. On Saturday, after the Gators lost in Texas, Coach Dan Mullen said he wanted Florida administrators to take advantage of the easing of his state’s virus restrictions and allow fans to “pack the Swamp,” as Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is known. (University leaders balked at Mullen’s pressure and held to their plans to allow about 17,000 fans, roughly 20 percent of the stadium’s capacity, at games in Gainesville.)
On Monday, the day Stricklin learned of the team’s mounting troubles, Mullen described Florida’s football program as “a model of safety” during the pandemic. Tuesday yielded word that Florida had paused football activities because of “an increase” in virus cases, and on Wednesday, hours before the postponement was made official, Mullen backtracked and apologized for his statements about the potential size of Swamp crowds.
“Whatever our health officials allow us to have in, that’s what we want to have in the stadium to keep everybody safe and healthy,” said Mullen, who added that he wanted to “create an unbelievable environment for our players and create energy within the stadium.”
The SEC opened its conference-only slate on Sept. 26, and until this week, it had avoided schedule disruptions. But the league’s commissioner, Greg Sankey, irritated by conspicuous violations of health protocols on the sidelines, has been warning coaches and athletic directors in recent weeks about the potential derailment of a season that has drawn some criticism for taking place at all.
“Do not relax — and do not let those around you relax — because of a few weeks of success,” Sankey wrote in a memo on Wednesday of last week. “Eleven weeks remain until the SEC Football Championship Game in Atlanta, with a postseason to follow, and we will need to be fully attentive every day to reach the objective of a healthy and complete season.”
A week later, two of the seven games the league had planned for this Saturday were off.