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With Football Returning, Big Ten Cities Brace for More Covid Outbreaks

MINNEAPOLIS — To the Big Ten Conference’s leaders and medical advisers, the announcement Wednesday that the league would play football this autumn was a scientific masterstroke and an athletic triumph.

In some Big Ten cities, however, public health experts worried it could create an off-the-field epidemiological crisis.

“The Big Ten has come up with an excellent, safe plan for the actual football game, for the athletes, for the coaches,” said Linda Vail, the health officer in Ingham County, Mich., which includes Michigan State University. “The problem is the tailgating off campus, the large parties and all of that sort of stuff, and that is concerning — deeply, deeply concerning.”

More than 8,500 cases of the coronavirus have been reported at Big Ten universities over the course of the pandemic. Coupled with unnervingly large new outbreaks in some communities, the conference’s decision to proceed with football has invited fresh rounds of questions in several college towns.

Public health officials around colleges beyond the Big Ten are harboring even more urgent worries as universities play games, or prepare to play in the coming weeks, sometimes with tens of thousands of fans in their stadiums. But within the Big Ten’s footprint, ranging from rural Pennsylvania to major cities like Minneapolis, officials spent more than five weeks under the impression that they would not have to reckon with football and all of the chaos, sanctioned and not, that can come with every kickoff, touchdown, win and loss.

Then came word of the unanimous vote among the league’s chancellors and presidents to play football, reversing a decision made in August to postpone the season. They insist that their daily testing protocols for people within football programs are sufficient to control the virus. And they have established thresholds for when a team must stop practicing or competing, and students who test positive will be barred from playing for at least 21 days. Schools are also barring fans and on-campus tailgates.

The Big Ten’s plan, though, is focused on players, coaches and others affiliated with athletics — a reflection of what university officials often believe is the proper role for a sports league — not the wider student body, much less the wider community.

At Northwestern University, near Chicago, the athletic director offered little in the way of explanation when a reporter from The Daily Northwestern asked this week what he would tell students who would not receive the same level of testing as their peers on the football team.

In Madison, Wis., where the denizens of the state capital ordinarily coexist happily with the University of Wisconsin, local politicians and public health officials were unsparing in their assessments of the season’s potential consequences. They worried less about matters like testing access and more over how football could lead to new outbreaks; local health officials said Wednesday that 42 people directly tied to Wisconsin’s football program had tested positive for the virus in recent months.

“While we all love our football Saturdays, the festivities that come with them are going to serve as new spreading events within our community,” County Executive Joe Parisi of Dane County said in a statement.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway of Madison added: “The increase in cases we are seeing is predominantly due to parties. Adding football parties into this mix is only going to make the situation worse.”

Perhaps the sharpest criticism came from Janel Heinrich, the director of the public health department for Madison and Dane County, who said: “We value people’s health and lives over sports, and we hope that UW does as well.”

University officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In Michigan, Vail has watched her county’s case toll swell since Michigan State students returned to campus, and she said she worried that football-related events could make a dangerous situation worse.

“Fans or no fans, at this moment we’re not in a position to be able to have football games,” she said on Thursday afternoon. She noted that conditions could improve between now and the weekend of Oct. 23, when the Big Ten hopes to start playing, but warned, “If these metrics persist, then I’m going to have to make a statement that I cannot support Michigan State Spartan football in East Lansing.”

A university spokesman, Dan Olsen, said in a statement that Michigan State would “continue to work collaboratively with our partners at the city of East Lansing and Ingham County Health Department to ensure students and others are adhering to all public health and safety measures and hold accountable those who disregard these measures at the expense of the well-being of our community.”

Many public health and policy experts said they understood the Big Ten’s motives for trying to play: the cultural significance of college sports, particularly in the Midwest; rising confidence in virus testing; and, of course, the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from television rights and sponsorships.

“Big picture, I’m OK with the cautious approach to returning,” said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist who is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, even as he cautioned that the season’s start would run at a risky parallel to the onset of flu season and colder temperatures in the Upper Midwest.

“It’s just such a complicated balance and I have such mixed emotions about it,” he said. “It’s hard to envision bringing football back when you can’t have normal campus operations because the players are a part of the normal campus operations.”

But others said that while the Big Ten’s plan appeared promising, its capabilities would only be validated over the coming season.

“It’ll be a tremendous challenge for teams to stay healthy and for student-athletes to stay healthy,” said Simon Haeder, an assistant professor at Penn State who studies health policy. “I wish everyone the best, and I hope it works out. But it doesn’t take too much for it to not.”

And leaders at smaller athletic programs will be watching closely.

“I’m happy they made that decision with safety in mind,” said Donnie Brooks, the athletic director at Macalester College, near Minnesota’s campus. “As I read the protocols they put in place, it’s actually giving us hope that maybe, just maybe, if they can do it and do it well, we can scale that plan in a way that works for us here in Division III.”

But now officials — at the Big Ten schools and in the communities — are bracing for what could be an even more turbulent few months than they had anticipated.

“We have to start strategizing,” Vail, the Michigan health official said, “right now.”

Talya Minsberg reported from Minneapolis and Alan Blinder from Atlanta.

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