Badgers kick off season amid statewide spike in COVID-19

University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 2 2013. The Badgers won 28-9.
University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 2 2013. The Badgers won 28-9. (Photo by Phil Roeder from Des Moines, Iowa. Creative Commons generic license 2.0 Generic CC BY 2.0

Wisconsin football kicked off its season Friday night against the University of Illinois as health officials and city leaders worried about the potential spike in COVID-19 cases caused by gatherings to watch the game. 

There were only cardboard fans at Camp Randall stadium on Friday but near-campus bars including The Redzone, Sconnie Bar and State Street Brats held in-person events to watch the game. All three have advertised capacity limits and required mask wearing when not seated at tables, but noted in social media posts that reservations are full. 

“Game days are gonna be a little different for all of us this year, but we hope you still will join us for the first Badger game day on Friday October 23,” a Sconnie Bar Facebook post said on Thursday. 

As the Badgers blew out the Illini 45-7, students took to the streets to jump around after the third quarter but largely followed public health guidelines.

The normal flood of people clad in red and white was nowhere to be seen on Friday, with students sticking to small gatherings with roommates to watch the game.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, who tied a school record with 17 consecutive completions and set a program record by completing 20 of 21 passes overall, thrilled fans. On Sunday the Wisconsin State Journal reported Mertz had tested positive for COVID-19 and was awaiting the results of a second test to confirm the diagnosis.

Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) spokesperson Christy Vogt said that health officials were in contact this week with businesses close to Camp Randall to talk about best practices for Friday night. She also said that during the game the health department will have teams walking around to ensure compliance with state and local health orders. 

Local health officials this week announced that contact tracers were so overwhelmed due to a spike in infections that the important tool in fighting the coronavirus needed to be left for people to do themselves. 

“We want to be able to communicate to everyone who was exposed, so they know how to stay safe. We’re not able to do that now,” Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer in the DHS communicable diseases bureau, said at a media briefing this week. 

In addition to crowded bars, officials were especially concerned about people gathering at homes to watch the game. 

“Halloween is approaching. That Badger game is coming,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said at a news conference. “Don’t celebrate these events with people you don’t live with. If you go out and Trick or Treat, only go with people that you live with and stay six feet away from others. Don’t host parties. Don’t go to parties with people outside of your bubble.” 

Earlier in the week, Rhodes-Conway and 11 other mayors of cities with Big Ten schools wrote a letter to the conference ahead of the first weekend of games that asked officials to consider not just athletes and coaches, but whole communities when making decisions about holding games. 

“We know the history of football games within our cities,” the mayors wrote. “They generate a lot of activity, social gatherings and the consumption of alcohol. These activities within our communities have also been associated with an increased spread of COVID-19. We, as cities, continue to respond to issues as they arise, respective of the individual rules put in place within our regions. To help us slow the spread and be prepared for increased activity, we humbly request a few practical measures that the Big Ten Conference can take to ensure we have the tools we need to combat the spread of COVID-19.” 

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Gov. Tony Evers, in a media briefing, said he believes UW-Madison officials and students have been taking COVID-19 precautions seriously and that game day won’t be an issue. He added that any slip-ups now, as the state deals with one of the worst outbreaks of the disease in the country, further delay Wisconsin’s health and economic recoveries. 

“This is a critical time, folks,” Evers said. “Fun is fun and I’d like to have as much fun as everybody else, but if we really want us to return to a place where we can be engaging the economy of this state, we have to be very careful with what we do with the next several weeks, and that includes game day.” 

UW-Madison struggled to contain the virus at the beginning of the semester. Residence halls and fraternity and sorority houses  were forced into quarantine as cases spiked and leaked into the community. Nearly two months later the number of students catching the virus has gone down but now the semester enters a two-week period that includes the opening of football season and Halloween. 

UW officials say the university’s testing capacity is adequate and that students have been complying with health guidance, though they’re warning students not to get complacent. 

“The upcoming return of Badgers football, Homecoming this week and Halloween on Oct. 31 are all exciting. But because of COVID-19, we need everyone’s help to stay safe,” an Oct. 22 message to students from Dean of Students Christina Olstad states. “We have needed everyone’s commitment to making this semester work and appreciate all you have done already. With a bit more effort, we can reach our goal of completing the semester and continue to make the most of our campus experience.” 

In recent months, the Milwaukee Bucks and Brewers made playoff appearances and the Green Bay Packers have started the season 4-1. Wisconsin, known for its love for football and beer, is dealing with a massive statewide crisis, but in Dane County 27% of cases in the last two weeks have been tied to parties or gatherings — including get-togethers to watch sporting events, according to Vogt.