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The college football bowl game industry has been hit hard this year with 19 canceled or relocated games, including all four that were scheduled in California and five others since Sunday alone, all because of restrictions and fallout related to the pandemic.
Yet there is one part of the country where the bowl business is booming even though COVID-19 is thriving there, too:
The Dallas-Fort Worth metro area in Texas.
In a span of nine days starting Thursday, this area is scheduled to host five bowl games, which is one more than it would have in a normal year and two more any other metro area in the nation. Two of those games – the New Mexico Bowl and Rose Bowl national semifinal game in California – relocated to Dallas-Fort Worth from other states to avoid local restrictions on public gatherings.
The Frisco Bowl in Texas has been canceled, but the stadium will play host to the relocated New Mexico Bowl Thursday with attendance capped at 4,000. (Photo: Tony Gutierrez, AP)
Depending on the viewpoint, this either can be a safe place to keep college football going, or it’s a terrible idea putting lives at risk. Tarrant County, site of the relocated Rose Bowl, reported intensive care unit beds at 96% capacity this week.
“Given the region’s high levels of infection and hospitalization, the December holidays, in combination with cold weather driving gatherings indoors, present a significant risk for a spike in transmission,” the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center said in a forecast for the Dallas-Fort Worth region updated on Wednesday. “We urge consideration of this concern in making holiday plans.”
The report didn’t mention outdoor bowl games, which have found a sanctuary in Dallas-Fort Worth, where restrictions are looser than in other states and football is much more important than it is in the West. In the case of the Rose Bowl, public health officials wouldn’t allow fans to attend in Southern California, where ICU bed availability plunged to a 0% metric last week.
That’s why it moved to Texas, where it will have attendance capped at 17,815.
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But the virus isn’t less of a risk in Texas. The COVID-19 testing positivity rate for Tarrant County recently was reported at 17%, even higher than the 15.9% seven-day average recently in the game’s normal home county of Los Angeles.
“It’s disappointing, but not surprising to see a kind of race to the bottom in terms of finding somewhere that will allow you to hold the bowl game and maybe have the maximum number of fans,” said Zachary Binney, epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “This is what happens when you don’t have any sort of organized national response. It becomes every man and every state and every locality for themselves.”
It also has become somewhat political.
Bowl sanctuary state
Of the 28 postseason games that haven’t been canceled as of Wednesday, all but three were in states won by President Trump, a Republican who has downplayed the pandemic. The other three are in states that have Republican governors who generally favor looser restrictions: two in Arizona and the Peach Bowl in Georgia.
The two games that relocated – the Rose and New Mexico Bowls – moved to Trump states from states that were won by President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat who has emphasized taking the pandemic seriously.
Seventeen other games were canceled and fall into two categories: those that canceled relatively early in anticipation of pandemic problems and those that canceled late in reaction to rapidly changing circumstances related to the pandemic.
Of the 17 canceled games, 11 were early cancellations before Dec. 8, including nine in states won by Biden. The other two games canceled before Dec. 8 were the Bahamas Bowl in Nassau and the Sun Bowl in El Paso, where refrigerated trucks were brought in last month to help house the deceased.
Since then, an additional six bowl games were canceled because there weren’t enough teams willing to participate, or because participating teams had COVID-19 issues of their own. The latter includes the Frisco Bowl near Dallas, which would have been a sixth bowl game this season in Dallas-Fort Worth.
As it stands on Wednesday, eight of the 28 postseason games this season are in Florida and seven are in Texas.
“Officials in California wouldn’t budge on having fans in the stadium,” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote this week in an editorial. “But whether it’s the prospect of tax revenue, help for struggling business or simply a can-do attitude, our leaders have said, sure, come on down. We certainly don’t want to emulate California in our approach to business, but the timing stinks.”
The five bowl games in Dallas-Fort Worth boosts the area’s reputation as a haven for major sporting events in the pandemic, following the baseball World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington and the NFL games next door at AT&T Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys lead the league by far with more than 26,000 fans per game.
In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, Arlington Fire Chief Don Crowson emphasized that strict protocols are in place for these games, including requirements for face coverings, social distancing and limited attendance.
“Our experience throughout the NFL season and Major League Baseball and other special events has been relatively positive because the one thing we understand is COVID spread is predominately in private family settings or casual settings where there are no COVID protocols or procedures in place,” said Crowson, who oversees emergency response and community support services there.
AT&T Stadium also will host the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 30 between Florida and Oklahoma, followed by the relocated Rose Bowl semifinal on Jan. 1 between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Notre Dame.
Attendance at both games will be capped at 17,815, according to a Cotton Bowl official. Before moving the game to Texas, Rose Bowl officials had tried to get California public health authorities to at least allow players’ families to attend the game in Pasadena but were rejected, leading to complaints from teams that might be selected to play there.
“Gatherings that bring together people from different households at the same time, and in this case potentially those that would be traveling into California from out of state, increases the risk of disease transmission,” said a letter to Rose Bowl officials last week from Erica Pan, the acting state health officer at the California Department of Public Health.
‘Advantage that Alabama deserved’
This attendance factor in Arlington also is why the College Football Playoff selection committee placed No. 1 Alabama there instead of at the other semifinal site at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Alabama coach Nick Saban said his team “had no preference at all” between the two sites, but the committee intentionally favored the No. 1 seed.
“There are 16,000 tickets that are going to be sold in Arlington and 3,000 tickets that are going to be sold in New Orleans,” committee chair Gary Barta said. “Taking everything else into consideration, the committee believed that it gave the opportunity for Alabama families and fans to have more tickets available, and we decided that that was an advantage that Alabama deserved.”
The relocated New Mexico Bowl Thursday will have attendance capped at 4,000 in nearby Frisco. The First Responder Bowl in Dallas Dec. 26 will be capped at 6,500, and the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth Dec. 31 will be capped at 9,000.
Crowson has noted Arlington has had “no evidence of outbreaks” associated with games there.
“We’ve done some contact tracing in some of the events we’ve looked at,” he said. “The timelines were inconsistent with it being generated at the stadium.”
Binney, the epidemiologist, acknowledged that “we have not traced any large outbreaks back to stadiums” but noted that doesn’t mean it didn’t contribute to virus spread and subsequent outbreaks.
“We’re not doing nearly testing or contact tracing to be confident that there have been no outbreaks” from stadiums, Binney said. “I don’t think we missed a 5,000-person outbreak (traced to a stadium). We would have picked up on that. But could we have missed an outbreak of 20, 50, 100 and not caught it until it was a generation of transmission removed from the stadium? Absolutely.”
He noted that “outdoor transition is much harder than indoor transmission” and that face-covered fans in a big spaced-out stadium with limited capacity “may not be super dangerous.”
The virus still has killed more than 310,000 Americans. A big part of his concern involves people traveling into the area for the games and adding to crowds at hotels and restaurants, where capacity in Arlington is limited to 50%.
“People traveling helps the virus travel,” he said.
And now here come the travelers for five different bowl games.
“You can do it safely, assuming you’re not trying to overload the place,” Crowson said. “That’s not what we’re doing.”
Contact reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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