During a normal football season at the University of Georgia, Sanford Stadium can seat 92,746 fans, with crowds of thousands more packed into restaurants, bars and clubs in downtown Athens.
The influx of people to Athens could bring another rise in COVID-19 cases to an area that is already working to handle its recent uptick in numbers. As of press time, Athens-Clarke County has 4,874 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which has led to 203 hospitalizations and 41 deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. UGA has reported a total of 3,538 cases in the university community.
As Athens cases have risen in recent weeks, university and county officials have battled over who bears responsibility for the county’s high numbers.
The usual flood of fans into Athens on gameday weekends also brings in a flood of revenue for local businesses. With the reduced capacity in Sanford Stadium, county officials are unsure what kind of economic impact to expect — and at what cost.
UGA President Jere Morehead told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an article published on Sept. 11 that increased COVID-19 cases were due to off-campus activities. Morehead told the AJC responsibility was out of his hands and in those of the county.
At a downtown protest on Sept. 19, ACC District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards called Morehead a “punk” for blaming the county.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still gripping the city, some ACC officials worry about maintaining the community’s safety during the upcoming football season.
The football economy
The reduction of available seats at Sanford Stadium will reduce the number of visitors to UGA’s campus, but that may not stop crowds of people from coming to downtown Athens to watch the game.
ACC Mayor Kelly Girtz said there is no real example to gauge the effect pandemic-era football changes will have on the number of visitors to the city.
District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson said that the reduction in football ticket availability would have an economic impact on the city, in addition to the financial hit that came with the pandemic itself. He said that financial models from the county show that ACC is doing better than some communities, though some Athens business owners are still struggling.
“These football games are usually a blessing, and I usually very much welcome them,” Denson said. “I love that fandom can help drive our economy here in Athens and help so many people be financially successful. At this time, though, we have to look at it that we have different priorities here.”
Denson said that the county must prioritize the public’s health and well-being over football, even with the potential financial benefit from the games. Limiting the number of people that come into the community would decrease the economic boost but set Athens up to get back to normal faster, he said.
Edwards said in a Sept. 20 email to The Red & Black he was angry the university was moving ahead with the football season. He said UGA does not operate in a bubble, and pushing forward with football “at the behest of rich donors and politicians” will likely keep Clarke County schools closed longer. Denson expressed similar concern for the effect on the Clarke County School District, which started online instruction on Sept. 8.
Struggle to ensure safety
With the potential turnout for the 2020 Georgia football season unknown, county commissioners have struggled to find ways to implement new safety ordinances. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s emergency executive order restricts what rules local governments can enforce.
Denson said a statewide, one-size-fits-all order could not fill the needs of all of Georgia’s counties, which are facing a variety of situations.
“We are the smallest county in Georgia, yet we have a football stadium that can hold almost 100,000 people, plus a university here. That is not a situation that Oconee County has, or Jackson County has,” Denson said. “We are in a unique situation, and therefore we need unique policies to be able to keep our community safe.”
At a Sept. 15 mayor and commission meeting, Denson suggested an ordinance that limits residential gatherings to 10 people. Girtz said this rule would not be enforceable without action from the governor.
On Sept. 21, Girtz formally requested that Gov. Kemp amend his emergency order. Girtz specifically asked that language in the executive order be changed to clarify that individual localities can enforce rules regarding bar service and reduce the maximum number of people allowed at gatherings from 50 to 10, at least in counties with high case counts.
A 10-person gathering limit is “in line with national and international recommendations, and has been successfully pursued by neighboring states and college communities,” Girtz’s request said.
Edwards said he believes that Kemp will listen to their requests.
“I doubt the governor will ignore our attempts to lead where he has failed,” he said.
Denson said he believed ACC could enforce a 10-person gathering limit, even without a change from the governor. He said above even the governor’s orders are the county’s emergency powers to make sure the community is healthy and safe.
“We’re going to have to make sure we’re dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s that we have that policy in a way that is legally enforceable, but we have fantastic lawyers, and I believe that we’ll find a way to do that,” Denson said.
With UGA’s home opener against Auburn scheduled for Oct. 3, less than two weeks remain for the county to take extra measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during gameday weekends. Whether or not more stringent rules are placed in the community, the turnout of this football season could have lasting effects on both COVID-19 cases and the city’s economy.
Additional Comment: District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards has issued an apology regarding his demeanor and verbal attack on President Jere Morehead.
His apology reads "As reported in the Red and Black, I lost my temper at the Arch the other day. While I disagree with aspects of President Morehead's handling of the coronavirus, it was wrong for me to attack him personally. I apologize to my constituents and President Morehead for my insults. All of us are struggling in some way through this pandemic. As I thought of my son forced to learn on an iPad, with public schools closed, I simply reached a breaking point and spoke wrongly. We can disagree over policy but hurling insults like I did is counter-productive to cooperation. I'm sorry for letting my temper get the best of me."