People attending this Saturday’s South Carolina football game against Kentucky at Williams-Brice Stadium have been told to wear face coverings while in the stadium, in line with a city of Columbia ordinance intended to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
But details around if or how the mask mandate will be enforced at the Gamecocks’ stadium are still unclear.
The University of South Carolina sent an email to students Sept. 15 outlining that Williams-Brice Stadium falls under the “crowded indoor spaces” guideline in the city’s mandate, which went into effect Sept. 8 and lasts for 30 days. USC’s email stated that the “city of Columbia is solely responsible” for enforcing the mandate, and those not wearing masks could be fined up to $100.
The early belief is that widespread enforcement is likely an impossible mission in a stadium that could attract upwards of 70,000 fans for the Gamecocks’ SEC opener.
“It is mandated by the city and enforceable by the fire marshal,” South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner told Todd Ellis on 107.5 FM before Saturday’s football game against Georgia in Athens. “I’m sure we will learn a lot more about it this week. As you would expect in a football stadium, it would be nearly impossible ... to enforce.
“I think everyone should be vaccinated and I encourage masking. But it is certainly is going to be an environment in a college football stadium that will be difficult to have in an enforceable situation.”
Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said that it wouldn’t be possible for the three city fire marshals present on a gameday to be posted at each gate to check for masks, or for them to walk around the stadium writing citations for mask compliance. One of those fire marshals stays in the north end zone near the videoboard from which fireworks are launched during the game.
“The city of Columbia does have an ordinance that everybody should have a mask on. However, it’ll be literally impossible, or next to impossible, for us to enforce it,” Jenkins told The State. “We’re not going to be walking around the stadium telling people to put their masks on because ... it’s literally impossible for us to do it.”
As of Monday afternoon, Jenkins said he hadn’t received any communication from USC related to additional plans or resources being made available to enforce the measure. It wasn’t immediately known whether or not stadium workers would be asked to have any role in reminding fans of the temporary policy.
Public reaction to the mandate applying to Gamecock games has been mixed. Among the comments made on social media from both sides of the debate:
“I wore mine at the first home game and I shall wear it at the next. This decision doesn’t affect me at all.”
“If you don’t want to wear a mask, I’m glad you won’t be attending. My family and I will gladly buy up tickets you were going to purchase...and happily wear masks.”
“I get everybody has their opinions, but our team needs us for home field! We shouldn’t punish the guys who have worked hard to get where they are due to politics. It wasn’t the university’s decision. We will continue to be in the stands supporting our team!”
“I won’t be wearing one. Maybe put one on to get in the gate but other than that it’s coming off.”
“As much as I wanted to be at the Kentucky game, I am glad I hadn’t yet purchased tickets.”
“I’ll be in attendance and I won’t be wearing one. Your ‘mandate’ can kick rocks.”
A year ago, when there were no vaccines available and with other leagues canceling their seasons altogether, the SEC was among those to move forward with a season with lengthy protocols in place for teams and for fans.
The University of South Carolina’s original guidelines for the 2020 season called for face coverings to be worn while fans were walking around or in a common area. Face coverings were strongly encouraged but not required while fans were in their seats.
That policy was with a limited-capacity stadium, however, with crowds closer to 15,000 people a game sitting in socially-distanced seating pods.
A year later, the stadium is back to allowing full capacity, with an announced crowd of 64,868 people in attendance at the opener Sept. 4 against Eastern Illinois. As of last week, more than 50% of eligible South Carolinians were fully vaccinated, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
In its own COVID guidelines for 2021 issued in the preseason, USC athletics “strongly encouraged” face coverings be worn everywhere unless eating or drinking.
“I would hope that people would wear their masks,” Jenkins said. “It would make it easy. And I’m quite sure that there are going to be some people that will have their masks on, and they may want people around them to have their masks on. But from a code enforcement perspective, we’re not going to be walking around the stadium looking for people without a mask on.”