Updated: Oct 1, 2020
"To be in the Swamp in October feels normal, and I know life hasn’t always felt normal the past six months. Come join us in the Swamp this Saturday, it should be great the first home game."
That's the hope from Florida Gators Head Coach Dan Mullen. In the midst of a global pandemic that brought shutdowns and quarantines, little has seemed normal since March.
But after months of uncertainty and thinking we’d never get to this point, the University of Florida Athletic Association is preparing to welcome Florida Gators fans to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday for the Gators home opener against South Carolina.
It will inevitably look different and it won't be anywhere near the raucous madhouse that 90,00 fans can create. But Mullen is hoping fans feel comfortable and safe as the school shoots for some semblance of normal.
"You know it’s going to be great to be home and back to being in the home environment - playing in the Swamp, there is no environment like it. I can’t wait to see it. I think one thing. Even though there is a limited capacity at stadiums right now, fans can make a huge difference. So we need the Gator fans maximize, we can’t pack the swamp, but maximize what we can do at the Swamp on Saturdays."
A variety of state and local guidelines along with heeding suggestions from the Center for Disease Control means The Swamp will only be playing host to around 15,000 fans in the stands this season (plus those in suites and BullGator dens).
Athletic Director Scott Stricklin and staff began meeting in February to monitor the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. As soon as sporting events were cancelled in March, another committed—this led by Chip Howard, Executive Associate Athletics Director for Internal Affairs—was formed to begin planning for fall sports and how they would look in terms of fan attendance.
Howard and his team have spent recent weekends attending NFL and college games in Miami (Dolphins), Tallahassee (FSU) Oxford (Ole Miss) to see how each of those stadiums and programs handled fans in the stands.
They were able to pick and choose, according to Howard, noting things that were done well and tweaking things they felt UF should do differently.
The biggest thing Howard took away from the lessons of others has been messaging, calling it “vitality important.” This references the onslaught of emails, mail and contact UF has attempted to use to pass along information and prepare fans for what they can expect come game day.
In that same vein and in preparation for Saturday’s reopening of the Gators home stadium, UAA officials welcomed local media to The Swamp on Tuesday for a mock walk-through. We simulated checking-in, finding seats, picking up concessions and were able to find out details to your questions on how this will all work.
TICKETING AND ENTERING
When fans arrive, parking will look a little different as the school tries to keep everyone parked far enough apart to adhere to social distancing guidelines. There will be signage in the lots asking fans to keep six-feet apart. As fans arrive to the stadium, the PA speakers will be reminding everyone to monitor social distancing, wear masks and sanitize. Markers on the ground will help show fans where to stand in order to maintain six-feet of distance while waiting to enter.
Guest service representatives at each gate will make sure fans are wearing mask as they enter the gates.
All ticketing must be done virtually. They can be downloaded either through the Florida Gators app (launched last season and available in all smart phone app stores) or through your ticket purchase website. No physical tickets will be taken.
Fans are encouraged to enter and exit through the gate closest to their seats.
Any unsold tickets will become available to students on Thursday’s of game weeks.
Once inside, the West concourse will offer expanded food options along with alcoholic beverages. Those beverages will only be allowed in the West concourse and can’t be brought into the seating area.
Concessions can be purchased on the Florida Gators app as well. In-app purchasing is encouraged because fans can pick the one closest to their seat and then pick it up from the express lane.
Food and drinks can be purchased in the traditional line as well. It will all be pre-packaged, having been prepared in a safe environment and not being done in the moment. All food handlers will be in PPE.
In addition to multiple hand sanitizer dispensers placed around the stadium, there will also be sanitizing crews who are constantly roaming and cleaning/disinfecting. They will be in easily seen neon shirts so fans can identify them if needed.
The most notable and noticeable difference in Gator games this year will obviously be the seating. Florida has placed seat backs throughout the stadium and every ticket sold will be for a seat back. This is UF’s way of making it easy to see who should be sitting where and making sure all seated are six-feet apart.
The seats will be sold in “pods” of two or four. Pods mean those seats are sold to familiar groups. In other words, a couple can purchase tickets for a two-seat pod or a family of three or four can purchase a four seat pod. No pods will be split amongst multiple groups.
Each pod section has been distanced in a six-foot radius from every other pod. Every other row has been left empty to allow fans to walk to their seats without walking on top of others in attendance.
The north and south endzone which already have actual chair back seats will instead be marked with orange tape as a marker for which ones can be sat in and which must be kept empty.
Any fan not feeling well can visit the first-aid station. This has always been available but additional screenings have been added this year due to COVID-19. Now fans visiting the first aid area will first be asked a series of questions off a COVID questionnaire. Their temperature will then be taken and if either of those two things correlate to a possible COVID-19 case, that fan will be taken to a separate area for additional screening. Otherwise, they’re welcome to use the first aid area as normal.
MASKING AND IGNORING PROTOCOLS
Fans must wear mask to enter the stadium, when in the concourse and in their seat. Mask can only be removed when eating or drinking.
Fans that don’t wear mask, move out of the pre-assigned seats or actively ignore social distancing guidelines will receive a warning from an usher. If the problem persists, a law enforcement officer will step-in; and if it still persists, that fan’s seat number will be noted and they will be contacted after the game to discuss losing their privileges to buy future tickets.
For those that are watching from home, UF is offering a “Virtual Gameday” where fans can tune in for the 1st and 10 pre-game show, the Honorary Mr. Two Bits and the fourth quarter signing of Won’t Back Down and We Are The Boys.
A lot of things will look and feel different this season. But as the Florida Gators (1-0) make a run for the College Football Playoffs, it will certainly be one to remember.