Michigan Stadium opened its gates on Sept. 4 to more than 100,000 fans eager to see the Wolverines take on Western Michigan University live and in action.
Some University of Michigan community members and Ann Arbor residents, though, have expressed concerns that the upcoming season and events associated with it will heighten the spread of COVID-19 as cases rise.
Following the 2020 season, which halted ticket sales to the general public and introduced a conference-only game schedule, the University released a comparatively lenient set of health protocols for the 2021 season.
According to the University’s Athletics Face Covering Policy, which was last updated on Aug. 18, capacities at home athletic events are not to be reduced. Fans are also encouraged, but not required, to wear masks in the outdoor stadium sections. Guests are required to wear face coverings when in any indoor area, regardless of their vaccination status.
University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily that while the University’s academic missions continue to be their top priority, Michigan football is an important part of Ann Arbor’s community culture.
“We have worked with medical experts across the university and state and local governments to find a balance that allows events and gatherings to continue on campus while still providing a safe atmosphere,” Broekhuizen wrote. “(Athletic Director Warde) Manuel has been a relentless advocate for the safety of our student-athletes.”
The University is keeping a close eye on the spread of COVID-19, Broekhuizen wrote, especially on cases stemming from community events.
“We will continue to monitor viral activity closely, especially in relation to games and other large events, and will not hesitate to adjust the policy as needed,” Broekhuizen said.
But Ann Arbor resident Naomi Joy told The Daily she is concerned for the health of her vaccine-ineligible child — who is enrolled in Ann Arbor Public Schools — and other children in the Ann Arbor community due to the large number of attendees in the stadium.
“The delta variant is infecting and hospitalizing young children more than previous variants, and I fear these unregulated super spreader games could harm my child, close his elementary school and lead to further pediatric hospitalizations,” Joy said.
Joy urged more “political voices” to become involved in ensuring COVID-19 safety at the stadium.
“It’s a matter of public health,” Joy said. “The spread of this communicable virus could very well negatively impact our community, surrounding communities and our young vaccine-ineligible children. Even if (just) a mask mandate for all games were put in place, that would be a start.”
In August, The Daily spoke with University President Mark Schlissel to discuss preparations for the fall semester as COVID-19 cases are rising in Michigan, largely resulting from the more contagious delta variant. When asked whether he believed athletic events will be at full capacity for the entire season, Schlissel said he would continue to monitor the situation.
“My crystal ball has a big crack in it,” Schlissel said. “The ability to predict a novel, once-in-a-lifetime event is tough. I think we’re very well-positioned to make it all the way through this semester without the kinds of interventions that we had to impose last year, but we have to continue to be vigilant.”
LSA student Baylor Wiggins attended the football game this past Saturday evening. He told The Daily he was comfortable sitting in the student section without a mask given that 94% of students at the University are self-reported as vaccinated.
“I went to the game with people who I interact with very frequently, all of whom are vaccinated,” Wiggins said. “And then I’m vaccinated myself, so personally I opted to not wear a mask at the game. However, I do still follow the University protocols in the buildings.”
Still, Wiggins said he was surprised vaccinations and masks aren’t required in the stadium given that students and staff in classrooms are required to wear face coverings and self-report vaccinations.
“The general public is held to no standard at all in terms of any regard for the measures, like the masking, the social distancing, the vaccination, anything of that nature,” Wiggins said. “So personally, as for sitting in the student section, I’m comfortable.”
Ann Arbor resident Jim Pyke, however, told the Daily he did not understand why the University has returned some classroom settings to full capacity. He said he was concerned not only about full capacity football games, but also the University administration’s decision to hold mostly in-person classes.
“I don’t really understand how encouraging distancing in some spaces while conversely packing students shoulder to shoulder in others can be considered anything other than problematic from a public health perspective,” Pyke said. “Especially at a time when consistency of both student behavior and administrative messaging are extremely important.”
Pyke, who has worked for the University as a classroom services supervisor since 1991, said he has never been more confused in regard to how the University’s administration makes decisions.
“There’s a common requirement to ‘show your work’ when responding to complex questions as part of college coursework, and I feel like the administration hasn’t done a good job credibly fulfilling that requirement,” Pyke said.
Daily Staff Reporter Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.