Mid-South football stadiums packed amid surge in COVID-19 cases

Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 9:46 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Final preparations are underway for this weekend’s Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis.

The rivalry returns this year after taking a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The founder of the Southern Heritage Classic says he has already sold more than 30,000 tickets and in the final days leading up to Saturday’s game, ticket sales should soar even higher.

Excitement for the classic is rising, but some health experts say it’s time to change the way we enjoy going to the game.

“My neighbor when I left home coming out here said, ‘Fred, are we sure we’re going to have a football game this week?’ So, the level of excitement is just tremendous,” said Fred Jones, founder of the Southern Heritage Classic.

It’s been two years since fans packed the Liberty Bowl for the game. But this year’s game between Jackson State and Tennessee State will look a little different than 2019.

“It’ll look like the classic, but we’re all mindful that we have to wear our masks unless we’re eating or drinking. That’s something we understand,” Jones said.

The mask mandate at the Liberty Bowl is per the Shelby County Health Department, but one of the country’s top infectious disease experts says fans may soon expect even tougher restrictions.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more local mandates. I think there are going to be organizations, there are going to be universities, there are going to be colleges, there are going to be sports events, there are going to be travel events where the rules are going to be, if you want to participate, you get vaccinated. If not, sorry, you’re not going to be able to do it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday on CNN.

Fauci is basing his comments on the increase of people voluntarily taking the shot.

Shelby County is now averaging more than 1,700 shots a day.

LSU has already implemented stricter restrictions. Two weeks ago, the university announced plans to require guests 12 and older to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours in order to enter the game.

University of Mississippi officials told Action News 5 Tuesday they have no plans in the works to do something similar.

However, even at the Liberty Bowl Saturday where masks are required except when eating or drinking, few fans were seen wearing a mask.

“You know outdoors is always better than indoors, but even when you have such a congregate setting of people close together, first you should be vaccinated and when you do have congregated settings particularly indoors, you should be wearing a mask,” said Fauci.

Two weeks ago, the Tennessee Department of Health teamed up with the Southern Heritage Classic to get more fans vaccinated ahead of Saturday’s game that is already shaping up to be one to remember.

“Coaches who are in the NFL Hall of Fame, the normal tailgating and partying that goes on, it’ll be maybe a little muted by COVID. But overall, people are excited for the fellowship and for the football,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

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