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With the return of Badgers football, city leaders discourage large game-day gatherings
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With the return of Badgers football, city leaders discourage large game-day gatherings

Big Ten

Wisconsin kicker Joe Stoll practices in August. While the return of fall football is celebrated by some, others are worried what the effect will be on the health of the community at large.

As the state set a new daily COVID-19 case record that health officials say is driven by infections on college campuses, Madison City Council members raised concerns Thursday about how to manage crowds and parties during Badger football games.

The Big Ten Conference announced Wednesday that football will return the weekend of Oct. 23-24. Rapid daily antigen testing and criteria for halting competition and practice will guide the nine-game schedule.

While the decision to play football this fall has been celebrated by some alumni and fans, it also has sparked criticism from some that the league is prioritizing profits over public health.

Though few people will be allowed in Camp Randall Stadium, Madison and Dane County officials worry that game days will bring people together in homes and yards across the city that could further spread the coronavirus as flu season begins.

Ald. Tag Evers, whose district is adjacent to the Camp Randall area, voiced his concerns in a blog post published Thursday. Evers said in the post that he and another city council member, Ald. Shiva Bidar, are asking questions of the city-county health department and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank about the effect that home football games will have on their neighborhoods.

“Entirely empty stands and no amplified play-by-play, combined with strict restrictions on tailgating and house parties, are among the necessary steps to prevent Badger game days from becoming super-spreader events,” Evers wrote in an email. “Badger football is an important part of Madison culture, but it’s not more important than fighting COVID.”

New record

COVID-19 cases and deaths

Wisconsin for the first time surpassed 2,000 daily cases of COVID-19, with a record 2,034 new cases Thursday, for a total of more than 94,000 cases since the pandemic began.

Some 17.8% of more than 11,000 people tested were positive, according to the state Department of Health Services.

The state’s seven-day average of daily cases, which as recently as Sept. 3 was 674, has more than doubled in two weeks to 1,409.

The seven-day average for positive tests is 14.3%, up from 9.1% about two weeks ago.

College surge

Much of the increase in COVID-19 activity has been driven by infections at college campuses, including UW-Madison, health officials say.

UW-Madison on Thursday reported 190 new cases — 125 students and two employees through campus testing and 57 students and six employees from off-campus testing sites. Since August, 2,358 students and 41 employees have tested positive. The university has quarantined many students, including those at two large dorms and many fraternity and sorority houses, and paused in-person classes until at least the end of next week.

Those circumstances give Matthew Mitnick, who was recently elected as UW-Madison student government president, pause.

“We’re being told by administrators that if you follow protocols, you’ll be safe,” he said. “To me, it’s just absolutely hypocritical to say that and then bring back football. It’s not being done with the health of students and the community in mind.”

Blank said in a statement that the health concerns she had for student athletes back in August have been “allayed” and the protocols in place make for a safe environment for athletes.

Not just testing

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Dane County on Wednesday reported 249 new cases of COVID-19, down from a record 487 cases Sept. 9 but up from a daily average of about 50 cases most of last month.

The county’s weekly data update, on Thursday, said the county now has a daily average of 170 cases, nearly double last week’s average of 94 cases. In the latest two-week period, UW-Madison students and staff made up 76% of the county’s cases, up from 65% last week.

About 5.2% of tests are positive in the county, up from 3% last week.

“This means we know the increase in cases isn’t solely from more testing,” said a Public Health Madison and Dane County blog post. “An increase in percent positivity can indicate more widespread infection, so more testing is needed to capture all cases to ensure that we can provide them with isolation instructions and notify and quarantine their close contacts.”

COVID-19 activity is considered high in all of the state’s 72 counties but one — Price, in northern Wisconsin, where activity is moderate.

Statewide, three more COVID-19 deaths were reported Thursday, for a total of 1,231. The average number of daily deaths in recent weeks has been about five to seven.

As of Wednesday, 370 patients were hospitalized statewide for COVID-19, up from 275 Sept. 5 but below the peak of 446 on April 9. The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported 103 coronavirus patients in intensive care, a figure that has remained fairly stable in recent weeks.

Dane County had 19 COVID-19 patients in the hospital Wednesday, down from 38 Aug. 12 and its peak of 46 in early April.

Merchants weigh in

Bars near the stadium greeted the return of Badgers football games with cautious optimism.

“We’re definitely excited, but we’re hesitantly excited,” Sconnie Bar general manager Lucas Simon-Wambach said. “It’s not going to look anything like a normal game day.”

Instead of serving 160 diners inside, public health restrictions cap the business at 1421 Regent St. to 40 guests inside, as well as 25 seats available on the outdoor patio.

Normally, Sconnie Bar on game days is “one big party” with dancing, drinking, a live DJ and a 1,200-capacity beer garden, he said.

Under the current Public Health Madison and Dane County order, outdoor seating is allowed with physical distancing. The order applies to beer gardens, agency spokeswoman Christy Vogt said.

The city on Wednesday discouraged people from large game-day gatherings.

“I definitely understand where the city is coming from on the tailgate side of things,” Simon-Wambach said.

Scott Nerat, one of the owners of Buckingham’s Bar and Grill, 802 Regent St., said the city always has a presence on game days, with police, fire and health departments stopping by licensed establishments to ensure rules are being followed. House parties are a much bigger concern, particularly in the coronavirus era.

Operating at 25% capacity reduces Buckingham’s 180 indoor seats to just 45. Nerat’s still waiting to hear from the city how much of his 1,000-seat beer garden can be offered to customers.

“It’s helpful, but not anywhere near what a normal home football game will be,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct who authored the blog post raising concerns about Badgers football games.

COVID-19 in photos: How Wisconsin is managing the pandemic

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