While gridiron fans gathered at their favorite team’s home field on Saturday for the first week of the 2021 season, public health experts were suggesting that now was not the time to get back to pre-pandemic business as usual.
The Indian Delta variant proceeds to fuel a surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths nationwide, particularly in the South, where tens of thousands of rabid college football fans came out to encourage their heroes on Saturday.
Last season, teams played college football games, but attendance was limited to comply with social distancing guidelines put in place by local and state governments.
This year, though, limitations have been raised. Fans in many stadiums - including the Swamp in Gainesville, Florida, home to the Florida Gators - were crammed together shoulder-to-shoulder with no masks.
They were also not asked to present evidence of vaccination. Florida is in the grip of its most lethal wave of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, a tragedy driven by the highly infectious delta variant.
While Florida’s vaccination rate is slightly higher than the national average, the Sunshine State has an outsize population of elderly people, who are particularly exposed to the virus; a vibrant party scene; and a Republican governor who has taken a hard line against mask conditions, vaccine passports and business shutdowns.
As of mid-August, the state was averaging 244 deaths per day, up from just 23 a day in late June and surpassing the previous top of 227 during the summer of 2020.
Hospitals have had to rent refrigerated trucks to collect more bodies. Funeral homes have been flooded.
In a positive indication, the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 in Florida has fallen over the past two weeks from more than 17,000 to 14,200 on Friday, showing the surge is relaxing.
In total, more than 46,300 people have died of COVID-19 in Florida, which ranks 17th in per-capita deaths among the states.
The majority of the deaths this summer - like last summer - are among the old.
Of the 2,345 people whose recent deaths were recorded over the past week, 1,479 of them were 65 and older — or 63 percent.
Not all schools are following the University of Florida’s lead.
Louisiana State University announced last month that all sectors over the age of 12 who attend home games at Tiger Stadium this fall will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.
The Florida Gators had 88,000 people in the stands on Saturday for their season opener against Florida Atlantic University in Gainesville.