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Big sporting events shouldn’t be given a pass when it comes to COVID-19 safety

Now that two home football games have been played at Memorial Stadium, with a handful left to play at home this year for the Illinois football team, it has us thinking about the COVID-19 precautions set in place by Illinois Athletics this season. We are happy to see games being played in-person because after 18 months of pandemic life, being able to attend events is a breath of fresh air. Or is it? 

What happens when more than 30,000 fans sit packed tightly together and none of them are wearing masks, and none of them have been asked to provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test?

The highly transmissible Delta variant has brought with it an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths in our community — there was nearly a threefold increase in the number of active cases since last month, and the Center for Disease Control considers the level of viral transmission in all Illinois counties to be “high.” 

All of this is coming at a time when the University of Illinois is congratulating itself on a job well done responding to the pandemic. President Tim Killeen awarded 28 Presidential Medallions to key members of the U of I systems’ COVID-19 response team saying, “Their ingenuity and dedication and the hard work of thousands of their colleagues across the U of I System have saved lives on our campuses, in the surrounding communities, and well beyond.” 

It’s true that the U of I has arguably done a very good job responding to the pandemic, and that it continues to implement stringent, evidence-based policies to control the spread of the virus. All students, faculty, and staff are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 15th, unless they file for a medical or religious exemption. After October 15th, students, faculty, and staff who remain unvaccinated and haven’t filed an exemption will be required to take an on-campus COVID-19 test every day they are working on campus until they are fully vaccinated. According to a September 2nd Massmail, “Individuals who are not able to be vaccinated and are not able to participate in the on-campus testing program cannot be on campus or at a university-affiliated location off campus and must be fully remote.” 

So why then aren’t sporting events and facilities at the U of I being held to the same evidence-based, strict standards established by the CDC and the university? Sports facilities and events should not be exempt from the safety measures implemented elsewhere on campus. If the argument is that the events are outdoors and so masks are less necessary the current CDC recommendations are that, “In areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.” At the end of October, men’s basketball will begin with full capacity crowds at the State Farm Center. Will U of I follow their guidelines for indoor settings and require vaccination for entrance? 

Indeed, the 2021 Pride Fest is requiring proof of vaccination and all outdoor events are mask-mandated unless seated socially distanced from others. If a much smaller organization with fewer resources like Uniting Pride of Champaign County can manage to implement such requirements, it seems like Illini Athletics should be able to do the same. 

Look, we get it: Everyone is tired of wearing masks and moving goalposts on what counts as safe and what doesn’t. We just want to watch sports, listen to live music, and be out in the community sharing experiences in person. And that’s exactly why we think the U of I (and any other organization sponsoring big sports events) should get on board with requiring proof of vaccination (and/or a recent negative test) and wearing masks at events. We’d rather be together to cheer on our teams without risking lives. Let’s adapt to the situation at hand and keep our communities safe. Besides, masks are a much less messy way of displaying your team colors than face paint.

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker. 

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